Charming Mass-Suicide by Arto Paasilinna
Hurmaava Joukkoitsemurha by Arto Paasilinna. 1990. 291 pages. French title : Petits suicides entre amis. Not translated into English. I’ve asked to a Finnish acquaintance, the original title means Charming Mass-Suicide.
Arto Paasilinna is a Finnish writer born in 1942 who writes in Finnish and has already published around twenty novels. Several of them have been translated into French and only one in English (The Year of the Hare). Petits Suicides entre amis is the first novel of my EU book tour.
Midsummer’s Day in Finland, by a lake, late 1980s. When Onni Rellonen goes bankrupt for the fourth time, his properties are about to be seized by a bailiff. As his marriage is also a failure, he decides to commit suicide in a remote barn in the area of his summer cottage. He arrives there just in time to save Colonel Hermanni Kemppainen who had started to hang himself in the barn. The two men start chatting, decide to postpone their suicide and come back to Rellonen’s cottage. They spend some time together, befriend, talk a lot and realize that there are probably other Finnish suicidal persons who would need someone to talk to. They decide to help them by placing the following advertisement in a newspaper:
DO YOU CONSIDER SUICIDE?
Don’t panic, you’re not alone.
Several of us share the same idea and even a beginning of experience. Write to us and tell us shortly about your situation, we might be able to help you. Enclose your name and address and we will contact you. All the data gathered will be considered as strictly confidential and will not be communicated to anyone. Serious applications only.
Please send your answer at Poste Restante, Central Post Office, Helsinki under the nom de code “Let’s try together”.
Rellonen and Kemppainen are flabbergasted to receive over 600 answers. They decide they need help, if possible from someone used to clerical work. This is how they end up fetching Helena Puusaari, whose letter was among the 600 answers. Answering to everyone would have taken a lot of time and they end up sending an invitation to a symposium about suicide in Helsinki. The meeting is a success and the most decided to commit suicide end up in a coach driven by a suicidal tourist coach driver.
They head up to Northern Norway to commit suicide together by driving the coach into the sea from a high cliff. Will this trip be the end of their journey on this Earth?
Only the book will tell. It’s a pretext for Arto Paasilanni to describe all kinds of desperate persons, from the beaten woman –a classic, I’m afraid–to the original mink-breeder. We meet a worn-out peasant, a drunken Sunday sailors, an AIDS-stricken woman, a crazy aviator. It’s also an opportunity to nail some problems of the Finnish society and point out the faults of our dehumanised Western societies. Sometimes he’s very harsh with his country, like here:
The travellers sighed with delight when they saw the bright villages and their cosy houses. They thought that if a thousand citizens of the Finnish suburbs settled here, the touristy sites of this romantic tour would be covered with graffiti within twenty-four hours and all the colourful buildings – ornate detached houses, fences around churches, winepresses–would be kicked until demolition. The old ladies by hard-hit by wars would meet the same fate.
That’s not exactly the image I had of Finnish citizens.
After the decision to die is taken, it’s as if the participants can now live more fully. Who cares about smoking, drinking too much or eating junk food? They can afford reckless behaviours; they’re headed to death anyway soon and might as well enjoy the trip. They are liberated from their fears as they don’t care about tomorrow. The underlying question is “Can we live by the Carpe Diem phrase only if we know that today is one of our last days?”
It’s all written with a ferocious sense of humour and some passages are really funny. Of course, black humour is best suited for the circumstances.
When he placed the advertisement in the newspaper office, the president Rellonen was forced to pay cash. The clerk, after reading the text, decided he couldn’t risk sending an invoice whose ultimate payment was obviously so doubtful.
The co-travelers are always named “the desesperate”, the “suicidals”. They create a charity named “The Anonymous Mortals”. There are play-on-words or allusions about death scattered all along the novel. For example, when they cross the border between Finlandand Norway, the driver throws to the customs officer “Those who are about to die greet you”.
I enjoyed reading this book to to discover the Finnish way of life. Of course, it’s a European country and we have things in common. However, some habits remain exotic for a French woman. When Rellonen and Kemppainen go back to Rellonen’s cottage near the lake, they prepare the sauna and spend time there, chatting and unwinding. The characters have childhood memories of moments spent in saunas with their families. I also noticed that the fear of an invasion from the USSR came back several times in the text. The book was written before the USSR collapsed but it sounded like an enrooted fear. Here are the opening lines of the novel:
The most formidable enemies of the Finnish people are melancholy, sadness and apathy. An unfathomable weariness hovers over this miserable people and submits them under its yoke pushing their souls towards bleakness and seriousness. The weigh of pessimism is such that many see in death the only remedy to their anguish. Spleen is an opponent more relentless than the USSR.
On a lighter note, I wondered what a sauté of reindeer is like and I read about fish I’d never heard of. What surprised me is the way the suicidals enjoy camping. Camping seemed natural to them. It wouldn’t be for Frenchmen. You couldn’t make a bunch of French people drive in a coach, sleep in tents, catch their own salmons and smoke them for the next meals. They would rant, miss their beds or their TV and run into the first shops they encounter. Look at camp grounds in France, they’re like small cities. They’re not aimed at experiencing life in wilderness like in American parks or here in Finland, they’re aimed at providing cheap housing for summer holidays.
To conclude, I wouldn’t say it’s the book of the century but starting my EU book tour by a road-movie novel was entertaining. Btw, if Anglophone readers are interested, this novel was made into a film (Sensational Groupe Suicide) and it’s available on Amazon UK.