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.

 

  1. May 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    I almost wish I hadn’t read your review, as I’d love to read this and it’s not in English. What a shame. It sounds both interesting and a lot of fun. Not a bad combination at all.

    On a small note, it should be ultimate destination (ultimate as in final). Ulterior suggests a destination other than the apparent one (ulterior motive, the real as opposed to the apparent motive).

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    • May 6, 2011 at 4:34 pm

      You can still watch the film…

      Thanks for the ultimate/ulterior comment, I’ll make the correction. That’s a faux ami. If you start learning French one day, you’ll see that faux ami are a nightmare. (like formidable, which means “great” or “wonderful” in French)

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  2. May 6, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    My stepmother is from Helsinki. She never sruck me as a camping person but some things are certainly very different in Finland. I read one Finnish novel and it left me sowmehat unfazed. This sounds not bad but there have been a few more recent novels making fun of suicidal tendencies.
    I suppose a lot has also changed in Finland since the 90s.

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    • May 6, 2011 at 6:23 pm

      Your stepmother is from Helsinki? I didn’t think you could get more international than you already were. 🙂 (ps my Finnish acquaintance is from Helsinki and lives in Alsace near Basel but is too young to be your stepmother. That would have been fun though)

      I forgot to mention it made me think of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. Thanks.

      Yes I suppose things have changed, just like here. At least they don’t fear the USSR any more. Plus there’s been the Nokia miracle.

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  3. May 6, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    My stepmother and father lived in La Rochelle until two months ago. It isn’t her. That would have been a tiny world…
    I did think of Hornby although it is one of the rare novels by him I haven’t read yet and I got Teulés Le magasin des suicides here. I started it twice already, never got over page two but it had nothing to do with the book, just wasn’ the moment for it. Do you know it?
    Ha, Nokia, yes. My stepmother still had to learn Russian in school. I’m not sure if they still have to.

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    • May 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm

      Believe me, a few weeks ago I had an example of how tiny the world can be.
      I haven’t read Teulé since adolescence (something about Arthur Rimbaud.) I don’t know this book.

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    • Maria
      June 24, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      You might have been mistaken. Finns don’t have to study Russian in (normal) schools and it has never been mandatory during independence. (Before 1917 Finland was part of Russia.) In fact, hardly anyone speaks Russian in Finland. Of course there are some schools that have Russian as their first foreign language but that is not common.

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      • June 24, 2012 at 8:57 pm

        Thanks for this comment, it’s good to know.

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  4. May 7, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    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?”

    That passage struck me–especially if you think some of those wanting to commit suicide were rooted in depression.

    Your reaction to some of the negative hints at Finnish culture reminded me of my reaction when I read Henning Mankell and then watched some of the Wallender films.

    The other day I was reading about one of the WWII collaborationist Finnish groups and how they betrayed a fair number of people to the SS. Nasty stuff.

    I agree with Max, this sounds like a very unusual read that I would like. But I’ll check out the film. Thanks.

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    • May 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm

      When you make accounts for a company, your booking is based on the assumption that the company is a going concern. You assume it will be alive in a foreseeable future.
      We live by this assumption too. We live thinking we’ll be alive tomorrow. We don’t live at a present time as our mind is occupied with memories and the preparation of the future. What struck me in this book is how people had the reflex to refrain from drinking heavily as it is bad for their future health. Colonel Kempainnen started to chide the group — they chose him to organize the trip — and someone needs to remind him they’re going to die anyway.
      In another moment, they want to sleep in a park and the police discourage them to stay here as it is full of drug addicts and they may me molested. They stay anyway : it doesn’t matter if something happens, they’re on a death trip. There’s an incredible conversation with the drug addicts. They argue to know who knows best what it is to have no future. (!!) The Finnish win, suicide is a surest thing than overdose.

      Of course most of them are depressed enough to want to kill themselves. But being together or out of their everyday life dispelled part of the depression for some of them. Loneliness can be a slow but efficient killer too.

      I haven’t read Hennig Mankell – yet. I have one at home. It was a gift and it’s an American edition. Now I’ll have to read Swedish literature in English, as if I didn’t have enough of Anglophone books to read first!! I tend to put Sweden, Norway and Finland in the same bag but there are major cultural and historical differences. My knowledge of history is really poor.

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    • Maria
      June 24, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      I’m curious, what have you read about “one of the WWII collaborationist Finnish groups” and SS? First, as a Finn, I don’t know any collaborationist groups (or they were so small that it doesn’t matter) and, frankly, haven’t even heard of people being betrayed to the SS, (unless you are talking about those seven refugee jews). And I know our history quite well. Even during the war years Finland was a democratic nation and SS didn’t have any authority in Finland over Finns.

      There were some SS troops in Finland during the war but most were regular soldiers and, as far as I know, there was no reason to betray anyone. Even Jewish Finns served in the military and as Lottas, and three were even awarded with the Iron Cross (but they declined). On the other hand, no instance is known of German soldiers refusing to co-operate with Finnish Jewish officers. “We have no Jewish Question” said PM Rangell to Himmler.

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      • June 24, 2012 at 9:07 pm

        Thanks again for your comment.

        I know nothing about the history of Finland so I can’t tell. What I know for sure if that Guy is an ecclectic and thorough reader. If he says he’s read about that topic, it’s true. You can blame the writer of the book he’s read if you want.

        Btw, I have little faith in human nature and I am sure that in war circumstances, whatever the country or the century, when you have a strong change of power in a country, you will always encounter people who betray, people who resist and a vast majority of people who just try to survive and wait for better times. So in my opinion, your vision of history is highly optimistic.

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        • Maria
          June 24, 2012 at 11:57 pm

          I can tell you know nothing about Finnish history… There was no change in power, no occupation, no rebellion in Finland during the WW2. Germany was our co-belligerent/ally, some 600 000 men were in the army fighting with them side by side and 200 000 women (and girls) volunteered for the auxiliary paramilitary service (out of population of 3.4 million). Luftwaffe even saved us during the great Soviet attact in the summer of 1944.

          Marshall Mannerheim, Commander-in-Chief during the war (and a former general in the Imperial Russian army, knew Tsar Nicholas II) was later chosen as the president to lead the country to peace and he is considered by many as one of our finest heroes. We had an elected parliament throughout the war and held free elections in March 1945. No Finns were executed for war crimes, even though we were on the loosing side.

          I am not saying we were angels, but considering that Finland fought two wars against Soviet Union (first one alone after they had attacked us for no reason) and one against Germany (because Stalin demanded it), we did quite well for a small country. There also were no great sympathy for Nazis at any point but Hitler was considered the lesser of the two evils and a great majority of Finns thought so. Stalin had executed or sentenced to forced labour camps tens of thousands of Finnish speaking people living in the Soviet Union during the 1930’s. Without Germany’s help, Finland would have been lost.

          So if there were any Finnish collaborators, they would have been Soviet sympathizers and on the side of the allies. There were some die-hard communists who helped Soviet desants (spies) but most were jailed during the war by the Finnish authorities. Even men whose fathers (or even themselves) had been fighting for Reds in our very bloody civil war 20 years earlier were loyal to Finland and to its army. So there was no reason to be a “collaborator” and betray anyone to SS, it just doesn’t make any sense.

          A small change of power happened after the war when the Soviet Union and UK demanded that the Communist Party had to be accepted and they also had to be included in the cabinet after the elections. This era, 1944-49, is known as the Years of Danger because a communist takeover was feared, but again, a majority of Finns wasn’t for it. At that time there were some “collaborators” who betrayed other Finns to the Red State Police. Most of the betrayed were respected officers and soldiers, who hid weapons all over Finland in case of a Soviet occupation.

          One of the prisoners (for treason no less) was Lauri Törni aka Larry Thorne who, after fighting for Finland, training with the Waffen-SS after the Winter War and again fighting against Soviet Union in Germany after the Continuation War, ended up in the US Army Special Forces becoming a legend also there. He died in Vietnam in 1965. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauri_T%C3%B6rni

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          • June 25, 2012 at 3:24 am

            Ok you made your point. May I remind you this is a literature blog?

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  5. May 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Book Around the Corner: I found a second one translated into English called The Howling Miller. Neither of the two translated into English sound as good as this one.

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  6. May 8, 2011 at 12:48 am

    I’ve only read one Mankell and I wasn’t crazy about it. I’d say it was ok.

    I haven’t read that Hornby yet, but it’s sitting on my shelf.

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  7. May 9, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I’ve liked every Hornby I’ve read and How To Be Good is my favourite.

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  8. May 11, 2011 at 8:39 am

    I have read a few books on the topic of suicide recently – a notable author with this theme on his mind is David Vann (not that I would recommend him particularly).

    I have known Finnish people and they confirm that the dark skies and sparse population do tend to make the population prone to depression and alcoholism. While Finland’s cities are as sophisticated as anywhere else, once you get into the countryside it can be quite a primitive place.

    An excellent review, although I may not be reading this one.

    Like

    • May 11, 2011 at 10:37 am

      Thanks. I’m glad you wouldn’t rush on this one as it hasn’t been translated into English. So far.

      Like

  1. April 27, 2014 at 6:38 am

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