I don’t know how many among my readers have ever dabbled in Finnish literature. I, for one, can’t boast to have done it too often, with the exception of one author: Arto Paasilinna. Which is kind of crazy; I have grown up listening to Finnish music, I have watched a bunch of Finnish movies, and am generally in love with Finland. It was clear that I had to remedy this regrettable situation as soon as possible.
And that’s what I did.
Introducing The Year of the Hare.
A journalist and a photographer set out on an assignment on a lovely sunny evening. As they drive through the country they hit a young hare. Vatanen, the journalist, leaves the car and goes in search of the injured creature. The grateful animal adopts Vatanen and together the two scamper through farcical adventures and political scandal.
So how did I hear about Arto Paasilinna? You may have heard me mention a band called Sonata Arctica. They hail from Kemi, a little town in the Laplands, one of the coldest and darkest corners of Europe. I grew up listening to their music, taking in their lyrics, getting lost in the stories they told. And there was one pervasive theme that could be found in all their songs: a deep-rooted love for nature.
I discovered Arto Paasilinna because of Sonata Arctica’s Black Sheep. This is an incredibly confusing and obscure song, whose lyrics don’t make a lot of sense. I immediately set to ask St Google what in the world that song could possibly mean, and then I discovered that Black Sheep is based on a Finnish novel called The Howling Miller—also by Arto Paasilinna, and another book which I will get to review in time. At the time (this was about 14 years ago) the novel had still not been translated into English, which left me a very sad teenager 😦
13 years later, I’m a bookseller at Blackwell’s, one of the biggest bookshops in the UK. And the first thing you do when you work in a huge bookshop is look up all the books you wished you had in their database. It was at that time that I, half-jokingly, looked up The Howling Miller. I think my heart gave a leap when I discovered we had in stock. That long-elusive novel had finally been translated into English!
Needless to say, after reading The Howling Miller, Black Sheep‘s lyrics made a lot more sense. I will eventually get to that. But at that moment I loved Arto Paasilinna so much, I decided to carry on with another—more famous—of his novels: The Year of the Hare.
Dear God, that was a long-winded introduction!
The Year of the Hare, written in 1975, is the tale of Kaarlo Vatanen, a journalist who hates his life, his wife, and everything in between. One day, when going on a journey with his car, he hits and almost kills a hare. With a sudden spark of inspiration, he decided to run into the wilderness to care for the hare and restore it to full health.
From that point on, the adventures the two of them live together are both bizarre and endearing. Vatanen goes from being a completely useless firefighter, to scavenging and selling illegally tons of war artifacts salvaged from a river, to crashing a diplomatic party with an angry bear in tow. Some situations are so absurd, one can’t help but laugh aloud. And yet, Vatanen and the hare are so endearing, their relationship is so adorable, that one can’t help but root for them.
In a novel that presents the theme of nature vs. civilisation, the ending presents Vatanen being tried for crimes he was not aware at the time he was committing. Faced with the threat of prison, his only hope is a new girlfriend who it just so happens is also a lawyer…
This was one of my most surprising reads of 2016. It’s a completely different book from anything written in the UK or the USA—a novel with a spirit of its own. If you can find anywhere to get it, I would very much recommend you to give it a chance. And if you have already read it, please let me know what you thought 🙂 for now, I’ll leave you with one of its most beautiful quotes…
Sometimes conceiving an affection for an animal is easier than for a human.
—Arto Paasilinna, The Year of the Hare