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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Human Part

Kari Hotakainen

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To purchase The Human Part

Title: The Human Part
Author: Kari Hotakainen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 253 pages
Original in: Finnish
Availability: The Human Part - US
The Human Part - UK
The Human Part - Canada
The Human Part - India
La part de l'homme - France
Un pezzo di uomo - Italia
Por partes - España
  • Finnish title: Ihmisen osa
  • Translated by Owen F. Witesman

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Our Assessment:

A- : creative approach; affecting tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Irish Times . 13/10/2012 Claire Looby
The National . 25/8/2012 Frank Patrick Morgan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Kari Hotakainen intimately and humorously depicts a family with a strong matriarch at its centre (.....) Salme’s gentle, homespun philosophy, such as the idea that sorrow comes from never being able to be the same age as one’s children, lingers beautifully after this quaint and quirky book is closed." - Claire Looby, Irish Times

  • "The Human Part is particularly strong on families and how they work (or don't) and the incomprehension one generation feels about what their children's generation regards as valuable. It's all told in a beautiful, terse style with a few laugh-out-loud moments to alleviate what is, essentially, a bleak story." - Frank Patrick Morgan, The National

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 Human Part suggests, in what appears to be its premise, a simple tale of a writer appropriating another's life and reworking it into fiction: it begins with Salme Sinikka Malmikunnas describing (in what are presented as her own words) how she came to sell her life-story to an author for €7,000. She met him at a book fair one of her daughters had dragged her to; they got to talking and the author -- admitting: "he didn't have any life of his own" that he could use as material, and that he wanted to write one more book -- made her an offer: money in exchange for her life(-story).
       Salme eventually agrees, and they meet and she recounts her life, and the author begins to fashion a book out of it -- but it's hardly what the reader (or she) presumably first expected. As the author admits to her when he's half-way through:

he had written a lot about my children's lives based on what I had told him, but that he had added things out of his own head related to the present day and the current social situation.
       Salme -- no great fan of fiction in the first place -- is annoyed -- "the truth was enough. There wasn't any need to make things up." -- but she keep her end of the bargain, and continues to tell her story. Eventually, she finds herself literally unburdening herself:
telling about everything that had been happening recently, even though that was precisely what I had intended to stay silent about.
       The author shows himself only through Salme's eyes: he uses her voice and perspective (in, among other things, describing their interactions), rather than taking over the narrative for himself (even, of course, as these are ultimately all his words, and his interpretation). But he doesn't only have Salme recount her story -- of her life, and of recounting her story to the author. Instead, chapters also focus, in turn, on her three children (and several other characters), written in the third person, and providing a perspective that goes beyond anything Salme could have revealed. Many of these chapters open with a postcard greeting from Salme to the child that is the focus of the chapter -- advice or some observations -- but the focus is entirely on the other character.
       As one of the characters says at one point:
Truth is a relative concept -- everyone has their own views. It would be best to find the average of the truths ...
       The various perspectives -- and especially the contrast between Salme's summaries, and the detailed pictures of the children's lives that are presented -- suggest a very different big picture than what Salme likes to think ('likes to', because even she seems aware that she is, to some extent, fooling herself about certain things).
       The structure of The Human Part -- which is also presented in three parts ('The First Part', 'The Second Part', and, yes, 'The Human Part') -- is not entirely straightforward or obvious: Hotakainen takes what appears to be a very simple premise, of a woman selling her life-story to an author and in turn he using that as the basis for a work of fiction, and makes of it something considerably more complex. In doing so, he suggests what fiction can do and be: Salme disapproves of "made-up books", but Hotakainen's shows how much they can hold, both in ostensibly transforming and reflecting on reality, and in and of themselves.
       As the author promised Salme:
Truth and fiction would intertwine and together be more than they would have been separately.
       Salme's own life seems rather unremarkable: she and her husband, Paavo, ran a yarn shop. They had four children, but one died when he was four. She's proud of her three now grown children, but, as the chapters that focus on each of them in turns show (or, in the author's revision, suggest ...), isn't completely in touch with their current lives and situations.
       Son Pekka is unemployed and struggles even to get enough to eat (but has some very creative approaches to getting at food or money). Helena is a successful businesswoman, but unfulfilled by her demanding work; she has a seven-year-old daughter, but no real relationships in her life. Maija works in a call center, and is married to a black African named Biko, a bus driver -- a relationship that initially did not go over well with the family.
       Hotakainen presents the children's stories (and Biko's, and another character's as well) beautifully, even as they are bleak tales of alienation in contemporary society. Even those that have trappings of success, like Helena, or true love, like Maija and Biko, are beaten down by this civilization.
       In a session with a 'consultant'-cum-psychoanalyst Helena is told:
You keep playing with words. Did you know that is a sign of anxiety ? Trying to be clever all the time.
       The Human Part is a novel full of word-playing, in many variations. Hotakainen's author and characters are not merely trying to be clever, but they struggle in a variety of ways with communication. Many of the exchanges here are with what are essentially strangers or those they are in a professional relationship with, from Helena's consultant to the customers Maija deals with on the phone. Unsurprisingly, Pekka struggled with stuttering; typically, when Maija started seeing Biko her father didn't speak to her directly but left her a note saying 'Give me a call sometime' -- and:
     What galled Maija the most was that he had the nerve to write about calling even though he knew well enough that Maija didn't have a telephone.
       And the final horrible punishment that is meted out in the story is also a form of silencing, the strongest of symbolic messages.
       Hotakainen also keeps playing with words in his novel, but then his intention is very much to convey anxiety: what he wants to present here is a picture of our age of anxiety. The Human Part is an often oblique narrative, and it is repeatedly unclear where he is taking it with the episodes from the lives of these characters that he presents. Where he ultimately takes it is devastating and heartbreaking; the humaneness of the writing and the characters make it bearable, but The Human Part is also ultimately a terribly bleak story. (A sign of just how good he is is that the turn the story takes -- which, in nine novels out of ten, would come across as simply outrageously manipulative -- seems entirely believable here.)
       The writer had warned Salme that he was going to embellish her story and include things: "related to the present day and the current social situation", and The Human Part is evidently meant also to be, in part, a picture and critique of contemporary Finnish society. The anomie feels convincing; some of the economic desperation perhaps less so (at least to an outsider -- it's Finland, for god's sake, one of the wealthiest and most egalitarian societies going (and hence: if this is what it's like in Finland, what hope is there elsewhere ?)).
       The Human Part is remarkably well-written, even as it has what can be a distracting premise (author-buys-story) -- distracting, because it leads to certain expectations from the reader, but ultimately successful because Hotakainen uses this premise so differently than one at first expects. A layer of the novel does have to do with how we tell the stories of our own and each other's lives; tellingly, the author keeps his distance and uses only Salme's voice in discussing the premise of the book, even as he is just as much party to the bargain (and, of course, also has the last (and, arguably, only) word).
       As one character notes:
nowadays it's difficult to tell who is who. Everything is guesswork. Everyone pretends to be something else or turns into something else.
       Hotakainen's book is less about these common transformations -- though there are many in the novel -- than in trying to determine the true character behind his characters. In that he is remarkably successful, and it makes for a remarkable and affecting work of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 November 2012

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The Human Part: Reviews: Other books by Kari Hotakainen under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kari Hotakainen is a leading Finnish author. He was born in 1957.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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