Sunday, January 12, 2014

Kerjäläinen ja jänis by Tuomas Kyrö

Arto Paasilinna is possibly the best known Finnish author out there: his 1975 novel The Year of the Hare has been translated into 18 languages and I have met multiple French people who have praised him to me (one had come to Finland to take Finnish lessons just because he was madly in love with Paasilinna's novels). For a meek Finn, that equals great success. I read quite a lot of Paasilinna in my teens, but The Year of the Hare is the only one I have reread since.

Kerjäläinen ja jänis is not written by him, but before saying anything about the novel Paasilinna needs to be brought in, because this modern retelling/spoof of the classic novel gets meta like no other.

The Year of the Hare begins when a reporter called Vatanen runs over a hare on his way to an assignment, gets out of the car and then something snaps: the meaninglessness of his reporting job juxtaposed with the hurt animal who just lives in the moment inspires Vatanen to grab the hare and disappear into the forest right there and then. Introspective and humorous adventures ensue, when the reporter and the hare hide from Vatanen's past and future as best they can. Here is a link to the New York Times' review from 2002 about the novel and Paasilinna in general.

That was 1975. Here is Tuomas Kyrö in 2011 with his "The Beggar and the Hare." The title made me snort as I immediately knew what the contents would be about, and I giggled even more when I read the protagonist's name, Vatanescu. Kyrö is not even trying to be subtle.

Vatanescu is a Romanian man brought to Finland by a human trafficker to beg for money on the streets of Helsinki. He speaks a bit of English, has no ID and his only desire is to make enough money to go back home and buy his son soccer shoes. He is a complete outsider because he can barely communicate with others, least with Finns don't understand begging on the street, finding it revolting.[1]

One day Vatanescu escapes and saves an injured rabbit from the hands of ruffians who were trying to capture this menace to wildlife and sell it to the zoo for tiger fodder.[2] Unlike in Paasilinna's story where the hare shows Vatanen in its mute ways what life could really be like once you get off the rat race, Vatanescu sees himself in the rabbit: an unwanted outsider in Finnish society who has nowhere to go.

He begins to meander from place to place aimlessly with the rabbit in his pocket. He has no idea that he is slowly becoming a celebrity when cell phone snapshots of him and the rabbit begin to surface in social media and go viral.

While Paasilinna's Vatanen was fighting against society's pressures on the modern human, Vatanescu expects nothing and is trying to be nobody. He has no grand plan, no philosophical revelations. He has no say in it when Finns put him on a pedestal and make a mythical creature out of him, the cardboard stand-in for Finnishness that may not really exist. They want him to be the Vatanen Finns could never be.

I began reading Kerjäläinen ja jänis thinking that it is a modern retelling, written tongue in cheek. The further I got, the more the novel became a satire of Finns and our pining for mythical symbols to stand for ourselves when real life gets too real. All cultures have their mythologies that are retold to boost a national image that may or may not be true. Vatanescu is ironically what Finns want to be seen as, without actually being anything like him. He even becomes a pawn for populist politicians to appeal to voters.

Stylistically, Kyrö has Paasilinna's tropes down: the ridiculous names, laconic everyday philosophers, almost magical encounters when people connect with each other. I was first annoyed by some of the portrayals of foreigners in Kerjäläinen (I mean, "Ming Po" is supposedly a Vietnamese name? Come on...), but now I'm thinking that perhaps this was intentional, satirizing how Finns see foreigners in Finland.

I can imagine people having a knee-jerk reaction to this novel, thinking that The Year of the Hare is too sacred to be used as a framework for making gentle fun of modern Finns. I have enjoyed The Year of the Hare for its themes and its black humor--plus, it's a really tiny novel and a quick read (I should probably read it again). It's not the novel's fault that it has become larger than life for Finns. Kyrö does not make fun of the novel--he satirizes Finns who are in love with The Year of the Hare.

Reading Kyrö's version was a bit tough with its kill your darlings approach to the original, but at the same time I think it's a healthy approach culturally. There is nothing wrong with Finns making fun of themselves as a whole for a change, instead of poking fun at subcultures and foreigners while letting the reader identify with the protagonist; letting the reader remain safely in the in-group.

[1] In the mid-2000s, Romanians began to appear on the streets of Helsinki, begging for money. The only unwanted attention on the streets up until then were drunk Finns who might curse at you or people trying to enlist you to give money for some noble cause. That kind of begging was slightly tolerated, but when the Romanians came... who are these foreigners?

[2] A genuine problem in Helsinki: the hares are OK, but selfish people began to let pet rabbits loose in the parks because they got tired of petting them. They obviously bred like rabbits and became such a nuisance to the park and its flora that the rabbits had to be gotten rid of. A good real-life illustration of how Finns want to still be regarded as the great lovers of nature, but actually do silly things like these: letting pet rabbits wreak havoc in nature (while probably also making fun of any environmentalists for wanting to preserve natural landscape--those damned tree huggers!)

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