Friday 22 February 2013

The Year of the Hare by Aarto Paasilinna

Did you realise Donald Duck is called Aku Ankka in Finland and according to an urban myth he was banned there in the 1970s for not wearing any pants? As Finns are known for stripping off in the sauna at the slightest provocation, it seems unlikely they would have a hang up about a cartoon duck's naked bottom (and isn't it actually weirder that Donald wears a jacket?), but it's one of the nuggets I stumbled across when I decided to discover a little bit more about Finland.

Embarking on my second Finnish novel of the year (albeit by the same author), I reckoned I should find out more about this northern land of the midnight sun. What do you know about Finland? If you're anything like me you know that, besides a national love of saunas and the sun not setting in the summer, its capital is Helsinki, it's cold and covered in conifers and - that's about it, really.

Well, apart from learning about Donald, my search also revealed that in between the pine trees Finland is full of lakes and the sun that hangs around all summer doesn't get above the horizon in winter, when everything is bathed in an eerie blue light called kaamos.

It's also the most sparsely populated country in the EU with only 5.4 million inhabitants, but has a high standard of living and a well regarded education system. And, one of its most celebrated writers is Arto Paasilinna, author of The Year of the Hare.

Now, I really loved Paaslinna's The Howling Miller (read my review here) and it's anarchic protagonist and that lead me to recommend The Year of the Hare as one of our next book club reads. This is Paasilinna's best known novel about world-weary journalist Kaarlo Vatanen who, while on an assignment, runs over a hare and, after rescuing the injured creature, embarks on a new life leaving his job, his wife and all  his possessions behind in Helsinki.

The premise is wonderful and the sparseness of the text embodies the spaces of Finland. Vatanen realises, soon after finding the hare that
He didn't like his wife. There was something not very nice about her: she'd been unpleasant, or at any rate, totally bound up with number one, all their married life.
That's it, I thought, I love this book, even though I felt a shiver of recognition in this wife who
never wore (her clothes) for more than a while because, once on, they soon lost their allure for her
I too believe the clothes I buy will somehow create a newly minted, streamlined me, and when they don't achieve the impossible, I reject them. I was looking forward to hearing more about Vatanen's relationship with this unpleasant and interesting wife, so imagine my disappointment when she quickly disappears from the narrative. Vatannen sells his boat to a friend, which funds his year of leoparine self-discovery, gives his wife and colleagues the slip and heads off into deepest, fir-lined Finland. The hare's wounds gradually heal and Vatanen rejects city living and reconnects with nature through a series of darkly comic land-based adventures.

The situations and characters in each episode are truly comic, from the crazed bulldozer operator who drives his machine into a lake and then berates the onlookers for not rescuing him quickly enough to the hard bitten lumberjack Kurko who learns to swim and then finds a cache of weapons left behind by the Germans at the bottom of the river. The hare polarises opinion among those they meet but never fails to provoke a reaction; meanwhile, Vatanen lives on the fringes of society and moves further and further away from civilisation as he makes his way north, steadfast only in his devotion to his adopted wild companion. Each adventure, however, is more or less unrelated, and apart from the the bond between Vatanen and his hare, there is little other character development to be found.

Paasilinna was a journalist who became  disaffected with his occupation and sold his boat to fund his writing of this story, so it's clearly in no small part based on his own life. I loved the book's quirkiness, but wanted to know more about the reactions of those Vatanen left behind - I was hoping his wife and colleagues might reappear in their awfulness, but as they didn't I found I had little feeling one way or another for what became of him. My other quibble was the translation which occasionally seemed to miss the mark - the use of English money and words such as 'quid' seemed rather out of place in the Arctic Circle.

This is a picaresque novel with a fable-like quality and I can imagine it being very effective as a play or a film.
I liked it, but maybe not quite as much as The Howling Miller, even though the humour and many of the themes are similar. And, along the way I enjoyed finding out more about Finland, Aku Annka and the supposed banning of his bottom, even though on the evidence of this novel, there's no way it would have been of any concern whatsoever.
(image courtesy of Disney)

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