Special effects

14 June 2012 | Authors, Reviews

Veikko Huovinen. Photo: Harri Nurminen

Depictions of simple country folk who live close to nature, diabolical satire of the powers that be, playful rambling tales.

The humour of Veikko Huovinen has two dimensions: it is learned, intelligent, and insightful, but it is also exuberant and folksy. Critics have made comparisons to Nikolai Gogol and Mark Twain, and not without reason.

Huovinen (1927–2009) began writing stories in 1949 and published his final work in 2007, two years before his death. This half century saw the birth of a broad and multifaceted library, including a good number of works that do not fit any genre as such – Huovinen called his works that lay in the interstices between the short story, causerie and satire ‘short specials’.

He also had a great influence on the generation of writers who followed him; on the dust jacket flaps of the new Huovinen volume Luonnonkierto (‘Nature’s circle’, Siltala), the satirical realists Kari Hotakainen (born 1957) and Tuomas Kyrö (born 1974) pay generous homage to the unexpectedness and eternal freshness of Veikko Huovinen.

Luonnonkierto is a collection of selected papers left behind after Huovinen’s death, none of which have appeared previously in book form. These periodical columns and previously unpublished stories offer an excellent cross-section of the themes Huovinen explored in his work.

As a young man in the 1950s, Huovinen wrote descriptions of work in the forests, delighting both in the diversity of nature and in the observation of other humans and the tales they told. When the stories move to more metropolitan surroundings, the ground-level perspective remains; Huovinen chuckles to himself at those who enjoy power and the admiration of others. This applies equally to pop singers and all of pop culture, which he sends up gleefully in his previously-unpublished story ‘Pop song lyrics’, which he originally wrote in the 1960s.

Athletes are an exception in Huovinen’s world: them and their admirers he does not mock, instead sincerely joining the ranks of the fans in many of the sports stories in the collection – whether on the uneven ground of a 1930s village playground or in grand Olympic arenas.

A forest ranger by profession, Huovinen lived almost his entire life in Sotkamo, a small town in north-eastern Finland. For him there was something suspicious about cities, and whenever he happened to travel abroad, the result would be a tale of slightly bemused wonderment told with a crooked smile.

Huovinen is a typical humorist in the sense that scratching the surface reveals a conservative who considers everything new-fangled to be pointless, laughable, or both. Humanity’s continuous impulse towards ‘progress’ makes him growl: ‘Why doesn’t nature have the sense to progress? Is nature stupid?’

No, naturally Huovinen does not think nature is stupid – man is. People litter, waste and spoil. Huovinen communicates this in phrases simultaneously melancholy and amusing. In addition to finding comfort in nature, he also depends heavily on the nuances of language, which makes this classic author a headache for translators.

Huovinen’s work has been translated into 12 languages (see the database). Among his most famous writings are his stories – published in many books – about an original backwoods philosopher, Havukka-ahon ajattelija (‘The thinker of Havukka-aho’, 1952).

Any translator of Huovinen is forced to test the limits of his or her vocabulary, for example in attacking Huovinen’s list of synonyms for the word melu or möly, a tribute to the breadth of the verbal repertoire of the Finnish language: möly, mölkätys, hoilaaminen, jytääminen, kolina, paukutus, jyskytys, prätkätys, rähinä, surina, pörinä, humputus – noise, ???, hollering, thumping, clattering, banging, pounding, buzzing, commotion, humming, purring, ???

Translated by Owen Witesman

See also the short story  ‘A spot of transmigration’ and Out of the body, with an introduction by Tuomas Juntunen

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