Terve everyone !
Last week-end, I asked my brother to choose the country that would follow Argentina for my challenge…why did he choose Finland ? Maybe because one of the things you need to know about me is that I have been fascinated by this country for years. Don’t ask me why, I couldn’t really explain. It is certainly because of my general attraction for countries of Northern Europe, or because of the fact that I chose this place to be the home country of the characters of one of the first stories I have ever written. Anyway, I dream of visiting Finland (I even know a few words in Finnish) and when I realized that I hadn’t even looked for a book from there for my list, I immediately worked to rectify this. For its promising résumé and its intriguing title, I selected a piece by one of the most famous Finnish-speaking authors today : The Year of the Hare, by Arto Paasilinna.
In this book, we follow the trip of Vatanen, a man who suddenly decides to give up his unsatisfying life : he abandons his colleague who was driving him back home in the middle of nowhere, and consequently leaves his job, his wife to get off the beaten track. This quite crazy opening agreeably surprised me, and even more knowing that it is one of the most humorous moments of the whole book. Indeed, the way he changes his mind from “back home” to “freedom in nature” is already incredibly unexpected ; but he also has trouble to really achieve this envy. Why ? Because even if initially, he disappears in the wild without anyone caring at all (really, neither his boss nor his wife react to his vanishing at first), then all the people of his close circle finally change their minds and want him to come back to his business as usual…and this leads to a funny “hide and seek”, with Vatanen escaping from all the other people in the streets. This scene completely astonished me, because of its burlesque tone so different from the rest of the text.
As a matter of fact, after this extravagant interlude and apart from another one, darker and later, the story assumes a more peaceful, almost lulling pace. Of course, Vatanen encounters a lot of contingencies (from the forest fire to a dangerous hangover) and of characters each one more unusual than the last. Of course, we meet that gallery of extraordinary outlandish people that always appears in that kind of stories (let’s say, stories of comical/initiatory journeys) : among them an old fisherman who created his own conspiracy theory, a alcoholic logger and animals, animals everywhere (cows and crows, a bear…and of course the well-known hare)… Still, I mostly felt like I was letting myself being carried away by Arto Paasilinna’s storytelling skills, towards a bucolic universe full of nice people. Even when Vatanen is arrested by the police, they show understanding and treat him friendly, and when he needs to eat he can just stop by the next house without any problem. This gives an insight of a convivial, tolerant, charming Finland.
And yet, there are also way more unpleasant moments : everytime our hero gets close to too many people, everything goes wrong. If he comes to town, he is endangered by despicable neighbours ; if he stays alone in Lapland, a group of officials barge in to disturb him and accuse him of all the evil that happens around them. Clearly, townspeople are not the good guys in this book, which appears to be a heartfelt ode to solitude…and rurality (among other things, it s visible in the valuation of manual labour, the change of atmosphere between city and countryside…). Arto Paasilinna’s writing style is totally fit for this story : simple, unpretentious, straightforward, it is very natural. Here, there are no strong punchlines that urge us to further thought, and no complicated sentences with multiple stylistic devices. The narration is smooth, and the reflection comes to mind on its own, from the way the different themes are dealt with.
I liked a lot of things in this novel, and I had a lovely time reading it. Although, and despite its strenghts, I did not have the book-crush I was hoping for when I picked it up. Maybe it is because its résumé made me imagine a wacky odyssey similar to Jonas Jonasson’s The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (which I loved), or maybe because I was wishing so hard to have a…like, an epiphany concerning Finnish litterature ? In any case, I have been a bit disappointed.
The Year of the Hare is a beautiful fable on nature, displaying an attractive depiction of Finland (at least visually, because we definitely can imagine the landscapes that are described) : we almost care more about the country itself than about Vatanen, simple traveller without a real goal. However, the résumé was advertising for an ecologic novel which I didn’t find here. Even if Vatanen’s life comes out as way more successful when he is alone in the wild, he also violently confronts nature sometimes, without any afterthought or regret. In the end, I think that what I read was more something against human society and its consequences (political hypocrisy, injustice…) than for fauna and flora’s protection. Not less interesting of course, but sure enough not what I expected.
It is possible that I missed some deeper points that the author wanted to make, as I read this book as a frankly innocuous distraction. Nevertheless, I know that I will remember for a long time that sympathetic and relaxing reading, that made me travel across a country that captivates me so much. More than just its humble story and its initiatory aspect, The Year of the Hare also fetched me a lot of real contextual details of the 1970s Finland. And, fortunately, it always kept that surrealistic touch that gives it its charm.
> PAASILINNA, Arto –Le lièvre de Vatanen, Gallimard, Folio – translated from Finnish by Anne Colin du Terrail.
> written listening to “Maamme” .