As managing director of the U.S. Arctic Program at WWF, I’ve had the good fortune to travel in the Arctic, visiting urban centers and rural communities, as well as some very remote and wild natural areas. Recently I’ve been asking my friends and colleagues from the circumpolar region to recommend books that in some way typify their countries’ history and culture.
In 1994, I spent the summer in Karelia, a region of lakes, wetlands and coniferous forests straddling northwestern Russia and northeastern Finland. Much of Karelia was ceded to the USSR at the end of World War II. To keep its own citizens from fleeing and foreigners from entering, the Soviet government erected a border hundreds of miles long, fragmenting a culture and habitat and wildlife migration routes. Not only did the landscapes captivate me, but so did the remnants of the region’s harsh history and the Karelian culture.
For this month, in addition to two contemporary Finnish novels – “The Year of the Hare” and “When the Doves Disappeared” – I have selected a classic poem, “The Kalevala,” a collection of songs and stories, many of which take place in Karelia. As for the books, one is light with satire and the other is heavy with the realities of war, but both novels depict men who are transforming their lives, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
The Year of the Hare
During the long days of our Alaskan summers, I often hike to one of the many peaks in the Chugach Mountains and then walk for miles along its unpeopled ridges. More than once I have wondered, What if I just keep walking?
In Arto Paasilinna’s “The Year of the Hare,” Kaarlo Vatanen does just that. The journalist, bored with his job and unhappy in his marriage, is riding in a car with a photojournalist one night, when they hit a baby hare. Vatanen races into the forest, finds the animal and splints its broken leg. And from there, he begins walking, eventually finding refuge in the loft of a barn, where he spends the night, with the injured hare tucked under his arm.
The next morning, Vatanen briefly considers going back to work, back to his life. He shudders at the thought. His journalism no longer helps the underdogs of society; his editors dilute his writing, “muffling its significance, cooking it into chatty entertainment.” He is equally dissatisfied with his home life – his unpleasant wife, her hideous clothes and their “extravagant farrago” of an apartment she has decorated according to tips from women’s magazines. Soon Vatanen is in a cafe, with the hare seated in the chair beside him, eating a meal of carrots and lettuce.
The scene marks the beginning of the pair’s adventures across Finland. Man and hare, joined as travel companions, hop aboard buses like vagabonds. The hare is a wellspring of conversation and garners much attention. It is petted, coveted and hunted by those they meet. As the young hare grows, it becomes more attached and devoted to Vatanen and takes on its own personality, occasionally nodding its head in agreement, or trembling in fear.
While Vatanen may be shirking the expectations of society, he is not a man without principle. He joins an effort to fight a wildfire near a fishing cabin and seeks vengeance on a bear that nearly kills the inseparable pair.
The 1975 novel, Paasalinna’s first, was a huge hit in Finland. His deadpan presentation of absurd scenes, depictions of the eccentric Vatanen and the veiled ridicule of authorities comprise a sort of New Yorker cartoon, Finnish-style, in novel form. It’s easy to see why the novel was transformed into a movie in 1977; I kept thinking of the film “Being John Malkovich” as I read the book.
When the Doves Disappeared
Sofi Oksanen, one of Finland’s hottest writers, is churning out novels about World War II and the Cold War. And the world is noticing. “When the Doves Disappeared,” which has been published in nearly 30 countries, is set in Estonia in the 1940s and 1960s, during the Soviet occupation, punctuated by a four-year German occupation. Two cousins, Roland and Edgar, are survivors of the bloody aftermath of a national effort to keep the Red Army at bay, only to see the arrival of another occupying force, the Germans. Roland swears vengeance on those who have destroyed his country and ravaged his hopes of living a peaceful farming life with his fiancée. While Roland counts Estonian corpses, Edgar schemes to save his own skin under the new regime.
The book takes readers on a dark journey into the minds and souls of people one mis-step away from a death sentence. Its title refers to the starvation that gripped Estonia during the war, when rats and pigeons became fair game for both hungry citizens and occupying soldiers. Everyone seems duplicitous. The washroom attendant may be an informer, an old schoolfriend could become an enemy and one family member may be ready to write the death sentence of another.
In these days of amped-up tension between Russia and the West, “When the Doves Disappeared” has fresh relevance. Oksanen herself has been a vocal critic of Russia’s President Putin and the Estonia of her novel is the backdrop to her exploration of an autocratic regime that favors the machine of power over the welfare of a nation.
For centuries, singers performed ancient songs and incantations throughout Finland. As these stories – sometimes adventures, sometimes lamentations for a lost love – were performed hundreds of thousands of times over the years, they took on countless variations, depending on the singer and audience. It was not until the mid-19th century, when Elias Lönnrot preserved some of the tales by composing the epic poem, “The Kalevala,” that this folklore was recorded in writing. Despite the significant effort by Lönnrot and other folklorists, much about these lyrical treasures has been lost.
At the center of “The Kalevala” is “steadfast old Vainamoinen,” a heroic figure with mystical qualities. He can ride his stallion across the sea, split a hair with a dull knife, tie an egg into a knot and fetch the moon from the sky. Despite his gifts, Vainamoinen soon finds himself in a battle with the handsome and self-assured Lemminkainen for the attention of a beautiful maiden. But first, each must try to prove his worth to her mother, a powerful matriarch who sends them on a set of nearly impossible tasks.
“The Kalevala” will appeal to enthusiasts of “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” (in fact, Lönnrot modeled “The Kalevala” on Homer’s work), but may also attract “Harry Potter” fans – young and old – for its great magical adventures. Its pages are filled with enchanted forests, rivers of death, a Sun Spirit and Moon Spirit who weave fabric of gold and silver, and heroes whose music brings eagles, hawks and fish to tears. There are also plenty of exciting battles.
Throughout “The Kalevala,” the cadence and rhythm of the words and lines keep the story moving. As one reads the words aloud, one can imagine a bard entertaining his family, or perhaps an entire village in the dark of winter, belting out the words, singing a story to make the long Arctic winters seem a bit shorter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.