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the year of the hare

31 january 2011

The back cover of the new Penguin paperback of Arto Paasilinna's novel The Year of the Hare says that it's in the "tradition of Watership Down, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and The Life of Pi." I can't think of three books that have less in common with one another, and none of them has anything in common with The Year of the Hare. I suppose all four books have animals in them. This is unremarkable, because almost all books have animals in them somewhere. Moby-Dick, The Wind in the Willows, and Seabiscuit have animals in them too, but I'm not sure there's a tradition there. And The Year of the Hare has just as much in common with those three books.

I have always gotten a kick out of reviews in higher-middlebrow magazines – The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic – that begin with sentences like "The subtlest aspect of recent Bulgarian fiction is how the country's novelists deal with the angst of contemporary selfhood," or some such. As if we were all hanging on the edge of our seats waiting for new novels from Bulgaria to fit into our extensive mental map of postmodernist Balkan literature. So in the case of The Year of the Hare, I will offer a full confession: it's the first Finnish novel I've ever read. (I have never read one from Bulgaria, either, BTW.)

How to frame The Year of the Hare and Paasilinna within the worldview of Finnish postmodernists poses few problems for me: I don't know Richard about it, and any other aspect of Finnish literature that I encounter will have to get filtered through The Year of the Hare and not the other way around. Something inevitably gets lost in translation with a reader as ignorant as I am, even if the translation is fine (Herbert Lomas's, here, is spare and energetic). For example, at one point in The Year of the Hare a character named Hannikainen starts to elaborate a conspiracy theory about a Finnish president named Kekkonen. There's got to be a bundle of Kekkonen-related hilarity here that I will just never get.

Fortunately, The Year of the Hare is not much about Finnish political satire, and lots about a man and his hare. A novel it did remind me of is Percival Everett's Suder (1983): also about a 30something man who abandons the middle class to wander around the country with an animal (in Suder's case, an elephant). Unless Everett is fluent in Finnish, he can't have read The Year of the Hare before writing Suder; Paasilinna's novel wasn't even translated into French until 1989. But something of the Zeitgeist of the 70s and 80s is present in both novels: guy gets desolately fed up and can relate only to non-humans and staying on the move.

The mode of The Year of the Hare, then, is picaresque. Our hero Vatanen's wandering lifestyle allows him to interact with weird and wonderful characters as he makes his way further and further north. Into what William Gass would have called the heart of the heart of the country, only this being Scandinavia, it's a snowy and bear-populated heart. Vatanen and his hare cannot bear very much human companionship; society always seems to mess things up after too long. Instead, a job where Vatanen can work with his hands, and plenty of greens to eat, are what they continually seek, and continually have to move to keep finding.

The writer Paasilinna most reminds me of is Kurt Vonnegut. That may be a parochial observation from an American who was a student in the 1970s, but it's a tip for those readers who are wondering if they'd like The Year of the Hare: if you like Vonnegut, you probably will. Vonnegut, though, while he loves episodic farragoes, borrows more from science fiction and fantasy than Paasilinna does (at least in this one novel). Everything in The Year of the Hare is realistic enough; it just couldn't possibly happen to one man and one hare in one year.

We're still in Cold War territory in a 1975 novel, of course, and on one of its coldest frontiers. Vatanen ends his journeys in the USSR, though the Iron Curtain wasn't very ferric in furthest Lapland; "there hadn't been a single strand of barbed wire to snag his skis" (184). When Vatanen encounters the Soviets, there's good humor, along the lines of The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming.

But all is not a romp. The cover of the 2010 Penguin paperback suggests that you're fixing to read a heartwarming man-and-his-bunny story. (The spine features the most darling bunny I've ever seen.) But beware. There's more corrosion than moral renewal in The Year of the Hare. And though its central relationship between man and animal is genuinely affecting, this is not a book about some St. Francis of Lapland – or even Farley Mowat. Two problematic scenes involve Vatanen displaying true cruelty toward an animal. (Not his hare, of course.) The animals have displayed cruelty toward him, so our sympathies get somewhat divided. But The Year of the Hare is not all innocence, and it's all the better a novel for that.

Paasilinna, Arto. The Year of the Hare. [Jäniksen vuosi, 1975.] Translated by Herbert Lomas, 1995. First US edition 2006. New York: Penguin, 2010.