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October 05, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

The Howling Miller

A Novel

Arto Paasilinna

Canongate: 284 pp., $14 paper

GUNNAR HUTTUNEN is a man in pain. He fought in World War II against the Russians, he saw his wife burn to death in a fire and he's trying a new life running a mill on the Kemijoki River in Lapland. One problem: He howls at night and can't help it. The villagers, a small-minded lot, are frightened. They try to run him out of town. When that doesn't work, they have him committed to the Oulu Mental Hospital. Gunnar has one advocate -- a beautiful young agricultural advisor who has fallen in love with him. Gunnar becomes a hermit in the forest on the village outskirts. The advisor visits him there. But the mob is restless; it can still hear the man turned monster, the Other, the Outsider howling at night.

Arto Paasilinna, a woodcutter-journalist-poet, hugely popular in his native Finland, was born in Lapland, where he has a following as an eco-philosopher. He's written 28 novels (best known is "The Year of the Hare") that have been translated into 20 languages. "The Howling Miller" has the feel of an ominous "Hansel and Gretel"-style bedtime story -- part myth, part fable and part novel -- a form that has a funny way of bypassing the head and directly affecting the animal instincts.

The Other

Ryszard Kapuscinski

Verso: 94 pp., $16.95

"CONQUER, colonise, master, make dependent -- this reaction to Others recurs constantly throughout the history of the world." After a lifetime of reporting around the world, Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died in 2007, delivered these four lectures on the subject of the Other (whom he considered to be usually people from cultures outside of Western Europe). Kapuscinski was an old-style literary journalist, an agency reporter who firmly believed in being there, reporting from the scenes of various conflicts, hearing the stories of the people whose lives were most affected. His thinking was deeply affected by theologians, anthropologists and historians -- Emmanuel Levinas, Herodotus and Bronislaw Malinowski, to name a few.

Kapuscinski's pieces, writes Neal Ascherson in the introduction to this volume, "were famous for their often surreal imagery, their revelations of misery and cruelty, and the fastidious quality of their writing." Kapuscinski was fascinated by the way the Other was so often portrayed as less than human rather than as a mirror. "There beside you is another person," he writes. "Meet him. . . . Look at the Other's face as he offers it to you. Through this face he shows you yourself: more than that -- he brings you closer to God."

Notes on Democracy

A New Edition

H.L. Mencken

Dissident Books: 206 pp., $14.95 paper

H.L. MENCKEN was a literary critic, an "iconoclastic observer" of American life. He was, writes Marion Rodgers in her introduction, neither right nor left but simply radical. "When every phrase must be examined for political correctness," she writes, "many find it impossible to enjoy Mencken without apology."

Mencken wrote most of his life for the Baltimore Sun. He wrote 30 books, most famously "The American Language"; "Notes on Democracy," published in 1926, was not well-received. The tone is beyond satire, almost caustic, like the guy at the bar who sidles up to you with bad news -- the guy you can't help thinking has a point. Mencken (who read a little too much Nietzsche) believed that democracy would inevitably be brought down by the mob -- "homo boobensis" and "homo vulgaris." Democracy is a beautiful pipe dream, he wrote, conceived by and for a superior breed of man, braver, more intelligent and possessing more character than the ordinary bloke, who could care less about freedom. The ordinary guy just wants to feel safe (from the Other). The ordinary, uneducated citizen is driven by fears and delusions, and he responds to politicians who promise him safety and security. "Out of the muck of their swinishness the typical American law-maker emerges," he wrote. "He is a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled. He knows the taste of boot polish. . . . His public life is an endless series of evasions and false pretenses. He is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes. . . ."

Between the absurd (Mencken believed) electoral college and the politicians, democracy doesn't stand a chance. "It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing," he wrote. "How can any man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat?"

--

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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