Saturday, May 14, 2022

Tuomainen's The Man Who Died, a few comments

I finished Per Petterson’s Men in my Situation and while I was critical of the Amazon reviewers who didn’t go much beyond saying the novel was “sad,” I just admit that it was at least that.  I recall years ago when I was in college, my aunt Dorothy worked in a nearby potato chip factory.  Her husband, Frank, had died of a stroke and didn’t leave her much to live on; so, she had to work.  At one point I was reading a lot of Kafka.  We had many interesting literary discussions before Uncle Frank died, but later when I tried to interest her in Kafka, she told me her life was depressing enough.  She didn’t want to add Kafka to it.  If one is studying literature, then one cannot avoid studying a novel just because it is sad.  But if one is reading for pleasure, then one can be more selective.

After reading a Petterson, I decided to seek out something less sad.  And inasmuch as the news has been full of Finland’s decision to join NATO, I decided to read a Finnish novelist.    I selected The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen.  There was an indication that he wrote novels less sad than Men in my Situation.

Someone might think, with a title like that, that I should have looked further, but I knew nothing about Finnish novelists and this novel was the first one I came across in my Amazon search.  As it happened its subject matter was somewhat serendipitous.  My oral surgeon, before performing the latest procedure decided to have me get concurrence from my primary physician that my heart would withstand whatever anesthesia he intended to use.  A Nurse Practitioner unclear about why I was there Said, “your blood test is completely clear.  Why are you even here?  And it degenerated from there.  My son hears better than I do and was interpreting what the nurse was saying.  He became quite upset with her before we were done.  I was made to understand before we left that I was old and therefore ought to follow all their rules and probably shouldn’t risk having the anesthesia under discussion.  The Nurse would let my doctor make the final decision, but she certainly wouldn't approve it. 

Thus, having been confronted with my own mortality, I began reading The Man Who Died.  The man, Jaako, is only 38, but he is being poisoned.   His doctor tells him he has been poisoned over a considerable time period and will die perhaps in a few days, maybe a few weeks.  So Jaako who is majority owner of a Mushroom processing and selling business intends to find out who is trying to kill him.  He almost immediately finds that his wife Taina is having an affair with one of their helpers, Petri.  Also, she is trying to gain control over the business; so, he becomes convinced that she, who prepares his meals every evening, is the one who is poisoning him.  A rival Mushroom business has set up a building a short distance away.  Three shady characters are responsible for it.  Two of them, one after the other, try to kill Jaako, but by good luck, they are killed instead. . . Perhaps they have been poisoning him.  He isn’t sure.

Tuomainen is an entertaining writer and despite Jaako’s impending doom the novel isn’t sad.  Also, there are many philosophically clever insights about mortality throughout.  I was cheered by the time I finished.   Jaako is still doomed at the end, but alive.  His poisoning is in something like remission, if that is even possible.  Agatha Christie knew a lot about poisons and several of her murderers were poisoners, but if I recall correctly, she would describe the poison used.  Tuomainen merely lists several poisonous plants and mushrooms and implies a concoction.  

I had the impression that Tuomainen used humor in all his novels, but at the end of The Man Who Died are the “acknowledgments” in which he writes, "The Man Who Died feels like a turning point in many ways.  After writing five very dark books – albeit all very different from each other – ranging from the dystopia of The Healer to the icy north of The Mine, I started to feel that I needed to change things up a bit.  More than a bit, to be honest.  I told my agent this.  I think I also told him I needed to laugh a bit.  His response: go for it.”

The Main Who Died was published in Finnish in 2016 and in English a year later.  If Tuomainen continued in his resolve to use humor in The Man Who Died and subsequent novels, then I have Palm Beach, Finland (2017), Little Siberia (2019), and The Rabbit Factor (2020) trilogy to look forward to.  If I read all of these, am still alive, and managing to still enjoy Tuomainen perhaps I’ll try some of the novels from the period in which he was “crowned . . . the King of Helsinki Noir,” maybe just one to test this matter.

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