The Year of the Hare
By Arno Paasilinna
Peter Owen Publishers, 1995
UNESCO Collection of Representative Works
General reading value: 4.5/5
Armchair travel value: 3.5/5
Fly-by summary: Man in mid-life crisis maims hare with car. Man decides to abandon unfulfilling career and unhappy marriage, adopts hare and embarks on a series of adventures with the animal, traversing much of Finland in the process.
Why this book? Intrigued by the plot; also figured that as it has been listed as a UNESCO Representative Work and is therefore considered to be “a masterpiece of world literature”, it would be likely to give a strong depiction of Finland. I also thought it was quite fitting to finish 2010 with this book for two reasons. The first is that one of the towns that the protagonist visits is Rovaniemi in Lapland. This is the home of Santa Claus’ Village:
The second reason why this is a good book to finish 2010 with is that 2011 is the Chinese Year of the Hare!
Take the full tour review: You will see from the above that I have changed my layout for reviewing the books. This is designed so that the important information i.e. my ratings and the general plot, are available in a quick and digestible form suitable for those who may want to simply “fly-by” rather than “take the full tour” of each post.
I have also added a section about why I have chosen the particular book as I have found that many people ask me what motivates my final choice for each country and I would also like to keep this as a record to remind myself of the many and varied sources I have been drawing upon to hunt down the gems I have been reading.
On to the review of The Year of the Hare and the first thing I have to say is what is up with the fact that so many of the books I have read so far have featured the following two common elements:
1. Males in mid-life who abandon very average, ordinary existences to go on exciting – and often bizarre – adventures.
2. Animals as pivotal characters – Montmerency in Three Men in a Boat; Sammy Davis Junior Junior in Everything is Illuminated; Noboru Wataya (cat) in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and now the hare in The Year of the Hare?
I don’t know whether this says something about my reading tastes or that there are a lot of world literature tomes that have these characteristics but it was rather strange to find myself reading The Year of the Hare after The Wind-up Bird Chronicle given that both books feature an ordinary, average man who, in the pursuit of an animal, end up on a journey that is anything but ordinary and average.
Whereas The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was fantastical, The Year of the Hare is quirky. Kaarlo Vatanen is a burnt-out journalist who is travelling in a car with another journalist from Heinola to Heksinki when they accidentally hit a hare. Vatanen goes after the animal and finds its leg badly injured. His co-worker tires of waiting for him and leaves him stranded in the forest with the hare. For some inexplicable reason, this occurrence ignites a flame in Vatanen’s belly and he decides to abandon his unsatisfying job and unhappy marriage to get back to nature and travel Finland…with the hare.
Vatanen sells his boat, clears out his bank account and obtains a permit to own the hare, finding out that it is not a March Hare but, in fact, was born in June (hence my title for this post!). He then travels to Nurmes where he seeks accommodation from a couple who, perhaps rather forgivably, are scared off by the fact that some strange man with a hare has randomly appeared on the doorstep and they call the police. Vatanen is arrested but manages to charm the officers and their superintendent, the latter inviting Vatanen and the hare to stay with him and a retired colleague in a fishing cabin. The retired superintendent is completely loopy and entertains Vatanen with his conspiracy theories about President Kekkonen who was the Prime Minister of Finland from 1950-56 and then the longest serving President (1956-1982).
A huge forest fire then breaks out in Vehmasjarvi and Vatanen goes to help fight it where he encounters another band of odd forest dwellers. He then accompanies a woman herding cows to Sonkajarvi. There he decides to sleep in a church and when the Priest arrives to find a hare in the alcoves, the Priest’s farcical attempts to kill the hare provide some of the most amusing moments in the book.
Vatanen and the hare (having survived this ordeal) then move onto Kihmo where Vatanen takes a forestry job, waxes lyrical – “Anyone could have this life, he reflected, provided they had the nous to give up the other way of life” – and encounters a kleptomaniac, gluttonous raven before taken another job repairing a cabin in Lapland. Further adventures ensue – including getting blind drunk and ending up married (indeed, by this stage, one has to wonder if this is the Finnish version of a bad Vegas trip!) – culminating with Vatanen hunting a bear and accidentally crossing the border into Russia where once again he has to call on his charm and cunning to deal with authorities.
And Vatanen is charming, or maybe it is endearing, I am not sure. All I know is that rather than find it completely unrealistic and strange that a man could take off into the forest with a hare for months on end, the way this book is written this comes across as not only normal but somewhat appealing – who among us hasn’t occasionally though about chucking in the city life and hours in front of a computer to go on a road trip (or, in this case, a foot-tractor-police car-private plane-ski trip), with no fixed destination and the opportunity to truly be part of nature?
As for the cultural value of this book, it is easy to see why UNESCO chose it as a representative work for Finland. The descriptions of the country are evocative and detailed and the span of Vatanen’s trip – ranging from the very bottom of Finland to the icy top – provide the opportunity to showcase the variety of weather, flora, fauna, people and lifestyles that this Nordic country has to offer. One of the more interesting passages involves a skiing instructor named Karkinnen describing ancient Finn-Ugrian religious practices and rites that he practices – a description enforced from him in defense of his attempts to kill the poor hare and use it as a sacrificial offering to the gods.
I loved this book and I don’t find it at all surprising that it has been translated into 25 languages and enjoyed for more than 30 years. The writing style is timeless, the humour is natural, wry and sometimes even quite black, and the story suspenseful and unpredictable. I could happily read it again and it made me want to visit Lapland which I can’t say has ever been on my radar before.
See you next time when we will be in Senegal!
The Literary Nomad xx
Itinerary: Heinola – Mikkeli – Kupio – Nurmes – Nilsia -Rautavaara – Sonkajarvi – Kuhmo -Rovaniemi – Posio – Sodankyla – Sompio – Rovaniemi – Helsinki – Kruununhaka – Kerava – Riihimaki – Turenki – Janakkala – Tamisaari – Salo – Turku – Karjalohja – Lapland – Petrozavodsk (Russia) – leningrad – Helsinki.
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Language: Finnish, Swedish
Religion: Evangelical Lutheran
Delay your stay: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson; The Seven Brothers by Alexis Kivi; Popular Music from Vittula – Mikael Niemi; The Maid Silja by Frans Emil Sillanap; Under the North Star by Vaino Linna; Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo