How many of you out there have wanted to just say,” Oh fuck it” at some point in your life? Slough off all your responsibilities and head for the hills; a partner who makes you so miserable you can’t remember why you married them or a once inspiring job has become a cynical task you only keep doing because you need the money. Everywhere you look you see the walls closing in and you’re starting to be able to identify with the animals you see pacing from side to side in a zoo’s cages. Of course, if you were to take that giant step off the edge you would become a social pariah. The creep who left the loving partner or rejected the well-paying job to wander aimlessly picking up piece work like some sort of hobo or bum. Someone who is, in fact, a danger to himself and others because he, or she, are obviously mentally unhinged.
Society can be a harsh judge when you don’t play by the rules, but sometimes a body is pushed too far and something happens to trigger snapping the bonds holding them in check. Such is the case in Finnish author Arto Paasilinna’s book The Year Of The Hare, published by Penguin Canada. In an almost clinical fashion Paasilinna records one man’s odyssey into exile from society and follows him as he gradually travels further and further away from civilization until he crosses over into neighbouring Russia somewhere near the Arctic Circle. However, this is no glib peon to the rights of the individual and the author leaves it to the reader to make his own decisions about his ‘hero’s’ behaviour by assigning us the role of observer.
Vatanen is a journalist made cynical by too many years of reporting scandals and writing about people and issues that don’t matter. He can’t remember why he married his wife, nor is he quite sure why she married him as she apparently despises him. Returning from assignment with his photographer, their car sideswipes a young hare. Seized by a sudden impulse, Vatanen leaves the car to search for the wounded animal in the woods. When he doesn’t return, the photographer leaves Vatanen. When subsequent guilt over abandoning him — he might have fallen and injured himself — forces the photographer to return to search for his associate, he can’t find any sign of either him or the hare.
Vatanen had found the hare and, after carefully tending to it for the night and establishing a bond, had taken it to the nearest village to arrange veterinary care. The more he thought about his life — wife and job — the gloomier he would become, while the more he allowed himself to enjoy his surroundings — the peaceful woods, the friendly villagers and the quiet companionship of the hare — the happier he became. Seemingly without thinking about it he makes arrangements to separate himself from civilization. He sells his boat to a friend to obtain some cash and then proceeds to vanish into the wilderness. However, unlike Thoreau, who retreated to Walden Pond to contemplate society and nature, our friend is not so much interested in philosophy as he is in escape.
In fact, Paasilinna paints an almost negative picture of Vatanen at times. Hired on to help fight the biggest forest fire in Finnish history he comes across a man who has been forced to flee from the flames with his still. He then proceed to enjoy the results of his new acquaintance’s labours. When the fire threatens to consume the two men they swim out into a lake and wait for it to burn out around them. While I suppose one could make the case for this being an analogy for selfishness — self-gratification while the world literally burns around you — in the context of the story its merely just another adventure among the many he experiences in his wandering. Anyway, his willingness to go to almost any lengths to protect the hare belie charges that he’s only interested in himself. It’s more when an opportunity presents itself he’s seizing it with both hands no matter how strange it might seem to observers.
He’s at his most content though when it’s just him and the hare. He takes jobs that allow him to retreat further and further from society. Yet no matter how remote a location he manages to find, intrusions are inevitable. Hired to renovate a shelter for the herdsmen who look after reindeer in the north, he and the hare find some moments of respite until a government official decides it is an ideal location to bring foreign dignitaries to observe the Finnish army perform winter manoeuvres. When the intruders insist upon trying to hunt a bear hibernating in the vicinity it sets off a series of absurd events that results in the cabin being burnt to the ground and the entire party being evacuated, nearly naked, by helicopter. When Vatanen is finally able to return to finish the job he started, he and the hare are forced to contend with the irate bear and are lucky to escape unscathed. Unable to lash out at those responsible, he and the hare decide to hunt down the bear who leads them on a merry chase across the Finnish-Russian border where he is held on suspicion of spying.
It’s here that Paasilinna is at his most satirical. For the Finns send a extradition request to the Russians detailing the list of crimes Vatanen is wanted for in his native country, which is almost as farcical as it is lengthy. Reading between the lines of the list of meaningless crimes, what he’s really being accused of is shirking his responsibilities as a member of a well-ordered society and generally not behaving in a acceptable manner. It’s one thing if life’s circumstances force you to live on the margins, it’s another all together if you decide to do so voluntarily. Anybody who rejects the holy trinity of family, work and societal obligations is obviously a threat and needs to be separated from the general public — you wouldn’t want anybody getting ideas now would you.
What makes The Year Of The Hare so compelling is how Paasilinna makes no effort to glorify any of Vatanen’s actions or offer any justifications for what he does. Yet even his seemingly irrational decisions couldn’t be construed by anyone but the most anal as dangerous or even mean-spirited. At times he’s forced into situations by the idiocy of those around him, but because he’s considered “abnormal”, even those who threaten him with violence are considered to be acting within the bounds of normalcy. While our society claims to cherish the rights of the individual, this book makes it obvious how narrow our definition of that word really is. If you stray too far outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour you will be either shunned as a pariah, treated as a criminal or be considered mentally unstable, if not all three at once.
With his almost casual writing style Paasilinna is able to make his point without ever preaching or being obvious about what he is doing. As the book progresses he gradually builds his case and we slowly become aware of the weight of societal disapproval lurking in the background like some malevolent presence waiting to pounce. By not setting Vatanen up as some heroic figure in search of inner meaning or on a quest for the truth, Paasilinna has created a character readers can identify with at least some of the time. Sure he’s flawed, but who isn’t? All he wants is to be left alone to live a peaceful co-existence with his new friend, is that such a bad thing? Read the book and see what you think, you might just find yourself wishing for a hare to enter your life in the near future.