In this issue of the magazine Irene Lami introduces her column Northern Lights about Nordic literatures.
What we wish to present on these pages is a far and yet close world, a kind of literature we have by now learned to know through the so-called Scandinavian ‘social crime novels’: our intention is to show that literature from Northern Europe does not deal exhaustively with thrillers, on the contrary it fully covers many literary styles from historical novels, sagas, fairy tales, theatre to humorous fiction.
Nordic literature has the ability to connect the individual to the community, the particular to the universal, the temporary to the eternity.
Exotic landscapes, bitter climates, far lights (indeed Northern lights) go together with the subject matters addressed by great or less known Nordic authors, and arouse readers’ interest.
Welcome and happy reading.
It has been considered a cult book for several generations: The year of the hare is in fact a hymn to freedom in its broadest sense. It represents a claim of to emancipation of thought, with all that it implies. The main character is Vatanen, a journalist who we can guess to be the alter ego of the author, Paasilinna. Vatanen is driving back home after a report with his colleague, a photographer; at some point they run a hare over and stop to check the situation out. The hare is only wounded, and Vatanen nurses it, strokes it, and decides to leave everything and run away with it in the woods.
Thus the man and the animal’s eventful story through Finland begins.
On the first page, the author immediately introduces the main character’s existential condition, and marginally touches on his colleague’s: they’re both unhappy, dissatisfied and cynical spectators of their own lives.
The encounter with the hare almost represents a chance of redemption for Vatanen, and an almost a ‘physical’ epiphany: he takes it in his arms, feels the animal’s heart rushing, its trembling, its hair, even the broken paw is described in detail. The highly tactile description emphasizes how the awakening of the journalist is the result of real bodily contact.
Apparently, Vatanen’s awakening as well as the rest of the novel, seem to be a hymn to back-to-nature life, but it is not exactly like this: rather than ‘nature’ in general, the hare, the woods and the second life of the man symbolize freedom from bourgeois constraints (which in rural society can perfectly continue to exist, in fact, in some cases, even in more bitter and hateful ways that in the urban environment). The hare symbolizes the free instinct introduced in a completely regimented world, and one can not go on without remembering the very funny scene in the restaurant where Vatanen orders lunch for himself and for the animal, generating some outrage among the observers.
We notice this slight transfer both through careful reading and watchful reflection on the descriptions that Paasilinna himself makes of the natural world: nature is not described as a paternalistic (as bourgeois) place of peace, harmony and serenity, but rather as a struggle, sometimes cruel, sometimes unfair, where the survival of the fittest (or smartest) is in force, whose rules one must obey if one wants to survive.
Many people who are ignorant, stupid, unconsciously cruel in the name of myths, actually live in their natural state, in the countryside, in the woods and forests; in this sense, the figure of the Nazi religious Kaartinen is rather emblematic. He’s basically a bumpkin whose cultural knowledge is not a result of a refined analysis of the world but it is rather based on the direct experience that he draws from the natural world.
Vatanen decides to abandon the urban world, but more precisely decides to strip himself of bourgeois trickeries which are normally associated with such as criticising marriage, work and journalism (the latter ‘everlastingly exposing notorious abuses, while persistently turning a blind eye on society’s real faults’) which immediately appear. This condemnation of traditional and conformist life is presented in an absolutely straightforward and obvious way, as if it were almost a hendiatris: he is a journalist, married and unhappy.
The moment his colleague leaves him alone with the hare and drives back home, represents a break from modern society’s values. Let’s bear in mind that the novel was written in the 70s, when the illusory contrast city/countryside was perceived as much less corny and cheesy than today.
Abandonment is underlined by the presence of objects such as the car, the cigarette, the alcohol, the phone, which become objective correlative of the world that has to be denied. The photographer himself is initially always defined as ‘photographer’, he is never named: we sense the writer’s focus on the profession, on the work, and indirectly on the money, and why not, on a suggested artificial ‘camera’.
Obviously, the separation can not happen without reasonable difficulty, Vatanen is chased by the conformist world, by his wife, by the editor, by the photographer (once more they are roles, rather than names), and runs away with a basket from which two hare’s ears spring out.
The hare’s ears is a recurrent synecdoche, it symbolizes a rebellious and funny visual element, and in a sense immediately ‘brand’ Vatanen, popping up from the suit jacket initially worn by him, and thus breaking the authority of a typical bourgeois garment, which is almost a uniform.
The hare represents an allegory of freedom and generally has a positive effect on the people who meet it: those who are not affected by its charm because they are too anchored to reactionary models are rather shocked and very scared by it. Those who do not understand journalist’s choices, also very often wonders if he is not drunk: freedom in this way is seen as a result of purely bourgeois instruments of social control, such as alcohol.
Paasilinna makes a mockery of politics, of nationalism (the ‘thriller’ created around the figure of the president of Finland at that time, Urho Kekkonen, is hilarious) of religion: in the church the hare decides to defecate twice on the altar, causing the wrath of the priest who shoots it to drive it away, hitting in this way many different religious symbols.
A really humorous style and lively narration through the scenes help Paasilinna to shows us that through his status as a free man Vatanen gets to fully know the social structure much more than he would do if he was a part of it, paradoxically proving that it is through freedom that one can really explore the bourgeois order.
The Finnish landscape does not remain in the background, but it rather becomes an integral part of the story and is much more than a setting for the novel, it rightfully becomes a character, a protagonist along with Vatanen and his hare.
‘Vatanen’s personal history and manner of conduct reveal his revolutionary spirit: he is a true subversive, and therein lies the secret of his greatness’.
Paasilinna, born in 1942 in Kittilä, a small town in the north of Finland, in the region of Lapland, was a poet, a forester and a journalist, before devoting himself to write novels full time. He is one of Finland’s most famous authors abroad, his books have been translated into more than 40 languages. The year of the hare is his best-known book, included in the UNESCO collection of representative works of Finnish literature: two film versions were made based on it, one in 1977, directed by Finnish director Risto Jarva, and one in 2006 by the French Marc Rivière.
Translation edited by Sabrina Macchi