This book came with high recommendations, having been translated into 25 languages, filmed twice, and also being included in the Unesco Collection of Representative Works (the purpose of which was to “translate masterpieces of world literature”). The book apparently has cult status in France (not a guarantee of popularity in Britain!). The cover art alone would sell The Year of the Hare and made me want to dip inside to see what the book’s content might be.
Its difficult to define this book. Its partly comic, but also comes into the category of fantasy, perhaps something along the lines of Baron Muchausen or Don Quixote, in that it is a set of fictional “adventures” which happen to the main character as he roams around the country. The stories concern Vatanen, a journalist who’s car injures a young hare, and who feels inspired to bind up the little hare’s leg and adopt it as a pet. The incident happens at a time of personal crisis for Vatanen with his both his job and his marriage being at an end , and he is prompted to break free from the constraints of his life and disappear into the vastness of Finland.
I have read Finnish books before and found a certain atmosphere of wildness about them. 75% of the country is covered with forests and woodland, and the boundaries reach well into the Arctic Circle. The winters are fierce and days in the remote communities are very short, giving Finnish literature an almost claustrophobic feel, alternating with a sense of vast forests and wilderness. Tove Jansson‘s books are full of this sense of remoteness, of isolation, and when reading The Year of the Hare I picked up the sense of crowded rooms with people huddled around a wood-burning stove, soon to be evicted into a world of snowy marshes, the habitation of wild bears.
I think its important not to try to make a lot of sense of this book. Peculiar things happen and often small details just don’t sound right –
- a taxi driver who offers to store wild leaves and grasses in his home for the hare to eat later,
- Vatanen driving a solitary cow through a marsh,
- a Pastor who shoots himself in the foot just before a wedding but carries on with the ceremony dripping blood on the floor before going to the hospital,
- a woman at an official dinner who finds hare droppings in her soup and merely fishes them out with her spoon before continuing to eat.
Its all a little bizarre. But these are mere curiosities compared with the greater mystery of Vatanen whose adventures take him into fighting forest fires, getting involved with military manoeuvres, venturing up into Russia in chase of a bear and getting arrested as a spy, going on binge-drinking spree and getting engaged to a remakably laid-back young woman. And all of this accompanied by the little hare of course, who attracts interest wherever he goes.
I spent a lot of time wondering about this hare. Is it really possible to adopt a hare? I think of them as very wild creatures with peculiar habits, full of speed and energy. Thes hare in Paasilinna’s book seems to behave more like a rabbit: “Vatanen was sitting on a bench in Central Park. The hare was nosing about in the grass for something to eat”. But I did a little research and found that the poet William Cowper kept tame hares. It was reported that “they would lie like dogs in front of the fire and race to greet the baker in order to lick the flour off his apron”. So perhaps the possibility of a tame hare is not so bizarre after all.
The story ends as strangely as it begins, and confirms the fantastic nature of the story. In and ending reminiscent of The Ascension of Christ, we say goodbye to Vatanen, and the author reveals something of his thoughts on his fictional creation:
As I see it, Vatanen’s personal history and manner of conduct reveal him to be a true revolutionary, a true subversive, and therein lies the secret of his greatness. Watching Vatanen tenderly stroking the hare’s fur in his dismal cell, is if he were its dam, I was aware what human solidarity may entail.
I wasn’t sure whether I was going to enjoy this book. I read it a few weeks ago and have just skimmed through it again, taking notes so I could write this review. I think I preferred it the second time around, and am left thinking that perhaps it is rather special, and I can see why Unesco chose it for their representative works collection. While its not really up my street I’m pleased I read it, and will keep it on my shelves rather than recycling it.
Title: The Year of the Hare
Author: Arto Paasilinna
Translator: Herbert Lomas
Publication: Peter Owen Ltd (1 May 2006), Paperback, 140pages
ISBN: 9780720612776 /
David Binder in The New York Times
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