The Human Part by Kari Hotakainen

The Human Part - Kari HotakainenThe Human Part – Kari Hotakainen
Translated from the Finnish Ihmisen osa by Owen F. Witesman

MacLehose Press, August 2012
Review copy from the publisher
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In The Human Part an elderly woman called Salme Sinikka Malmikunnas agrees to sell her life story to an author she meets at a book festival, on the condition that “everything that I say will be printed word for word”.  Salme insists on the truth. It is why she appreciates non-fiction and despises fiction:

“First of all, and in partial defence of myself, I should say that I do not like made-up books or the people who write them. It has always irritated me that they are taken seriously, that people get so immersed in them and listen so carefully to the people who write them. I am now referring to the novels and other things on the shelves labelled “fiction” or “translated fiction”. It irritated me even more when Paavo and I found out that people go all the way to other countries to find these made-up stories and that people who have studied these languages transfer these obvious lies over into our language.”

But as the reader progresses in The Human Part you come to doubt Salme’s truthfulness. Or is the tragedy that is the cause for Salme’s husband’s (Paavo) silence, and the less than the claimed-to-be perfect lives of Salme’s children, only the imagination of the author?

The Human Part is a book about the absurdities of modern life, without telling the reader that life was better for Salme’s generation, or that there is a truly right way to live or to view life. I think that showing us several views and sides of modernity, without skimming over the hurt and sadness that comes with all lives, is the real strength of this novel.

Hotakainen manages to find the perfect blend of satire and seriousness that enables the reader to laugh at the way we live, but to simultaneously feel understood in the difficulties we face. The whole book just oozes humanity, both in showing us the faulty and sometimes ugly side of human life and opinion, and in showing us love and understanding. And in doing so he doesn’t shy away from the big and pertinent questions of our time – for one of the dominant themes is the economic crisis that Finland, and so many other countries, face.

I laughed at the irony of a novel starting out with having a character insult the very notion of fiction. I smiled at the fact that Salme so poignantly points out how absurd the notion of selling ideas instead of actual items is to her worldview, but then turning the whole thing on the head by having Salme sell her own story. Again, I admire Hotakainen for being able to strike such a great balance between allowing us to laugh at ourselves, at our society, without becoming tiring in the novel’s satire, and without making the reader feel that he isn’t taking his characters or the reader seriously.

However, there were things I had my doubts about in the novel at first. For one, there is Salme’s use of the word “negro” for the partner of one of the children. There is the portrayal of said character, Biko, through the eyes of Salme that is tinged with the sort of hidden racism that you could almost come to expect in some European societies. There were moments when those comments make you stop and wonder how you should feel about this being such an integral part of the story. However, upon reflection and knowing what follows in the book, I feel that these moments of almost cringe-worthy comments make the painful and the hidden stereotypes more visible. I feel Hotakainen is holding up a mirror by having Salme and her husband express these views. And he gives us reason to think, from the very start, that Salme’s views are not equal to the right or the truthful. In allowing Biko to tell his own story, to have his own voice, and by having him counter stereotypes, the discomfort I felt at first was gradually taken away.

In a similar vein there is another character, Kimmo, who voices very classist opinions. Being rich himself, having sold his company in the years when the economy was booming, Kimmo one day decides he should become familiar with the lives of “the rabble”, and continues to express opinions that dehumanize the people poorer than me in insisting on using words like “the rabble” and “the being”, which allows for some fun and subversive interactions between Kimmo and the people he meets in the poorer neighbourhood he travels to.

It took a while to see the novel in this way, instead of starting and stopping because I wasn’t sure what to make of all these characters othering each other. In the end, I feel Hotakaianen did a good job of enabling us to see the many ways in which we are often quick to judge, and to dehumanize others that we do not know, before leading us into a situation that shows us how different characters can draw together in times of need.

In its satire of society, in holding up a mirror to the absurdities and things taken for granted in contemporary life, I felt The Human Part was one of the more succesful books I have read. And yet.. I never really felt a personal interest in the story beyond this mirror-quality. And I couldn’t quite figure out how the storyline of the human tragedy, that is alluded to throughout the book and revealed towards the end, fitted with the rest of the themes in The Human Part. I liked and appreciated how Hotakainen allows us to come to know several situations of several characters, how he allows them all to express their views, but during my reading of the book there was often a disconnect that wasn’t resolved until the very end. Unfortunately, this is why I couldn’t quite like the book as much as I wished.

By the way, don’t you just love the cover? It was retained from the Finnish edition. I really like the pen-drawing feel of it. And how, if you look at it closely upon finishing the book, it includes so many of the characters and scenes in the novel.

Other Opinions: Yours?

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10 responses to “The Human Part by Kari Hotakainen

  1. “…a book about the absurdities of modern life, without telling the reader that life was better for Salme’s generation” – I can imagine that being quite a feat in itself, it’s rather difficult to say something about one thing without intentionally or unintentionally saying the reverse of the other. I like the irony you describe, of a novel including a character who hates it, and the discussions through the story of stereotypes and prejudice. Overall it sounds very much worth the read.

    • It was worth the read, Charlie, very much so. I just wish I could have loved it. I felt like not all of the elements of the novel exactly fell into place, if that makes sense?

  2. In a bookstore last year I had the French translation of this in my hands (it won the Courrier International prize in France) but put it back at the last moment. I’m pleased to see that it’s out in English now (MacLehose is really putting out some exciting stuff!) and equally pleased to read your review of it.

    • I’m so glad I am not the only one who gets excited to see a book translated into English after seeing it available in other languages. It happens to me quite often :)

  3. I loved the way he caught what is modren life what if we sell our selves to writers to the poapers ,are we then open to fictions being written ,I loved this one ,all the best stu

    • I’m glad to hear you loved it Stu! I couldn’t find a review of the book on your blog, is it coming up or did I just fail in my search for it?

  4. Like you, I am enjoying the irony of a novel starting with a character who dislikes fiction and the people who right it. This sounds like an edgy satire that’s worth reading.

  5. It does sound like an interesting premise. And I like the cover art, too.

  6. It is interesting to read your review now that I’ve finished this book. I admit that I found the racism shocking at the start, but like you I realised that it was just holding a mirror to society and I think it did a good job of showing how silly this racism is.

    I love how we both picked out the same quote – it shows how we book lovers are all drawn to the same sections!

    I agree that the themes didn’t quite fit together. It had some fantastic ideas and I’m really pleased that I read it, but there was something missing. Sounds as though we had similar thoughts on this one.

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