The sixth destination of my summer reading challenge called Around Europe in 14 Books is also the last Scandinavian country on the list before I move to another part of the continent.
The country is Finland and the novel is The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna. He is one of the most successful writers in Finland and one of the most famous Finnish authors abroad. This 1975 novel, which was Paasilinna’s first work and is his own favourite, has been translated into several languages and has been a bestseller in France. There are also two films based on it: the first one is a Finnish film made in 1977 and the other is French, from 2006.
It’s my first time reading a Finnish novel and this one made me think of a couple of other Nordic books that I have read in the past weeks. Read on to understand why.
Read the previous posts:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #6: Finland
The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
Original name: Jäniksen vuosi (Finnish)
Author: Arto Paasilinna
Translator: Herbert Lomas
Publisher: Peter Owen Publishers
Genre: literary fiction, humour
Location: several places from Helsinki up to Lapland, Finland
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Vatanen the journalist is sick of his job and fed up with city life. One summer evening while he is out on an assignment his car hits a young hare on a country road. Vatanen goes in search of the the injured creature, and this small indicent becomes a life-changing experience as he decides to break free from the world’s constraints. He quits his job, leaves his wife, sells his possessions and sets out for the Finnish wilds with his new-found friend. Their adventures take in forest fires, pagan sacrifices, military war games, killer bears and much more.
Kaarlo Vatanen is a man close to middle age who is secretly fed up of his life in Helsinki. He is disillusioned by his job as a journalist, he is stuck in an unhappy marriage to a woman he doesn’t like, and he is burdened by the home loan that he still needs to pay.
One day, while he and his photographer are driving back to the city from an assignment, they hit a young hare. Vatanen goes into the forest to find the injured animal and never returns to the car, leading the frustrated photographer to leave him behind. While taking care of the wild creature and its injured leg, Vatanen decides to never go back home. He arranges the sale of his boat to his friend and manages to get the hefty sum from a bank in Heinola, all while avoiding his angry wife and work colleagues who had traced him to the small village and were expecting to take him back to the city. It’s interesting that, when I checked Paasilinna’s Wikipedia page, I saw that he too was dissatisfied with journalism and also sold his boat to finance the writing of this novel.
After leaving Heinola, Vatanen becomes a vagrant and starts a road trip to the North along with the hare. From time to time and from village to village, he takes temporary jobs which are typical of the place and closely related to nature, such as tree-felling or log-breaking. He lives like a traditional Finn, quiet and solitary. His quest is to escape modern city life and discover the freedom which is supposed to belong to humans, as much as it belongs to wild animals such as his hare. However, everywhere he goes, he encounters random strangers, who prove to be either friends or foes and who disrupt his solitude. Most of the happenings that ensue are bizarre and are the main source of the humour of the book.
Yet these occurrences also uncover a major fault in Vatanen’s search for peace and liberty; that is, that it’s impossible for the man to avoid the strictures of modern life. As he delves deeper into traditional Finnish life immersed in nature, we see that issues pertaining to lawfulness, money and morality still hinder the man’s process to attaining complete freedom. The hare, who is docile and loyal to Vatanen, is perhaps the catalyst for many of the events in which the guy finds himself and the animal also serves as a connection between Vatanen and the strangers. It feels like the power of nature is knocking on modern life’s door.
For several chapters, Vatanen moves from one place to another, till he reaches Lapland. Each chapter is marked by particular situations and these, as well as Vatanen’s journey, are interesting and amusing to read. But the narration goes on in a regular manner which is not particularly exciting to read. At one point there is a sudden change, though, in Chapter 19. Here the story becomes momentarily a mystery/thriller, jumping directly to Vatanen’s condition and mysterious whereabouts, which are unravelled during this particular chapter. The successive chapter opens in a similar manner. This change in narration felt so abrupt that it jolted me and piqued my attention as, at that point, I had been thinking that the book was becoming boring.
The last couple of chapters sort of leave every trace of realism and the story almost becomes fantastical and absurd, as Vatanen is off to chase a raging Lapland bear and unknowingly ends up crossing the border to Soviet Russia. The whole situation and what happens to Vatanen later after he’s found in Russia is emblematic to the theme of Man’s quest for freedom away from social rules.
If you’ve read my previous reviews, you should have noticed by now that this story of a man who travels with a tamed wild animal with the wish of connecting with Nature sounds very similar to something that I have read and reviewed a couple of weeks ago. First of all, the opening of the novel, with Vatanen and the photographer hitting a hare with their car reminds me of the opening of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, in which the protagonist drives over a goose and then is off on a road trip of self-discovery. The most striking similarity is with Erlend Loe’s Doppler, in which a man who hates modern life retreats into a forest and befriends a young elk. It must be a Nordic thing!
I can’t help but draw a comparison between The Year of the Hare and Doppler and my conclusion is that I liked Paasilinna’s novel a little less than Loe’s. The first reason is that, despite it being promoted as “Finnish wit as sharp as the Arctic weather” by the Mail on Sunday, the book was not as witty or humourous as I had expected it to be. Yes, the situations are definitely amusing in their own way and I could understand the sarcastic jabs at modern life, however, it was all subtle. The second reason is that I expected more introspection or at least more of Vatanen’s personal opinions. Sometimes they were there, but I was left wanting more. By contrast, I felt that Doppler was wittier and funnier. I always knew what was going on in Doppler’s mind because of the ‘in-your-face’ kind of humour in the first-person narration. On the other hand, the story in The Year of the Hare is told in the third person (in the end, the narrator is personified as a journalist who is writing about Vatanen’s life, hence another nod at the real-life author). That perhaps explains the limit on Vatanen’s personal thoughts and feelings, yet I still wished to read more of these.
On the whole, The Year of the Hare is an interesting and amusing read which sheds light on Finnish culture and which gives food for thought. I would recommend it to readers who are particularly interested in Finnish literature and culture, especially to those who love nature, but do not expect thrills or overt humour. It is all subtle, as quiet as a Finn lost in nature can be.