The Healer: A Novel by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the original Finnish by Lola Rogers

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What makes the dystopian future described by Finnish author Antti Tuomainen  so disturbing is that it so closely resembles parts of the world we live in today.  He’s made the canny decision to dispense with futuristic tech and all the other trappings we’ve come to associate with the post-apocalypse: Mad Maxx gangs roaming a barren landscape, the rich farming the poor like domesticated cattle, the rise of the machines, etc.  None of those factor into Tuomainen’s vision for the future:  a place where we still live in houses and apartments, have jobs (if we’re lucky), call for cabs on crowded streets, shop for clothes and scan the tabloids for dirt on the latest pop sensation.

Instead he shows us how we have created the circumstances which will eventually end us.

That’s the whole problem in the first place… That everyone got to choose.  Endlessly, with no limits.  That’s why we’re here today….As if electronics wrapped in plastic or cotton irrigated with drinking water could ever be anything but a detriment, the cause of the destruction, replacing something irreplaceable with a pile of trash…

I don’t think a more frightening scenario exists.  Which is exactly what the author intends.

The Healer is set in an unspecified future where the consequences of climate change have only recently made themselves apparent – at least in the cataclysmic sense.  Resources haven’t been completely depleted, but they are running out.  Refugees are arriving in the Northern hemisphere en masse.  Finland, a country that occupies a total area of 130,596 geographic square miles (that’s 16,446 square miles less than the state of Montana), has become one giant refugee camp.  Everything is chaos.  Disease is rampant.  Food and shelter are running out.  There’s 13 wars/conflicts happening in the EU.  The reader is witnessing the breakdown of civilization.  Tuomainen has his protagonist describe evenings spent at the apartment window, sipping coffee and looking at dozens of orange pinpoints of light in the distance.  They are giant fires, built by the displaced, dotting the landscape.

Helsinki is the place where everyone is escaping to. Readers are given hints, but are for the most part left on their own to conjure the places the refugees are escaping from. We get a sense of the dire situation when the book’s hero is befriended by a cab driver, a “young North African man” named Hamid who will prove to be worth his weight in gold.

Hamid liked Finland.  Here, at least, there was some possibility of making good – he might even be able to start a family here.

I listened to his fast-flowing, broken English and watched him in profile.  A narrow, light-brown face, alert, nut-brown eyes in the rearview mirror; quick hands on the steering wheel.  Then I looked at the city flashing by, the flooded streets glistening, puddles the size of ponds, shattered windows, doors pried from their hinges, cars burned black, and people wandering in the rain.  Where I saw doom, Hamid saw hope.

It’s a slow and steady decline towards extinction. And into this environment Tuomainen has plotted a missing person case that is completely riveting.  There is no one, catastrophic, event that put us in this place. Just a series of bad decisions.

Tapani Lehtinen, the hero and narrator, isn’t a detective.  He’s a poet whose last collection was published four years earlier.  His wife, Johanna, is a journalist investigating an eco-terrorist turned serial killer known only as “The Healer”.   When the book opens she’s been missing for approximately 24 hours.  All Tapani has to begin his search with is a phone call from Johanna he recorded by mistake.  She tells him she’ll be away overnight, following a lead.  Her last words to him are: “See you tomorrow at the latest.  I love you.”

Tapani attempts to go to the police for help, even approaching an Inspector who Johanna had once helped to solve an important case.  But, like everything else, the force is in disarray.  They can’t keep up with the influx of people and crime.  Private security companies are popping up everywhere – often doing more harm than good.  Everyone with the resources to do so has fled even farther North.  In the end all the Inspector can offer Tapani is police resources:  video footage, access to information, and the occasional assist.  There’s no man-power to spare.

It turns out to be enough.  The trail Tapani follows is made up of his & Johanna’s shared and individual histories.  As the plot develops it’s close to impossible to stop reading.  Everything feels so plausible.  Each revelation becomes another piece in the natural progression of events.  As for the translation – it’s fantastic.  Whether Lola Roger has been completely faithful to the original I can’t say.  But I’ve always looked at the act of translation as being a collaboration between an author and translator – the result of which should be judged on its own merit and not just  as a variation of a form (bear with me: I’m getting a little Platonic here).  The English translation of The Healer  is a fully realized and beautifully written book in and of itself.

The ending, particularly, is brilliant.  I’ve seen it described as an “open ending” in some reviews, which to me implies that there might be a sequel.  That would be a shame.  Without giving anything away (brief tangent: did anyone else read Joyce Carol Oates NYRB reviews of two of Derek Raymond’s “Factory” novels/mysteries?  She gives away the killer for BOTH books!  WHO does THAT????!) the ending is perfectly in tune with the world Tuomainen describes.  In addition, it structurally reflects the novel’s over-arcing message and is a clever piece of writing.  Any other direction he might have gone in would have felt contrived and cliché.  Instead, it is the best part of the book.  No small compliment when describing a book this good.  Like Eliot, Tuomainen sees the power in allowing the world to end.  Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Healer is Antti Tuomainen’s third novel.  It won the Clue Award for the Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2011 and was subsequently translated into 26 different languages.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9554 8

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The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal)

The cover illustration is a watercolor by the author (who is best known for her Moomin stories for children).

I’m not sure what the temperature is in your neck of the woods, but in Pennsylvania we’re in the midst of a cold snap.  We had snow over the weekend, and the kind of  icy chill that goes bone deep.  Maybe that’s why Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver had such a strong effect.  Set in a small village on the coast of Finland, in the dead of winter, the book is full of images of snow and ice.  It’s the kind of story you’ll want to read under a thick down comforter with a mug of hot tea on the table beside you.

Katri and Mats Kling are brother and sister.  Katri raised Mats. Both are a bit odd, and while the villagers often come to Katri with their problems, the siblings are effectively outsiders.  In fact, Katri could be a precursor to Lisbeth Salander.  Like that heroine she’s emotionally stunted, freakishly good with numbers, calculating by nature and her yellow eyes (all her own) have an unnerve the people around her.  She keeps a dog who obeys her, yet there is no companionable link between her and the animal.  Mats, on the other hand, radiates kindness and contentment.  He’s considered simple by the townspeople, interested only in boats and adventure stories about the sea.

When things become strained in town – and Katri is more or less forced to give up her job at the grocery store – she enacts a desperate plan to find a new home for her and Mats.  She convinces the reclusive local grande dame to take them in.  Anna is an elderly children’s book illustrator who lives alone in her father’s house.  Where Katri is calculating and Mats is kind, Anna defining characteristic is her fussiness.  She paints watercolors of the forest floor in Spring – and then fills the pictures with flower covered rabbits so they can be used as illustrations children’s books.  Katri convinces Anna that she needs to two siblings and the three outsiders form something like family, with perilous consequences.

Mats fixed the window and the drain.  He shovelled snow and chopped wood and lit fires in Anna’s pretty stoves.  But usually he just came to borrow books.  A cautious, almost timid friendship began to grow between Anna and Mats.  They talked only about their books.  In tales where the same heroes returned in book after book, they could refer familiarly to Jack or Tom or Jane, who had recently done this or that, as if gossiping in a friendly way about acquaintances.  They criticised and praised and were horrified, and they discussed in detail the happy ending with its just division of the inheritance and its wedding and its villain getting his just deserts.

Anna read her books afresh, and it seemed suddenly as if she had a large circle of friends, all of whom lived more or less adventuresome lives.  She was happier.  When Mats came in the evenings, they would drink tea in the kitchen while reading their books and talking about them.  If Katri came in, they were quiet and waited for her to leave.  The back door would close, and Katri would have gone.

“Does your sister read our books?”  Anna wanted to know.

Janssen manages to convincingly express the isolation of three individuals, – an isolation which doesn’t dissipate simply through physical proximity.  And the impression of time passing without being filled.  The chapters in The True Deceiver are brief, transitioning abruptly. Often they consist of a single encounter between two of the main characters or between one of the main characters and someone from town.  Seldom do we find the three protagonists in the same room or conversing as (or within) a group.  I always wonder if such careful structure is accomplished by design or intuition.  Regardless, it’s extremely effective and by the book’s end the tension is almost unbearable.

This is not a novel that is heavy on plot. Nor is it a story with an obvious resolution.  The True Deceiver is a psychology study on people’s motives and morality.  Perhaps the oddest thing about it (and make no mistake, the “odd” bar is set rather high) is that  the Finnish author, Tove Jansson, wrote and illustrated an internationally series of children’s books.  The Moomins are a family of much-loved white, furry, hippopotamus-like creatures who live in Moominvalley and have wonderful adventures.  These books are considered by critics as somewhat autobiographical, with the characters based on Jansson’s family, friends and Jansson herself.  Which raises the strange question as to how much of Anna’s motivations and journey can be interpreted as Jansson’s own.

The True Deceiver received the 2011 Best Translated Book Award. (The link is to Thomas Teal’s acceptance speech).

Publisher:  New York Review of Books, New York (2009)
ISBN:  978 1 59017 329 9

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