The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
Translated by Herbert Lomas, 1995
Apparently this slim volume first published in 1975 is a cult novel in France and has been translated into many languages including English, twenty years after publication. In Finland, it is much loved, and was Paasilinna’s personal favourite of his 36 novels. Passilinna, who died in 2018, is one of Finland’s most celebrated novellists; a former journalist who turned to writing comic novels. I was instantly smitten by the novella’s front cover, but what about the words inside?
Vatanen is a journalist, and he and a photographer are returning from an assignment way outside Helsinki. Two disillusioned cynics, near middle-age, bored, not with their eye on the road.
On the crest of a hillock, an immature hare was trying its leaps in the middle of the road. Tipsy with summer, it perched on its hind legs, framed by the red sun.
The photographer, who was driving, saw the little creature, but his dull brain reacted too slowly: a duty city shoe slammed hard on the brake, too late. The shocked animal leaped up in front of the car, there was a muffled thump as it hit the corner of the windscreen, and it hurtled off into the forest.
‘God! That was a hare.’ the journalist said.
‘Bloody animal – good thing it didn’t bust the windscreen.’ The photographer pulled up and backed to the spot. The journalist got out and ran into the forest.
And that’s the last the photographer sees of Vatanen!
Vatanen finds the hare which has a broken leg, splints it and puts it in his pocket – and keeps on walking. This incident was his tipping point, and he decides to free himself from all his commitments, except to the little hare. His job, his wife, his possessions, all are sloughed off for an itinerant life heading north, taking work as and when he finds or needs it, and always with his animal companion close by.
This episodic journey reminded me of that of the ‘100-year-old man‘ in Jonas Jonasson’s more recent hit novel, in about a third of the number of pages. Vatanen gets into many adventures and situations, often precipitated by the hare’s presence. Some of them are quite comic, others less so, and a couple are not so good for other wildlife. Most of Vatanen’s new jobs are manual work, repairing forest lodges and the like. At one stage he gets mixed up with a bear hunt, with the military and the visiting Foreign Minister’s hunting party including his wife. They’d had a close shave with a poor old bear, and Vatanen had let the minister’s wife cuddle the hare to recover from the shock; she was loath to let go of it, bringing it to dinner and feeding on the table.
The lady gave the hare some lettuce to eat, and it began eating voraciously. Its mouth went like a mill. A cry of delight went round the table. The hare was sharing a meal with the other members of the hunting trip! The company was audibly moved.
The general buzz alarmed the hare. It released a little cascade of pills on to the table-cloth. Some went into the Swedish lady’s soup. The hare wriggled out of her hands and bounced along the centre of the table, knocking a candlestick over and leaving panicky droppings smong the knives and forks. […]
Yes, she drank several mouthfuls of soup before the droppings became visible! Vatanen does well to extricate himself and the hare from this predicament, only to find himself in a yet more tricky situation.
For me, this book was one of those that thinks it’s funnier than it actually is. That’s due in large part to the episodic format I think, which throws Vatanen into a new situation and new peril for his hare every handful of pages. It was a good read, but not that good. There’s one other Paasilinna novel easily available in translation, The Howling Miller, which looks interesting – I’ll keep an eye out for it…
Source: Own copy. Peter Owen paperback, 135 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)