Out of the woods

Issue 4/1990 | Archives online, Authors

France has its tradition of conteurs; but storytellers such as Arto Paasilinna (born 1942) are uncommon today. This makes the success of the French translation of his Jäniksen vuosi (‘Year of the hare’; French translation Le Lièvre de Vatanen, Denoel, 1989) all the more surprising. A first edition of 11,000 copies has been printed, and a second is under consideration, while his Ulvova mylläri (‘The howling miller’) is scheduled for publication next, in a translation by Anne Colin du Terrail; then in line is Auta armias (‘Help, O Lord’), and then… Negotiations are also in progress with French book clubs.

What is the secret of Paasilinna’s success in this land of fastidious critics? Humour is not enough, for each country finds different things funny. A whole chain of causes and coincidences needed before Paasilinna achieved both critical and popular success in France, where the best that the best Finnish writers can generally hope for is a slim edition confidentiel.

The first condition of success for a foreign book is generally a good translation. Anne Colin du Terrail discovered Paasilinna herself, found his work made her laugh, and decided to try her luck at a translation, without a commission or any guarantee of a fee. She found the book funny, so her translation is funny too, free and spontaneous. She found a publisher, too, on her own initiative. After a couple of failed attempts, the manuscript lay in a cupboard at Denoël for three years before it came to the vigilant eye of the literary director when the company was moving offices.

He set to work on his find, and gave it a simple name, using the main character’s name, which was at the same time a strikingly clever marketing ploy. Le lièvre de Vatanen attracted attention at the salons du livre that spring. The title reminded the book’s potential French readership of Ari Vatanen – television star and hero in this promised land of racing cars and rally drivers.

Thus artfully did Arto and Vatanen place themselves on the starting line. But for the race more was needed than this happy misunderstanding. The French have read their Vatanen carefully; they are famously acute readers, who will find secret meanings in the lightest of gossip. Risto Jarva’s film of the book has been seen, more than once, at both the Rouen film festival and the Pompidou centre; more power to the ‘Finnish cult book’. So: to work, critics, to probe the layers of this complex, typically modem book! Le nouvel Observateur‘s critic found it politically daring, even insolent: did it not make jokes at the expense of the ‘unimpeachable’ Kekkonen? For once, a funny Finnish book – that doesn’t happen every day. ‘Absurd and Finnish’ was how the reviewer, Bernard Genies, characterised it.

Who has not fantasised, like Vatanen, about leaving everything behind – work, spouse, the dirt of the city? Who, in the land of Rousseau, has not dreamed of returning to nature? Almost all the book’s critics – from Le Canard enchainé and Le nouvel Observateur to the columns of L’Express and the airwaves of the radio – have commented on Paasilinna’s way of approaching his theme and its ecological slant. ‘Vatanen’s hero’s journey north, to the real natural landscapes of his country, awakens the slumbering nature conservationist in all of us,’ writes Dominiqe Durand. Green is the latest fashion, and Paasilinna’s book is green, from the cover on.

The French are individualists, and so is Vatanen. They grumble about bureaucracy, the church, the army, all coercive systems; they are delighted to find a soulmate in Finland, which is considered a country of disciplined and obedient consensus. Vatanen and his hare ‘spend their time defying the logic of society’, comments Genies, and adds that the book is more than absurd; in places it has the feel of a metaphysical story.

Many of the book’s French readers seek in it echoes of Finnish mythology. A programme broadcast by the local radio station Le Pays started with The swan of Tuonela by Sibelius, and the presenter, Pascal Gillebert, was keen to trace all possible references to the Kalevala. According to his analysis, the swan of Tuonela is the crow which Vatanen kills as cruelly as the same crow has earlier robbed him. The adventures centred on the bear also belong to this Nordic mythology; despite his tender adoption of the hare, Vatanen can be both inventive and cruel when he needs to defend himself. No sweet idyll, but a fight for survival, in which both humans and animals show merciless strength at critical moments.

The book’s criticism of consumer society has also touched the French heart, particularly in Paasilinna’s comic, sometimes burlesque, approach. And these virtuoso literary theorists find endless intertextual links for Vatanen: many compare him with Jack Kerouac, some with Hašek’s Good Soldier Schweik; others again with Hemingway. In the world of cinema, bridges are built to Wim Wenders, Woody Allen, even Kurosawa …

In Finland, by contrast, Paasilinna is dismissed as a simple, ‘popular’, comic writer. Perhaps it is time for a re-evaluation.

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