The greatest opening sentence

“Don’t look at yourself, look at the sky.”

Kari Hotakainen’s novel Natural Law (Luonnon laki 2013) begins when the protagonist Rautala has been in a fierce car crash. Ambulance paramedic speaks to him when he is barely conscious, covered in blood with broken bones sticking out of clothes. – Don’t look at yourself, look at the sky. Genius of the words lies in ambiguity. You find yourself reflecting on the poetic and philosophical dimensions of the words. I think it is the best opening sentence I have read in a long time or maybe ever.

Kari Hotakainen was planning a new novel. The theme would be the Finnish welfare state and the main character would live in a senior citizens’ house. The novelist did have, however, himself a violent car accident and had a long and difficult recovery process. When he was able to write again, he wrote a tragicomedy novel about Finnish welfare state where the main character is hospitalized after a car crash.
In the novel the protagonist Rautala is an entrepreneur, who has been avoiding paying taxes, has worked in moonshine, as the saying goes in Finnish. Knowing that his treatment will be paid from tax revenues, Rautala’s feelings after the accident are a mixture of shame, relief and guilt. “All of these people only for one person. Don’t they know who I am, nobody. What does it cost? When is the due day? Am I guilty?”
In the hospital he is struggling with his thoughts of guilty and hallucinating on pain medication. At one unstable moment he says something rude to a nurse who is exhausted from a heavy workload. Carelessly uttered words raise the suppressed emotions. That will affect the lives of both of them.

Rautala is a lonely man, a widow. His relationship with her daughter is complicated and the communication between them is loaded with misunderstandings. It is not easy to re-create the connection what they both need, because his first grandchild is about to born soon. Rautala’s elderly parents try to cope at their home being both in poor health. Rautala is also somehow distant and awkward with them.
The novel presents both sides of the Finnish welfare state. Hospital and rehabilitation works effectively despite the recession. In the other hand, people’s attitude has changed and people commonly think that the society takes care of people in need, even if they were their own family. In the book a visitor from Sierra Leone sets these things in perspective.
The novel was written quickly, in a couple of months. The author himself said he did not want to polish text too much. The text is powerful and compelling as it is. The sentences are flowing and aphoristic. The first sentence has remained in my mind among all the other immortal opening sentences.

Kari Hotakainen on left speaking at Helsinki Book Fair 2013.

How about you and the books you like? Do you have any favorite of the opening sentences in literary history?


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