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prisonniers du paradis

18 july 2012

Four of the five novels I've read by Arto Paasilinna concern urban people learning to live, perforce, in the wilderness. (The fifth, Le fils du Dieu de l'orage, deals with a woodland deity suddenly trying to navigate the city.) I think I've detected a theme in the Finnish novelist's work.

Several of Paasilinna's other novels are about deliberate, whimsical, or eccentric paths to the wilderness. Prisonniers du paradis, however, is a tale of inadvertent isolation. Our narrator's plane crashes in a remote part of Indonesia. Almost all those aboard survive. They include lots of Swedish nurses and lots of Finnish lumberjacks (as the back of the Denoël paperback puts it, "cela n'existe que chez Paasilinna"). There are also some midwives, some flight crew, and our hero, a Finnish journalist:

Je suis d'une colossale banalité et il arrive que cela me chagrine. (9)

[I am tremendously ordinary, and now and then that makes me sad.]
Timely rescue is out of the question. The castaways are in a war zone, and the only outsiders who come by are more interested in strafing than succoring them. They meet up with an army deserter who explains the larger political context. Hopeless, they set about creating their own political context, as well as their own homes, tools, and refrigerators.

This kind of handyman's Robinsonade has been done many times before, and in other hands it might be a tale of know-how and pluck (as the original Robinson Crusoe was, of course). Or it might be a political fable (like J.M. Barrie's Admirable Crichton). Or it might be Gilligan's Island.

In Paasilinna's obsessive treatment, the Robinsonade is none of the above. He's as utterly matter-of-fact about life on a desert island as his narrator is about his own banality. Cast away with little to sustain them except a few salvaged tools and a handful of provisions, Paasilinna's characters comport themselves as if this were something that happens all the time. They form a provisional government (our hero is one of the ruling triumvirate), establish a division of labor, and set about recreating suburban life in the wilderness.

When it comes time to seek rescue, some of them balk. One of the group gets the idea to carve a gigantic SOS into the jungle, and set it aflame in hopes that it will be noticed by a spy satellite. It's a doddle for a team of Finnish lumberjacks, but do they really want to be saved?

Democracy prevails, and despite some struggle, all are rescued because a majority wish to be. For all I know, Prisonniers du paradis may be an allegory of modern Scandinavian politics. But it functions both as adventure novel (complete with sharks!) and as a frame tale for eccentric anecdotes (many of them involving animals). It's an appealing take on the castaway formula.

Paasilinna, Arto. Prisonniers du paradis. [Paratiisisaaren vangit, 1974.] Translated by Antoine Chalvin, 1996. n.p.: Denoël, 2007.