Monday, 25 April 2011

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

The Year of the Hare became a classic in Finland as soon as it was published 1975. Only two years later it was made into a film. It has since been translated into 25 languages and has also been selected as one of the representative masterpieces of literature by UNESCO.

It's midsummer and Vatanen, a newspaper journalist, together with a photographer from Helsinki; 'two dissatisfied, cynical men, getting on for middle age,' are on an assignment in Heinola, central Finland. 'The beauty of the Finnish summer evening is lost on them both' and they run over a hare. Vatanen jumps out of the car in search of the injured animal and instead of re-joining his colleague, spends the night in 'a sweet-smelling hayloft' with 'the hare lying in his armpit'.

So begins an adventure involving a man and a hare which includes a separation from his 'not very nice' wife, an arrest and friendship with a District Superintendent, a forest fire, a milk maid, a bear hunt, a Soviet border crossing, a drunken binge or two (this is a Finnish book about a Finnish man after all) and a love affair.

As you read this book you begin to realise none of these things could really happen to just one man. What Arto Paasilinna's sparse prose describes instead is the common dream of all city dwellers - to up sticks and leave for the wilderness. He expresses the basic human need to be one with nature. It's admirable how Herbet Lomas has managed to convey the simple tone of the book in his excellent English translation (first published in the UK in 1995).

Arto Paasilinna's The Year of the Hare was published the same year as the Good Life was first screened on British TV; it was a time right after The Oil Crisis when people started to realise that the earth's resources were limited; when moving back to the country and appreciating old rural way of life became fashionable. But in the past thirty years this book has not lost any of its significance or topicality. The Soviet Union may have disintegrated, the Berlin Wall fallen, but we are still burning oil at a rate of knots and bears are still roaming free around the Eastern borders of Finland.

The Year of the Hare is also a wonderful insight into the Finnish psyche, particularly the mind of a Finnish man. I do not wish to comment on the lack of positive female role models in the book - unless a simple, undemanding milkmaid could be seen as one. The book was after all written about the time when my mother would have burned her bra - and as all Finnish women know, the Finn was one of the last to evolve into something even closely resembling a modern man. (You guessed it - that is a completely different conversation and one I should be conducting elsewhere - perhaps here?) Suffice to say that if you overlook a few issues of sexism and animal rights, this book is a delight to read - whether you are Finnish or not.

The Year of the Hare was the first Finnish book I bought The Englishman all those years ago. He liked it so much he recently reread it and again laughed out loud at the adventures of Vatanen and his hare.

For me, that's enough of a recommendation.

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