The miller had a great gift for imitating the animals of the forest. He would make a game of it, and the youngsters would compete to see who could be the first to guess which animal he was mimicking. One minute he would become a hare, and then the next a lemming or a bear. Sometimes he would flap his long arms like a night owl, or start howling like a wolf, pointing his nose at the sky and letting out such a heart-rending wail that the terrified youngsters would huddle together for comfort.
Arto Paasilinna, The Howling Miller
I think too often we are a little bit squeamish about the magical. We feel too old for it as if our adult minds have moved onto more serious matters; we are quick to dismiss it as childish and not deserving of our attention. Henry Perowne’s objections to magical realism in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday: “the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible” are, I think, what a lot of us might actually feel. There is an awkwardness there – another adult has produced these works, well are they quite… Those words Perowne uses: “insufficient”, “dereliction”, “evasion” are all about deficiency. To accept magic in the way that a child might, is to be somehow mentally deficient. Like another of McEwan’s characters, Charles Darke in the novel The Child in Time, we have an image of an adult escaping from the real world to live as a child. It’s just not proper. It’s unseemly.
And the above passage from Finnish novelist Arto Paasilinna’s novel The Howling Miller explores just that. We (and the villagers in the book) are reasonably comfortable with this man’s impressions of animals for children, but when he begins wildly howling in the night, things become another matter. Notice how it is phrased: ‘one minute he would become a hare’. It is the kind of phrasing we use all the time about impressionists, but if we think about it for a moment it is more than metaphor. The miller becomes a hare because he is hare-like, but then, he is acting like a hare.
Consider that most famous of hares, Albrecht Dürer’s watercolour A Young Hare (1502):
When we look at the image above, we say ‘that is a hare’. We might go on to say ‘that is a watercolour of a hare’, or even ‘that is an extraordinary likeness to a hare’, but our primary response is that it is a hare. Of course it isn’t, it is simply a mass of assembled pigments upon paper, but our mind allows it to become a hare for us. We would not even say that the picture is hare-like, for that would do discredit to the magic that Dürer has woven with his brush. In the same way, the miller is not hare-like, his impression is such that he is for a moment a hare.
Consider then, E. M. Cioran:
Let me live the life of every species, wildly and un-self-consciously, let me try out the entire spectrum of nature; let me change gracefully, discreetly, as if it were the most natural procedure. How I would search the nests and caves, wander the deserted mountains and the sea, the hills and the plains. Only a cosmic adventure of this kind, a series of metamorphoses in the plant and animal realms, would reawaken in me the desire to become Man again. If the difference between Man and animal lies in the fact that the animal can only be an animal whereas man can also be not-man – that is, something other than himself – then I am not-man.
E.M. Cioran, from ‘Not to be a Man Anymore’, Pe culmile disperării
I hear uncomfortable shuffling at the back. Wants to live the life of every species? What’s his game? Wants to be not-man? Calls himself a philosopher? We’ve met his type before. Mostly on public transport. It’s not normal, is it?
Well that’s just the point: it is. Or rather, what Cioran is suggesting there is that to understand the state of normal human existence we must first attempt to understand what it is to be states other than that. We must accept the magical in order to really see what our present state is. To truly understand life as a man, we must first understand what it is to live as a hare.
Which rather neatly brings us to Finland, or rather to a very lovely book about Finland, again written by Arto Paasilinna. Interesting, in Cioran’s essay ‘Not to be a Man Anymore’, is the sense of dropping out of everyday life to pursue these existential ends. It’s a wild fantasy we might have, to one day disappear from the modern world and adopt an altogether more primitive means of existence. We probably doubt we will ever do it, but this is exactly the plot of Paasilinna’s novel The Year of the Hare.
One night, Vatanen, a hugely successful journalist and his photographer are driving along a country road back towards Helsinki. The car hits a hare. Vatanen goes after the animal into the woods, and the novel begins.
For all this talk of magic that I have made so far in this post, what is striking about this story (apart from the very last four paragraphs of the book) is that actually none of this is magical at all. It is purely the story (however improbable) of a man who abandons the journey back to his former life – his wife, his job, his boat, his means of living – to look after an injured hare in the woods. It merely seems magical because it is so distant from our everyday points of reference.
Which is rather the point. Vatanen feels lost within the modern world so he drops out of it into the wilderness. Throughout the book there is a struggle, at times an ecological one, but more generally a personal one between the modern urban Finland and the wild, untamed expanses of it:
There was an old meadow, full of wild flowers, and a brook murmuring beyond it. Vatanten put the hare down by the brook, stripped off and took a cold dip. A tight shoal of tiny fish, swimming upstream, took fright at the slightest movement, invariably forgetting their fear the next moment.
Vatanen’s thoughts turned to his wife in Helsinki. He began to feel depressed.
In order to escape his past life, Vatanen must learn to live as a hare; as indeed the hare begins to live as a man. For sections of the book they are both on the run, seeking out food and survival. Things that would seem commonplace to modern, urban man, such as the presence of a raven, suddenly become predators to him – the raven almost starving him by daily ransacking his food store. It is an unsentimental book in some ways, and by no means sets out to suggest that this rustic existence is less stressful than Vatanen’s former life, but it is a gently very funny book too – it’s quite wonderful just how innately amusing the circumstances of walking into a bank, or a hotel, or a restaurant, or a taxi rank and happening to have with you a hare, can be.
It is by its nature magical. It’s unexpected. It’s that sense of phantasmagoria that so obsessed Walter Benjamin; the unexpected collision of two disparate worlds in one moment forming a new kind of poetic truth.
Which is more or less how I came by this book. You see, I’ve been thinking about hares for ages, and yet had it not been being asked to write something on Finnish literature, I am certain that I would never have come by Paasilinna. Suddenly upon finding this book, I realised that a lot of things made sense.
The poet William Cowper kept hares. One of the loveliest essays of the eighteenth century is a piece by him titled ‘Epitaph on a Hare’ published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in June, 1784. It details how he came to care for three such animals: Puss, Tiney, and Bess “notwithstanding the two female appellatives, I must inform you that they were all males”. It is a strange piece of writing. One that I am instantly drawn to, but save for taking it as instructions for the care of domesticated wild animals, not one I can see a way of doing much with. As with Vatanen’s hare, between Cowper and Puss we see a strong bond of understanding develop between the animal and its rescuer:
Puss grew presently familiar, would leap into my lap, raise himself upon his hinder feet, and bite the hair from my temples. He would suffer me to take him up and to carry him about in my arms, and has more than once fallen asleep upon my knee. He was ill three days, during which time I nursed him, kept him apart from his fellows that they might not molest him (for, like many, other wild animals, they persecute one of their own species that is sick), and by constant care and trying him with a variety of herbs, restored him to perfect health. No creature could be more grateful than my patient after his recovery; a sentiment which he most significantly expressed, by licking my hand, first the back of it, then the palm, then every finger separately, then between all the fingers, as if anxious to leave no part of it unsaluted; a ceremony which he never performed but once again upon a similar occasion. Finding him extremely tractable, I made it my custom to carry him always after breakfast into the garden, where he hid himself generally under the leaves of a cucumber vine, sleeping or chewing the cud til evening; in the leaves also of that vine he found a favourite repast. I had not long habituated him to the taste of liberty, before he began to be impatient for the return of the time when he might enjoy it. He would invite me to the garden by drumming upon my knee, and by a look of expression, as it was not possible to misinterpret. If this rhetoric did not immediately succeed, he would take the skirt of my coat between his teeth, and pull at it with all his force.
Cowper had to formulate for himself the diet of the hare suggesting: “Sow-thistle, dent-de-lion, and lettuce”, “white sand […] I suppose as a digestive”, “green corn […] both blade and stalk”, straw, oats and occasionally aromatic herbs. For Cowper, the separation of time makes it quite unsurprising to us that he should know what to feed his hares, but in The Year of the Hare, this act demonstrates the stark separation between modern man and the natural world.
Vatanen takes the animal to the warden of the South Savo Game Preservation Office, in order to find out what hares actually eat. He is told:
‘Feed it early clover. You’ll find a lot of that almost anywhere now. And for drinking, give it pure water; no point in forcing milk on it. Besides clover, fresh grass may do, and barley aftermath… bonnet grass it likes, and meadow vetchling. In fact, it likes all the vetches, and alsike is something it likes too. In the winter you’d best give it cambium of deciduous trees, and deep-frozen bilberry twigs as well, if you’re keeping it in town.’
‘What sort of a plant is meadow vetchling? I don’t know it.’
That he doesn't know what any of these plants are marks a huge chasm in our world; the false means by which man is able to live on a planet sustained by organisms he is generally ignorant about, is, when we really consider it, a rather disturbing truth. We might be unlikely to be placed in a situation in which we need to look after an injured hare, but our ignorance of these matters is on a level startling. It would be easy to dismiss A Year of the Hare as silly nonsense, a child’s story of a man going off to live with an animal. Within the book itself the account of his journey is met by scepticism by a scientist, and the way that the book is written; a series of very short ‘adventures’ tricks us into this false conclusion that this is merely kid’s stuff. Not the kind of thing we should attend to with our serious, sophisticated brains. The ending – an ending that takes flight from the rest of the book and is purely fantastical – is surely proof of that itself. We could easily dismiss this book as “a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible”, but really it is our own base ignorance – our lack of understanding of what it is to live as a hare, our caution at not wanting to appear silly or feeble-minded – it is that that keeps us only as children.