Commenting on the contentious subject of negative book reviews on blogs elsewhere this week, someone remarked that if I put up a negative post about a book (I had clarified that I don't presume to do reviews, far too subjective and emotional here for that and you all know my position ad nauseum on being the wrong reader for a book ) it would probably send them rushing off to buy it because they'd be bound to love it. From that I could only draw the inference that they assume we share wildly differing reading tastes, which is fine, but who can know what my reading tastes are because I'm not even sure I know that myself now.
How can you pin it down in that way because over the last three plus years, and over 500 books scribbled about later, I think I've forgotten where my comfort zone was and writing the scribbles makes me range far and wide in an attempt to close no doors, so sometimes a really unusual book finds its way onto my reading pile.
In fact can you believe it, I actually put them there myself because I’m always grateful for that deviation from the path of true comprehension. There is something quite unfettered and refreshing about reading something I don’t quite grasp immediately if I feel brave enough to persevere.
To be beguiled and slightly mystified by a book's purpose, to turn the final page and start thinking ‘what on earth was that about’ all feels good for the vitality of a reading life like mine, keeps it sparky, edgy, unsettled and on its toes.
So I was up for The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna and published by Peter Owen.
I'll admit I was sold on the cover for a start because I do like hares.
Who can resist that dear little hare peeking its head snugly out of a man’s jacket as if it belonged there and by page ten it does belong there and you don’t want it anywhere else, certainly not leaping through a field or anything.
Discovering that the author Arto Passilinna has been ‘amusing Finns for thirty years and readers in twenty-five languages...’
Writing ‘comedy highlighted with deadpan...’
And that the French have made this book into a cult all
added to the mystique and then you wonder what sort of a sense of humour you’re
likely to possess when you live ninety miles north of the Arctic Circle, surely
you must have something special to share?
Here beginneth bizarre but if can enter into the spirit of the thing it might help.
Jaded journalist Vatanen, wearying of city life hits a hare whilst driving out on a country road. Leaving his car ticking over and a colleague sitting within, Vatanen hot foots into the forest after the injured hare and in a fit of guilt and wild abandon decides to throw in the towel on his life to date, job, marriage the lot and take to the wilds of Finland with the hare for company.
There follows a series of unlikely adventures and disasters including being arrested for being in possession of a hare, a forest fire, a lot of alcohol and a very Mary Shelley-like final bear hunt that reminded me of a latter-day chase across the ice after Viktor's Frankensteinian monster.
Whether it's the luck of the hare, or is it Vatanen's, but neither seem to be the harbingers of good fortune. As Vatanen discovers, ‘loving animals can be a heavy load’ and one of frequent and hilarious moments when the inevitable hare droppings cause much human mayhem as they end up variously in a pocket, a pulpit and a bowl of soup.
Fable or fairy tale I’m sure The Year of the Hare must be an allegory for something, if only ways to box and cox with the ordinariness of everyday life, and could readily be invested with acres of diffuse and meaningful interpretations.
I did get as far as checking out the symbolism of the hare in my trusty dictionary and discovered the usual things about moon deity, fertility, rebirth, rejuvenation, resurrection, intuition, light in darkness and much about trickster tendencies.
The trickster reference rang a bell that had already chimed, because I had followed that line of enquiry when I came across Vatanen and the hare’s encounter with a raven, all reminiscent of my recent Ted Hughes - Baskin foray.
Then I stumbled across the Chinese zodiac and the Year of the Hare's significance,
'Persons born in the Year of the Hare are talented and ambitious. They are popular with anybody and good entertainers which often makes them the centre of attention. Even though they are liked they are rather pessimistic, insecure and are afraid of changes. They almost never lose their temper and are very good-natured.
Somehow that made more sense than anything in relation to this amazing little book, this hare most certainly takes centre stage and Vatanen is nothing if not insecure.
Finally I said whoaaa and stopped myself, because this felt like a book I didn’t actually want to be too clever about understanding.
It’s just a fabulously weird, whacky and original read not least because by page twenty there really seems nothing unusual about a man loping around a forest with a hare tucked in his jacket and if I saw such a thing tomorrow in the village I wouldn’t be in the least bit perturbed.
In fact, this is Devon and saying that reminds of children walking in the door from school with baby rabbits they'd found in the lane and tucked inside their blazers and me screeching,
'Take them back, they're full of fleas..and then wash your hands...and put your blazer on a hot wash...with biological soap powder...and empty the pockets first...'
Kill-joy mother that I was.
Long may books like this leap onto my reading stack. and sit there waiting patiently for that bizarre reading moment to come along because it always will and it never fails.