I have always held in a very high esteem people, who are able to say “Fuck it” to the world and just drift off. Sometimes one finds himself in an unbearable living situation – the job is unsatisfying, the friends are predictable, the extracurricular activities are shallow,and life is pretty much preposterous. Sooner or later cynicism takes the better part of you and you build such a fence around your feelings and emotions that even a nuclear bomb cannot tear it down. There is a saying, “If you don’t like something, change it”. It might work with little things, but what happens when you feel you need to dramatically alter every major part of your existence? And how many of us actually have the strength and bravery to actually give up a save life for the unknown wilderness? After all, there is a limited amount of Zuckerbergs and Jobs, who quit everything to pursue a dream almost no one else believes in. And yet, what we might need is not a substantial motivation or a friendly support. What we might need to cross that boundary and turn (at least for the time being) into a social persona non grata is actually something tiny – like a hare for example.
Kaarlo Vatanen is a middle-aged Finnish journalist, disappointed with his job and utterly tired of his wife. For quite a while he has acquiesced with a lonesome and purposeless existence, afraid or unable to change a thing. Until one day, when the car he is travelling in hits an innocent hare. Seized by a sudden impulse, Vatanen jumps out of the car to take care of the injured animal. When his companion leaves him in the middle of nowhere, Vatanen decides to adopt the hare (or rather be adopted by him) and escape from everything in his life that has been holding him back.
This picaresque novel then goes on to explore the funny, weird and sometimes outrageous adventures of the man and the animal. Organized episodically around Vatanen’s travels, The Year of the Hare follows him as he travels to the north of Finland, farther and farther away from what we have come to perceive as civilization. The ex-journalist takes various jobs that allow him to spend time mostly with the hare and to retreat as far away as possible from society. Contrary to what society has taught us (i.e being alone is certainly bad for you), Vatanen is feeling stronger, healthier and happier. He is not a hero in the traditional sense – he is rather a pragmatic, witty and unpredictable anti-hero, whose actions may not always be justifiable or acceptable, but have the rather important characteristic of being impulsive and honest.
With gentle satire and humour Paasalinna criticizes the boundaries contemporary society imposes on people. You must have a secure job, a family and a car. You must pay your taxes, take vacations twice a year and remain a model citizen. When Vatanen basically abandons all social conventions of happiness and chooses instead to travel around with a mute partner, he is perceived as a threat to a world, which values the rights of the individual only when those rights coincide with certain established rules. His crimes against Finland, as comical and absurd as they sound, turn him into a national traitor, who must be locked and isolated so that others don’t get the same “revolutionary” ideas.
Throughout the novel I always had the sensation there is something inevitably lost in translation. Paasalinna’s sharp description of the Finns in the 1970s contains subtle hints and inside jokes that probably only the Scandinavians will actually grasp. Quite expected. I could never, for the love of my life, describe to anyone foreign what is so absurd and comical about Aleko Konstantinov’s Bay Ganyo. In that sense, I feel The Year of the Hare loses a bit of its appeal and has thus been somewhat ignored or undervalued by international readers. And it shouldn’t be, as Arto Paasalinna is an incredibly gifted storyteller, whose novel certainly goes beyond the national level to portray the flaws of a society that has become too dependent, scared and predictable for its own good.