The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyro
|The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyro|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A friendly Romanian immigrant and the unlikely form of his best friend show this book up as an urgent piece of fable, delighting in picking apart European capitalist life in slightly episodic but engaging style.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: March 2014|
|Publisher: Short Books|
Our hero, Vatanescu, is a fish out of water. He's a father without his family, a man without a home, a possibility without a chance. He's being transported across Europe by a criminal people-smuggler, who is also packing Vatanescu's sister off to the cosmetic surgeon then the prostitute trade. Our hero is destined to sit in discomfort, sleet and in hateful gazes of others as a beggar on the streets of Helsinki. But at the same time impossibilities are amassing – one of which splits Vatanescu from his minder/mentor, and leaves him on the run with a fistful of useless currency. A further impossibility gifts him a friendly, warm companion – a rabbit being chased by local youths jumps into the sanctuary of his arms, and becomes a welcome source of focus. From then on many more jumps will be made from one impossibility to another, as the life of this illegal immigrant begins to resonate across his adopted homeland…
It's quite rare for a book to come to English from a language such as Finnish without a lengthy wait, and/or a major cultural fund sponsoring the translation. The fact that this volume reached our shores after just three years, and with no fund mentioned in the credits, immediately suggested to me something that was a bit more necessary, more relevant and appealing than some of the imported novels available. And what I got was certainly that. Its cultural impact is certainly not just confined to Finland, however much it concerns a bizarre road movie in book form that seems to cover all that country, and factors in jokes about ice hockey. The approach of the story is somewhat akin to linked short stories, in that every chapter has to introduce someone very different (the Vietnamese restaurant owner, the heart attack victim, the downtrodden woman with the vestige of a childhood dream to be a magician) and only slowly, quite surprisingly at times, merge their life story with Vatanescu's.
The entertainment comes from the way these tales of diverse lives merge with that of our hero and create an obvious fable, but one that holds more subtlety than one might think, that makes for incredibly pointed commentary about capitalism and the ways of modern society yet still can encompass even more important things than that, such as the basic human desires, and that of course has a rabbit, which – if it doesn't exactly suggest tilting at windmills is a bad thing – certainly plays its part in the narrative as part of a most unusual double act.
There is also a double act in that the book, short enough as it is, can also pack in the mirroring tale of Yegor, the criminal people smuggler. Which brings me on to style, wherein I tread carefully, for as bizarre and unique as it sounds the manner of the story is still eminently readable and accessible. It's very nicely judged, in fact, to build and reinforce characterisation, for while it's clear that Vatanescu hasn't been given the privilege of a first name, nor has he been given dialogue. What passes for his speech is an italicised thought process, and only once, a third of the way in, does he ever get any reported dialogue. Yegor, meanwhile, due to his starting the book very much with higher status, speaks to us in great indented quotations, as if our narrator were in fact a journalist presenting the results of a lengthy introspective interview to us.
The rabbit doesn't get to say much, but boy does it matter. The fact that it's called a hare in the book's title, and by only one character out of many who misidentify it throughout, is something I'll leave others to discuss. The fact the whole thing riffs off a Finnish folkloric classic I know nothing about I'll confirm should matter not, and really shouldn't put people off. The fact remains that there is very little to put people off this book, which has a warmth, heart and humour that inspires, a firm touch on the European state of mind and European state of play, and more than enough to say about the ways of the world and their ills. It did deserve that virtually immediate appearance in what reads as a fine translation, and deserves an equally speedy purchase.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
This very much reminded me of Doppler by Erlend Loe for approach, Nordic kinship, and use of animal in fable.
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