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The Year of the Hare

August 25, 2019

I got The Year of the Hare, by Arto Paasilinna, as a gift, and on the face of it, it does seem like the kind of book I’d enjoy, about a guy who escapes from his workaday life in Helsinki and travels around Finland with a wild hare that he tamed after it was hit by a car. A blurb on the back describes it as “comic misadventures” and “a novel in the tradition of Watership Down, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Life of Pi.” I found it neither comic nor having anything in common with those three novels except that it has an animal in it.

The main character, Vatanen, is a journalist before his photographer’s car hits the hare. He works for a magazine which, he says, “succeeded, not by transmitting information—by diluting it, muffling its significance, cooking it into chatty entertainment.” He is married, but to a woman he doesn’t like: “apart from sailing, Vatanen had no particular pastimes. His wife sometimes suggested going to the theater, but he had no wish to go out with her: he got enough of her voice at home.”

Among his wacky adventures, Vatanen goes fishing with a conspiracy theorist who shows him “drawings on graph paper, showing careful longitudinal sections of human crania” to prove that President Kekkonen (Finnish politician 1956-81) was replaced in 1968 by a different man. He propositions a woman who admires the hare by saying “would you like to take it to bed with you?…You can, if you like. Provided you take me as well.” He sleeps in a pew of a church and when the pastor comes in and finds the hare in his church, Vatanen watches him chase it around and then shoot at it, destroying a painting over the altar: “it was a picture of the Redeemer on the Cross, and the bullet had pierced Christ’s kneecap.” This is where I started to think maybe the book is kind of like a Soviet satire, and maybe the point of this escapade was to make fun of religion. If there is a point, however, it seems to be delight in cruelty, as the adventure ends with the pastor conducting an entire marriage ceremony with a hole shot through his foot, bleeding through his shoe, before he can go to the hospital and Vatanen can go back to sleep.

After the church, Vatanen’s adventures are more cruel. He cuts open a tin of meat in a way that ensures that a raven who has been stealing his food will be trapped and killed. When this happens, he doesn’t regret the loss of the tin because “there was more raven’s blood in the tin than meat.” He thinks his cruelty is funny:
“there was enough cruelty in him to laugh out loud at his foul play.
And it looked as if even the hare might be laughing too.”

Vatanen does rescue his hare from the clutches of a passing ski instructor who makes it a “practice to immolate living creatures—sometimes a Siberian jay trapped in a net, sometimes a snared willow grouse, even a puppy bought in Ivalo.”

But then he gets caught up in a bear hunt which begins when a battalion of soldiers carrying out a three day military exercise in the woods disturb a hibernating bear. Vatanen follows them to their base, where that night there is a fire, and he watches from a tree as “the men’s faces, black and frostbitten, looked improbable, hardly human; they were more like a chain of Moomins” before going back into the woods to retrieve the hare:
“which was frantic after hanging so long on a branch, in a bag, in all this pandemonium.
Vatanen tossed the knapsack on his back and returned to the scene of the fire. The hare whined in its bag but made no further efforts to escape; in any case, the cord would have stopped it if it had tried.”

At one point Vatanen takes the hare to a veterinarian in Helsinki, where he sees “a tired reindeer was tugging and pulling at its leash, while a broken-down old Father Christmas gave it a nasty kick on the hooves. The reindeer kept its eyes closed, probably in pain. The deer was surrounded by squalling children, whose tired mothers were having to repeat over and over: ‘Jari, Jari, stop trying to get on its back! Come on, Jari. Jari, listen…’”

When Vatanen and the hare are hunted by a group of men with hounds he thinks “this savage chase must stop, but how? How could such men exist? Where was the pleasure in roughhousing like this? How could human beings lower themselves so viciously?” But then he ends his own adventures by hunting the bear that the soldiers have disturbed all the way over the border into Soviet Russia where he shoots it as it runs across the ice of the White Sea:
“The great bear collapsed on the ice: no second shot was needed. Vatanen crawled up to the bear, opened its gullet, and let the blood flow out, black and clotted. He cupped his hands and supped two handfuls. Then he sat on the huge carcass and lit a cigarette, his last. He wept; he didn’t know why, but the tears came. He stroked the bear’s fur, stroked his hare, which was lying in his knapsack with its eyes closed.”

Rather than comic, I found this novel horrifying, not least because the main character has no particular reason for where he goes and what he does. When he’s cruel, it’s because he chooses to be, not because circumstances have forced him into it. When he gets a happy ending, which he does, it is most decidedly mercy, rather than justice.


12 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    August 25, 2019 6:56 pm

    That sounds … not good. Do you think it would have struck you less forcibly as horrifying if you hadn’t gone into expecting “comic misadventures”? (I suppose you might not even have given it a try if it had been marketed as exactly what you describe it as!)

    • August 29, 2019 10:26 am

      I think it’s often the case that expectations being disappointed makes me react more forcibly to a book, but not this one. I’d been reading some soviet-era short stories by Andrey Platanov (Hope and other stories), and these stories reminded me of some of those, but then they got darker. It surprised me because the friend who sent me the book is an animal lover.

  2. August 25, 2019 7:35 pm

    It sounds like I’ll be safe to skip this one.

    • August 29, 2019 10:27 am

      I should think so, even if you are thinking of giving up your job and dropping out of society, which is the main hook the blurbs try to reel a reader in with.

  3. August 26, 2019 4:17 am

    I don’t see how you could keep reading – a couple of those, and I’m out of there. Life is too short.

    I had the exact same reaction to A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Tooles’ ‘story’ about New Orleans that horrified me when I managed to get through the first chapter. It ‘won’ a Pulitzer.

    Mean-spirited ‘humor’ isn’t funny. Or, at least, not worth part of my life. It puzzles me how those books become popular or recommended.

    Thanks for the warning!

    • August 29, 2019 10:29 am

      I rarely, almost never, quit reading a book. Some people say life is too short, but I say I don’t want an unfinished story in my head because I keep thinking about it and making up endings. I read fast, so it’s better to read the ending that’s written and then get on with other things.
      Hmm, I remember being amused by A Confederacy of Dunces. Perhaps I should reread it, but I remember there being some satire, and I didn’t find that in this book.

      • August 29, 2019 2:07 pm

        When I was young, and healthy, I would have done what you do: finish the darn thing.

        Now, I have neither time nor energy to spend so profligately: I must pick and choose. So, if I find myself not being happy about writing or plot or characters or something like attitude, I proceed to skimming the last chapter or two, to see if the problem is still there. In one out of a hundred, I go back: it was a slow starter but worth it. The other 99 I never think about again.

  4. August 26, 2019 2:39 pm

    Is all this cruelty to animals supposed to be deep or something? Like a commentary on humanity’s distance from nature? Yikes.

    • August 29, 2019 10:33 am

      In one of the Platanov stories I mentioned to Rohan, above, there’s a scene with an animal that I had trouble understanding.Walker, who is in graduate school studying Russian literature, was trying to explain it to me, but I think that understanding Soviet-era attitudes is not easy for those of us who didn’t grow up in those kind of conditions. Maybe there is a similarity with this Finnish author.

  5. August 31, 2019 9:24 am

    The book may not be much, but your review was great to read. Loved you opening and closing paragraphs in particular. Still it looks like you haven’t had much success with books recently? The next review doesn’t seem positive either!?

    • August 31, 2019 10:21 am

      Thanks! I’ve read some good books lately but haven’t reviewed them, because they were rereads (like Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which I actually thought about writing on and asking readers for climate change examples of how her fiction is less exaggerated than we might have thought in 1993). Also I read Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife and will be reading the second one in that series next week (on a plane), but they’re just for fun and I don’t have much to say about them.

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