The price of a free lunch

Issue 4/1994 | Archives online, Fiction, Interviews

Eeva Joenpelto’s new novel, Tuomari Müller, hieno mies (‘Judge Müller, a fine man’), is the story of a good woman with a bad conscience, and of the small-town, big-business corruption of Finland in the 1980s. (Interview of EJ: 1994)

… the front door of the office building flew open. Men swept out and down the street, as fast-moving, garrulous and laughing as if it had been decided by vote in a council meeting. The entire width of the street was filled with the scent of vigorous, masculine deodorants: thyme, tarragon, gunpowder.

At the end of the 1980s, successful men smelt of gunpowder even in the Finnish boondocks: then, after all, money was on the move, whatever the business – bank management, whirlpool baths or local politics. This last seemed to move significantly closer to business life when the fast-moving and garrulous politicians organised a few benefits for themselves from the flowing stream of money, and no one saw fit to object. Yet.

In Eeva Joenpelto’s novel, Judge Müller does see fit. His father made his fortune as a bootlegger during the dishonest times of the prohibition law of the 1920s, and the young Gösta heard constantly from his father’s grand friends that ‘dishonesty was like a good, natural business’, that ‘there was something heart­ warming in every swindle’. Perhaps it was this that made him, when he grew up, into a completely honest and apolitical bank manager.

‘It’s as if something begins to gnaw at me… some little newspaper item, for example, won’t leave me in peace, I have to start writing about it. I read a lot of articles about the Finnish banking crisis and the economic recession, and something kept gnawing at me; these characters, this story developed from there,’ says Eeva Joenpelto, 73; this is her twenty-sixth novel.

Joenpelto is a writer acclaimed with rare unanimity by critics and readers alike. Among her most popular works is a series of four novels (1974–80) describing the life of a small community in southern Finland during the years after the civil war of 1918. The series has been adapted for stage and television, and has been translated into Swedish. It traces the late transformation of a country town into part of a rapidly industrialising society; neither land nor property can guarantee security any longer.

Joenpelto’s writing is emphatically ‘long prose’, as opposed to the ‘short prose’ that is currently so fashionable: dramatic and very cinematic, it continually shifts its perspective by getting inside the characters’ skin, showing the reader how things look from different, sometimes irreconcilable, points of view. Joenpelto moves freely forward and backward through time, interleaving life-stories and destinies and building her novels like jigsaw puzzles.

The author confesses: ‘I think it’s great fun to write about these people…’ Undoubtedly; the reader experiences the classic psychological realism of Joenpelto’s character portraits as delicious.

That there’s no such thing as a free lunch is certainly one of Joenpelto’s principles in creating her narrative. She is interested in human polarities: greed, honour, immorality and the tactical deployment of integrity. Her psychological eye is practised and merciless: she sees that everything has its price. ‘If experience hasn’t taught me by now …’, she comments drily on the perspective her career as a writer has given her. True, but few writers of 73 are still producing work that rates among their best.

The price each individual is prepared to pay for his or her desires is the material out of which Joenpelto builds her drama. Tuomari Müller, hieno mies is both a satire about the price of a free lunch and a delicious study of humanity – not so much of Judge Müller as of his wife, Mrs Müller, who is a horrible old crone.

Or, of course, not merely that: Mrs Müller believes she is doing good; and indeed she by, among other things, giving money to people she considers deserving. And she certainly loved her husband and their daughter. He was probably sent to his early grave partly by the small town’s political elite, whose intriguing forced him to give up his job as a bank manager, and for this reason his widow hates the whole rat-pack. The fact that she is a horrible old crone begins to become clear only as the skilful jigsaw puzzle takes shape.

The small-town bigwigs, however, begin to hanker after the miserable little plot of land that Mrs Müller still owns in the town, although she herself moved to Helsinki long ago. The site is intimately bound up with the late 1980s rapprochement between local politics and hard business. On the principle of you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, the councillors badly need the land to build a disposal centre for hazardous waste.

A delegation goes to visit Mrs Müller, with them the town gardener, who is Mr Müller’s only remaining childhood friend. ‘Finnish bank managers seldom have any conception of [the proper use of money], having come from God knows where,’ sermonises Mrs Müller, the old cat, to the mayor and the bank manager, whom she detests; the men remind the reader of two sleek rats. ‘Most of them grew up on a farm in a little world of milk accounts. They have passed a few examinations, risen to a salary above the milk account level, and lost their sense of proportion… I do apologise for talking so much, but you really can’t treat money as one treats a cow. Money doesn’t flow like milk.’

Gardener Tulus is a taciturn bystander, and quite a story in himself. He knows something about Mrs Müller that Mrs Müller herself prefers to forget. She preaches to the local politicians about milk accounts and a sense of proportion, but the search for personal profit and successful self-deception are not their province alone: on page 329 it is revealed that Mrs Müller pinched from the bank vault where it was lodged her honest husband’s will, which fair-mindedly directed his estate to be divided equally between his first wife and the present Mrs Müller. News of the will never reaches Mrs Müller number one, and so Mrs Müller number two becomes considerably better-off – and washes her conscience clean by, among other things, heaping money on her brother-in-law’s beautiful but unpleasantly greedy daughter, her only relative, Mrs Kahila – who, incidentally, is having an affair with the bank manager. Mrs Müller is still cleansing her conscience on the last page of the novel, when the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle finally falls into place, and the picture is complete.

This is no particular time of the jackals, for the time of the jackals is always now… It is merely a question of whether or not the jackals howl. Howling jackals are always better, one cannot forget them, says Judge Müller to his friend the gardener on a tape to which Tulus listens after Müller’s death. The judge refused to play politics with the boys, and so the boys played him out, silently and without howling. The whole game was lost, in fact, shortly afterward, not least – and with fateful irony – because the quoted share index of honest workers for the common good collapsed as interest rates began to rise.

The jackals of Joenpelto’s Finnish Dullsville are familiar and homespun, comical in their childish enthusiasm for the game: this is what makes her satire so delicious. And she does not glory in historical hindsight – for, as she acknowledges, few of us would have believed that it would all end so quickly. Calmly, Joenpelto uses her rogues’ gallery to prove the propositions she has been presenting and proving right in her work for the past 40 years. Greedy people end up in the shit, as the Finnish proverb so aptly puts it.

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