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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Howling Miller

by
Arto Paasilinna


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Howling Miller



Title: The Howling Miller
Author: Arto Paasilinna
Genre: Novel
Written: 1981 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 284 pages
Original in: Finnish
Availability: The Howling Miller - US
The Howling Miller - UK
The Howling Miller - Canada
Le meunier hurlant - France
Der heulende Müller - Deutschland
  • Finnish title: Ulvova mylläri
  • Translated by Will Hobson -- but from the French translation (Le meunier hurlant) by Anne Colin du Terrail, rather than the Finnish original; we're as flabbergasted and outraged as you are; please address all complaints to the publisher (Canongate)
  • Ulvova mylläri was made into a film in 1982, directed by Jaakko Pakkasvirta and with Vesa-Matti Loiri as Gunnar Huttunen

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Our Assessment:

B+ : simple but effective

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 14/7/2007 Maya Jaggi
The LA Times . 5/10/2008 Susan Salter Reynolds
The NY Times Book Rev. A 28/12/2008 Tayt Harlin
TLS . 7/9/2007 Paul Binding


  Review Consensus:

  Enjoyed it

  From the Reviews:
  • "While at times this miller's tale recalls Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener in its protagonist's perverse eccentricity, it combines the deadpan subversiveness of, say, M*A*S*H with a comic-book heroism. Though outnumbered and outgunned as he fights the state and its abuses of power, the troubled Huttunen finds affirmation from a talking statue of Christ in the church he plans to burn down. He may even, it is hinted, reach a mythic apotheosis as an avenging wolf." - Maya Jaggi, The Guardian

  • "The Howling Miller has the feel of an ominous Hansel and Gretel-style bedtime story -- part myth, part fable and part novel -- a form that has a funny way of bypassing the head and directly affecting the animal instincts." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Paasilinna describes the frenetic inner workings of his characters’ minds with an expert touch. (...) It is Paasilinna’s gift in this gem of a novel (in Will Hobson’s pellucid translation from the French of Anne Colin du Terrail) to wring humor from the most desperate of circumstances." - Tayt Harlin, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Progressive as well as narrowly conservative attitudes goad the miller into deeper madness. Yet it is the story's representative of the new enlightened Finland, the horticulture adviser Sanelma, who is its most sympathetic character, unswerving in her understanding of Huttunen, in full knowledge of his mental state and destructive acts. The literary folk tale is on precarious ground. The extraordinary ending of The Howling Miller, which only some acceptance of the supernatural can make convincing, will satisfy the fantasy-lover, but the two seminally important setpieces (...) suffer from a lack of social verisimilitude." - Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The protagonist of The Howling Miller is, as the title suggests, a miller prone to howling. In northern Finland in the early 1950s Gunnar Huttunen is the new man in town, having bought the run-down local mill and now planning to fix it up. He's kind of a moody character: sometimes he can't curb his enthusiasm and he's a jolly, entertaining fellow, but at other times ... well, he howls.
       The locals are a bit concerned about this animated madman in their midst, but put up with him -- for a while. But his spirited ways cause a few problems, and soon the complaints start mounting. In particular he's warned:

The howling has to stop, once and for all. It's not right that a grown man should be out barking with the dogs. Last winter you kept the whole village awake for nights on end, and now you've done it again.
       Huttunen tries to explain his odd compulsion:
     "It ... it comes automatically. First I have a sort of need to shout. My head feels tight, and then it has to come out, very loud. It's not completely out of control, it's just something that comes over me when I'm on my own. It's always a relief afterwards. A few howls are enough."
       The local doctor gives him some pills, but he immediately takes too many and goes on a rampage; rather than acknowledge his mistake the doctor agrees with the general assessment of Huttunen's mental instability, and they ship him off to the loony bin. He eventually escapes from there, but after that he's more or less on the run, considered a danger to society and incapable of handling his own affairs (even as he is, in fact, extremely resourceful and independent).
       As he sees it:
But just because his mind worked differently to other people's he was beyond the pale, he had to be banished from the social order.
       And the way he is treated -- as an outcast, and not to be trusted handling his own affairs (meaning, for example, he can't get at the money in his own bank account) -- exacerbates the situation. Huttunen takes to the woods, but can barely establish himself there, constantly undermined by the locals. He does have some who are willing to help him: one policeman does what he can, and later the local postman assists him (in return for Huttunen tending to his still). And there's also a love-interest, the local 4H woman who gets him to grow a vegetable garden and who finds herself quite taken by him (though she won't sleep with him until his madness is cured, rather worried about what kind of child she might bear otherwise).
       As usual, what Paasilinna excels at is in describing the independent spirit. Huttunen is a no-nonsense sort of guy who gets things done, despite the best efforts of the townsfolk to undermine his efforts. If he has to go live in the woods, so be it: he quickly builds himself a perfectly adequate camp. But Huttunen is also impulsive, and has little patience when he doesn't get his way. So, for example, when the bank won't give him his money he insists -- and so soon enough he's pegged as a bank-robber too. And he finds it hard to keep that howling under control as well.
        Paasilinna also opts for an interesting outcome: there's not really a happy end here, yet everyone gets most of what they deserve -- including Huttunen. Though the miller does not get the girl, he does get his freedom -- and he can (and does) go on baying and howling. The free spirit is not, however, integrated into this petty and small-minded society -- and the way Paasilinna brings his story to a close suggests it is impossible for Huttunen to be a part of this world. It's cleverly done, the very dark lesson cloaked yet again in some lightness -- which is, indeed, Paasilinna's technique throughout (and, indeed, throughout most of his works): yes, this is a comic novel, but there is considerable darkness and even anger, especially at the petty silliness so many indulge in, ruining their own and other people's lives. The asides that situate the novel -- mention of the still-raging Korean War, the forthcoming Olympics in Helsinki (held there in 1956), the Finns battles against the Germans and the Soviets -- are sharp and stinging, and it's only Paasilinna's (and his characters') matter-of-factness that keeps the bitterness down.
        What seems a very simple and almost simplistic tale turns out to be surprisingly nuanced, and while Paasilinna's style and presentation seem almost basic, there's no question that he tells a good and compelling story.

       Enjoyable though The Howling Miller is, it must be noted that it is simply unacceptable for it to be presented second-hand, via the French translation. Paasilinna's arguably crude style may seem to be able to bear such double-translation better than most fiction, but it does him -- and his English-reading readers -- a great disservice. Shame on whoever authorised this.

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Links:

The Howling Miller: Reviews: Ulvova mylläri - the film: Arto Paasilinna: Other books by Arto Paasilinna under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Prolific author Arto Paasilinna was born in 1942. One of the most popular authors in Finland, his work has been widely translated.

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© 2009 the complete review

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