“Two harassed men were driving down a lane . . . . The beauty of the Finnish evening was lost on them both . . . . The hopes of their youth had not been realized, far from it. They were husbands, deceiving and deceived; stomach ulcers were on the way for both of them; and many other worries filled their days” (1). So begins Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare, a novel first published in Finland nearly forty years ago. In his 2010 introduction to Herbert Lomas’ translation, Pico Iyer extolls the work for “sounding in its freedom from received ideas of what is and isn’t important, a bracing declaration of independence for the enlightened truant inside each one of us” (xi).
Paasilinna’s novel speaks to that desire in all of us to just walk away, to begin again, to take time to see what is really important. Journalist Kaarlo Vatanen and a photographer are arguing about whether or not to return to Helsinki when their car hits a young hare breaking its leg. Vatanen follows the hare into the forest, splints its leg using his handkerchief, and sits down with the hare in his lap. The photographer loses patience and drives away leaving the two “abandoned” (3). The rest of the novel follows Vatanen’s picaresque voyage around Finland and into Russian Karelia always with the hare.
Most of the novel is written in the third person, but the “Afterword” switches to the first, when the narrator speaks for himself, asserting that Vatanen is “a revolutionary” and a “true subversive” (193) who “is a man to be reckoned with” (194).
Certainly, Vatenen reveals himself as a man prepared to deal with extremes and to journey to the edge. He removes himself further and further from Helsinki and the centre of every-day life to live on the edge of things, reliant on himself and on the kindness of strangers. The novel calls into question our acceptance of normal order. Vatenen and the hare survive outside the realms of mundane experience and societal expectation.
In its critique of society’s rules and conventions and in its picaresque, episodic structure of one misadventure following another, the novel reminds me very closely of Voltaire’s Candide, though Paasilinna’s conclusions differ somewhat from Voltaire’s. Paasilnna’s work, nevertheless, shares with Candide a studied naivety and simplicity to its organization and style that at first suggest only gentle satire. The second half of the work, I found a little bleaker, more bitter. Paasilinna’s Finland as experienced by the wandering Vatanen is a topsy-turvy world. It’s a world where rules conflict with rules; a world where a doctor asked for help sends for the police; where a Lutheran pastor runs amok with a gun in his own church and then conducts a wedding and delivers a homily. Ultimately, Vatanen transcends all rules, even the rules of material space, for he steps “through his cell wall into the exercise yard, crossed the open space to the exterior wall, and walked through that, too, into the freedom beyond” (194).
As is the case with all good comedy, The Year of the Hare is ultimately a very serious book. I sensed that when it came to Paasilinna’s social and political satire, I was missing quite a lot because of not being familiar with Finnish politics in the seventies. I was particularly interested in the fact that things reach a crisis point in Karelia, a part of Finland that has a long history of invasion, partition, and division. The history of Finland is rather tortured particularly in its relationships with Russia whether Tsarist or Soviet, and, if one is to believe some recent news reports, it may still have justification for remaining concerned about the intentions of post-soviet neighbour. (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/mar/31/vladimir-putin-wants-reclaim-finland-russia-former/ and http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ukraine-crisis/finland-frets-russia-launches-military-drills-its-doorstep-n67866).
But to return to the novel. By the time I’d finished the book, I realised that at the beginning, misled by its light-hearted tone and relatively contemporary setting, I had misplaced it as simply an entertaining challenge to contemporary life and mores. I realised that it belongs with those other works where the naïve hero is led into the forest on a quest of some kind. An impulsive Percival, Vatenen belongs with all those other heroes led by a mythical beast into the mysterious dark and aided in their quests by an enchanting woman. The Year of the Hare is a highly sophisticated Romance and as such opens itself to very engaging and thought-provoking analysis.
You may be interested in this blog I discovered while reading The Year of the Hare: http://www.moosereport.net/magic-finland-and-the-hare/