One of the biggest pleasures of this column has been the discovery of books and authors from regions of the world that I have not yet familiarised myself with.
When I picked up The Year Of The Hare by Arto Paasilinna, it struck me that this would be the very first work of Finnish literature I had ever read (unless you count the occasional Moomin comic by Tove Jansson, which, while being Finnish, was originally written in Swedish).
As it turns out, Paasilinna is one of Finland’s most successful authors, and one of the few who have achieved great acclaim outside of his homeland. The Year Of The Hare, meanwhile, is considered to be his best-known work, having been translated into 18 languages. While the book was published in 1975, an English translation only came out in 1995.
Now, it is a tall order for any one author or book to fully represent an entire country, and if you go into The Year Of The Hare anticipating some kind of revelation on Finnish literature or culture, you are more than likely to be disappointed. This particular book is simultaneously bigger and smaller than that.
Bigger in the sense that Paasilinna almost seems to be telling us a modern fable, using broad strokes and themes that most contemporary urban dwellers can identify with.
The story begins as Kaarlo Vatanen, a journalist who is frustrated with his job, marriage, and life in general, hits a hare with his car. On a sudden whim, Vatanen leaves his old life behind and starts living with the hare in the wilderness. The rest of the book is a series of fascinating and often comical episodes involving Vatanen and his hare’s adventures around the small towns and countryside of Finland.
Even 40 years after it was first published, there is an irresistible pull to The Year Of The Hare’s picaresque narrative as it contrasts a petty, shackled, urban existence with the unfettered life of someone who willingly turns his back on civilisation as we know it. Within this wide, sweeping scope, it hardly matters if the reader is Finnish or Malaysian – it is instantly and poignantly familiar.
And yet when I say the book is also small, I mean it as praise, for it is in the tiny, almost casually woven details that the book’s true Finnishness seems to lie.
Paasilinna imbues his writing with a certain personality that must come from his particular experience of his country – the clipped, frank way characters speak to each other, the wildness of the natural settings, the constant presence of the outdoors, and a certain distance in communication that is oddly contrasted with an easy hospitality.
Whether this is something that still exists, or ever did really exist outside the author’s imagination, I’m not in a position to say. And certainly, the book’s increasingly whimsical and ultimately almost-mystical ending makes it even more vague.
Yet, having trekked and skied with Vatanen while outsmarting a raven, hunting a bear, and surviving a forest fire, it is almost possible to feel a yearning for the Finnish wilderness of Paasilinna’s creation yourself.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.