You know that I like bunnies, right? In fact, I quite like all the woodland creatures, but rabbits, or hares, or bunnies have always appealed to me. Perhaps this can be explained semi-magically: they’re said by some to be one of the animals strongly associated with my sun-sign (Virgo). Maybe it’s because, even though I would have liked to be one of the cute, adorable characters in Winnie-the-Pooh, I always suspected I was most like Rabbit.
Anyway, I was attracted to this book I saw on the shelf at Rosetta Books in Maleny mostly because:
(a) It’s pretty;
(b) It’s a work in translation from the Finnish, and didn’t immediately appear to be crime; and
(c) there’s a bunny on the cover.
The back cover also promised that it would was ‘a strange, compelling fable about Europe, capitalism that the human heart … unlike anything else you will ever read’.
The book is a ‘modern retelling’ of an earlier Finnish work: Jäniksen Vuosi (The Year of the Hare) by Arto Paasilinna (first published in 1975). In Paasilinna’s novel, the main character (Kaarlo Vatanen) becomes entangled with a hare after his colleague, a photographer, runs over it, injuring its back leg.
Vatanen leaves his job, his home, his wife and friends to travel with the hare, having various adventures. George Schoolfield, an American specialist in Finnish literature, claims that this work belongs to a tradition of comic novels featuring irreverent outsiders. Picaresque novels of roguery and offbeat adventure. Think Jack Kerouac meets Tim Winton, with a dash of Terry Gilliam.
Kyrö’s retelling renames our outsider Vatanescu – a divorced construction worker whose main goal in life, it seems, is to buy a pair of football boots for the son he has left behind in Romania. Vatanescu teams up with a hare running from the law — well, from the Helsinki pest control authorities — and proceeds to travel across Finland in a kind of haphazard, modern myth of an adventure.
The style is breezy, comical, observant, cynical. The book opens thus:
There would certainly have been other alternatives; our hero could have stolen cars, salvaged the copper from telephone cables or sold his kidneys. But of all the bad offers, the one from Yegor Kugar was the best. It guaranteed him a year’s employment, transport to the scene of operations and even a job for his sister, with new teeth and breast implants as a bonus.
Vatanescu left a note for his ex-wife, promising to send her child support when he had built up some income. After the divorce, his relations with the mother of his son Miklos had grown somewhat envenomed — to the point where the pus came, though both he and his ex-wife were people of good will. But when love departs, the empty place is filled by many new arrivals: envy, bitterness, revenge, shrillness, arseholery.
I guess the term for this kind of writing is ‘irreverent’. And I guess, as readers, we’re supposed to forgive the character for being a slapdash sexist on the grounds that he’s poor, ill-educated, and means well. Supposed to love him and feel affectionately towards him because he befriends and carries around a wild hare, even though he abandons his child, and sells his sister into prostitution.
I wanted to really love this book. It’s quirky and often smart. It appears to be beautifully-translated: the sentences are sharply-honed. The voice leaping and darting across the page. Perhaps because it’s a work in response to another work I don’t know much about, there’s a sense here that I’m missing a lot of what the work is doing, or why.
Like reading James Joyce’s Ulysses without any sense of who Ulysses was, or what his story was about.
Or like hearing half of a conversation while riding the train to work. Things make sense, but there’s always that feeling that you’re missing the point.
There’s a hard-edged tenderness in the book. An affection for a male main character who is, I think, quite difficult to like. At least for me. Selfish, lazy, violent.
Other readers found it profound; I found it befuddling.
At times infuriating (It’s hard for a feminist to enjoy a writer who describes a serial murderer as someone who ”carries more bitterness in his heart than a thousand feminists”).
At times hilarious. Or embarrassing. Or just … enjoyably absurd.
Reading this book was, for me, a queer white Australian woman, like going on an imaginary trip to some whole other place, where I was told a story almost completely devoid of the cultural and literary-historical context it was clearly relying on to make sense, to be funny, to be moving.
Plus. It was sexist. And I am *so* over it being ok for cis, white, male writers to be sexist. So over it being considered a sign of their tough-minded, intellectual ‘irreverence’, that I wouldn’t recommend this book to you. Or any other book that seems to think a little light-hearted sexism is just good fun. I don’t care if you think I’m a humourless feminist with a heart full of bitterness 🙂
Want to read something strange and Scandinavian? Read Sjón’s The Blue Fox (translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb). It’s beautiful, wild, strange and moving.