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la cavale du géomètre

29 november 2012

La cavale du géomètre has certain wacky themes in common with many other novels by Arto Paasilinna. Cab driver Seppo Sorjonen picks up a fare who's standing in the middle of the street trying to tie his tie. The passenger, an aging man named Taavetti Rytkönen, has no idea where he wants to go. (He has even less idea where he's been, or in fact who he is.) Drive, he says, and they drive north out of Helsinki into Paasilinnan adventures.

This would be frivolous stuff except that Taavetti Rytkönen is suffering from a decidedly non-frivolous dementia. Sorjonen is pulled into his orbit, like Sancho Panza to Rytkönen's Don Quixote, and the two have picaresque experiences that befit a knight-errant and squire. For much of the novel, Rytkönen is convinced that Sorjonen is a doctor, and in fact Sorjonen teaches himself enough gerontology to keep a pretty good eye on Rytkönen's condition. His care for the old man extends well past the what-the-hell stage and into true sympathy: in order to protect Rytkönen, he must acquiesce in much of the demented man's madness.

Sorjonen had appeared in Paasilinna's Petits suicides entre amis, as the only non-suicidal member of the bizarre bus tour. He finds himself once again a lucid observer of eccentric perspectives. As he and Rytkönen cross Finland, the old man lives more and more in the past, when he served in armored units that fought by turns the Soviets and the Germans.

Sorjonen avoua qu'il n'avais jamais cru que la guerre avait été terrible au point de laisser sur les hommes des traces qui restaient visibles une vie entière.

[Sorjonen admitted that he'd never believed war could be so terrible that it could leave lifelong traces visible on men.] (116)
Sorjonen here refers to the visible scars that Rytkönen and his army buddies display, but the significance is unavoidably psychological. It's not that war has directly caused Rytkönen's dementia, but that anything that would happen to Rytkönen in later life is shot through (sometimes quite literally) with ordnance from those long-ago battles.

Among other escapades, Rytkönen helps an old friend from his tank unit wreak havoc on his family farm. The friend, Heikki Mäkitalo, is trying to spite the Finnish authorities, but ends up getting a medal for returning his land so thoroughly to a pristine state of nature. Among those enjoying the new wilderness are a tour group of vegetarian Frenchwomen, who commence starving when they've eaten up all the frog legs in the vicinity. Our heroes, with the help of two Balkan architects (don't ask), restore the Frenchwomen to health with huge servings of the traditional Bosnian stew gyouvetchi.

Everyone loves books with recipes, and La cavale du géomètre includes a recipe for gyouvetchi, which may need some adaptation to the home kitchen:

Sauté beef and onions in olive oil (plus a little water). When the meat is browned and the onions golden, add peppers, tomatoes, peas, white pepper, garlic, salt, and four liters of water. Reduce broth till it just covers the meat. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer a while. Serve with potatoes, carrots, bread, and vodka.

Paasilinna, Arto. La cavale du géomètre. [Elämä lyhyt, rytkönen pitkä, 1994.] Translated by Antoine Chalvin, 1998. Paris: Denoël, 2010.