Book Club: The Beggar and the Hare
What was your inspiration to start writing The Beggar & the Hare?
Romanian beggars appeared in Helsinki a few years ago. There were six of them. At the same time so called ‘city hares’ star ted to mess up the life of the Finnish middle class by eating the roots of apple trees. There were 16 of those horrifying creatures. For some reason this seemed to be the biggest political problem in Finland.
It interested me. Why are we so afraid of, and disgusted by, something so small? What does that tell us about ourselves? What kind of time and place are we living in?
First, I wrote a satirical newspaper column about a beggar and a hare that travel trough Finland – geographically and psychologically. I took the structure from Ar to Paasilinna’s masterpiece, The Year of the Hare – why try to invent something new when it has already been done? The column expanded into a radio play. The radio play expanded into a novel.
What made you choose a hare as Vatanescu’s partner?
A rabbit or a beggar on their own are often seen as little more than garbage (this is mentioned in the book by the populist politician Simo Pahvi). But together the beggar and the hare make a sweet couple that people fall in love with. You can’t hate them. You almost have to love them. How can you hate a man who takes care of a wounded hare?
Did you always intend to write a political fable, or did that emerge as you went along?
When the main character is a beggar and the story is happening in modern day Finland, it is impossible to avoid social, economical and political themes. But I tell my stories from my characters’ points of view. Not from a political point of view, not from Tuomas Kyrö’s point of view. When I’m writing about a beggar, I have to be the beggar. When I’m writing about a brutal Russian criminal and human trafficker, I have to be that guy. I have to understand their motives and where their actions come from.
How do you feel the political landscape in Finland, and Europe, has changed in the years since you first wrote the book?
Right-wing populism was just rising when I was writing the book. Soon after the book was published the so-called True Finns won in the election. It means that fear is winning. Fear comes from frustration, unawareness, stupidity, pover ty, unemployment, mistrust.
Fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate.
The world does not feel like a safe place to be at the moment. The economy is collapsing. Factories have gone to China. Lower incomes mean lower tax revenue, putting the Nordic welfare state as we know it in big trouble. Worst case scenario: the whole of Europe stagnates. No work for young people has always meant trouble in a political sense. This creates fer tile ground for funda- mentalist and populist views.
We are turning against those who come from other countries, continents or social backgrounds. Maybe in the end against our neighbours too.
And I have not even mentioned Russia and Ukraine. Isis and the Middle East. Globalisation, climate change, unemployment, pover ty… all kinds of happy, positive and joyful themes.
I have no solution to these problems. I just write my books.
It seems you were very prescient in covering some of the key themes in the book, as topics such as financial corruption, issues with immigration and the perils of celebrity culture feature constantly in today’s press in the UK. Did you intend to satire other countries in Europe as much as Finland?
I don’t think that there is that big a difference in the attitudes between the wealthier Western European countries, like Great Britain, Sweden, Finland, Germany. I follow news, literature, popular culture, movies, TV series from all over the world. My stories are born out of a mixture of all that, and most of all out of my imagination.
The Beggar & the Hare is a satire about Finland but very strongly about Europe also. We are supposed to have a European Union but at the same time countries like Finland and Romania are a million miles away from each other.
Having said this, I still believe that people are the same everywhere. Something in our existence and in being human is the same. Only the circum- stances around us change. Because of that our actions differ.
You are often described as one of the key figures of ‘Finnish Weird’. How would you describe the style of this movement, and your place within it, to a non-Finnish reader?
We have a long tradition of realistic fiction in Finland. When Finns read novels, they want to read about who they are and why they are that way. I was one of those kinds of readers. But in the process of writing over 10 books since my debut novel in 2001, I have realised that what interests me most is writing books about how things could be; ‘what if ?’ or ‘why not?’ novels.
The most impor tant tool to me as a storyteller is my imagination. There are no rules or limitations on what to write and how to write it. ‘Weird’ might come out of that. But in some senses ‘weird’ is my normal. You don’t realise that you are weird if you are surrounded by even weirder weirdos.
I think this also has something to do with the climate and geography here, which means people seem to gather only for weddings, funerals or wars. (And all of those end in a fight and a night in jail.) That means we spend most of our time alone, thinking and not talking – and writing is mainly thinking with words, so sometimes it can get weird.
The Beggar & the Hare is at times a dark tale, while in the end offering a road to redemption for humanity. Are you essentially an optimist?
At first I thought I was writing more of a pointed (and cruel) satire. As it turned out, it was warm-hear ted after all. Maybe that means I am essentially an optimist.
People are not bad from their roots. It is usually a lack of knowledge or education, or an unstable childhood that makes them that way.
On the other hand, we are flesh-eating mammals with nuclear weapons, champagne, brothels, antibiotics, tradition, culture and the knowledge that every one of us is going to die some day. So it is a wonder that we have not killed each other already. And yet most of us want our children to have a better life than we have had.
From which writers have you drawn inspiration as an author?
Many Finnish writers from 1900s up until today. But with this book I was especially inspired by Jerzy Kosinski’s novella Being There, and the film adapta- tion starring Peter Sellers. As much as being inspired by literature, I draw on movies, stand-up comedy, TV series and whatever else I see, feel, observe, get pissed off by, fall in love with. The Simpsons is just as impor tant to me as Nabokov’s Lolita when it comes to how to write good satire.
Have you ever had a pet rabbit or hare?
I had a cat when I was six years old. I loved my cat a lot. Then the allergy almost killed me. My grandparents said that they would take my cat to the countryside to live out her life peacefully.
I believed that story for 30 years.
Then the truth was revealed... they did not take her to the countryside but to a veterinarian to have one final injection.
That story is at the hear t of an author’s craft; you can imagine and write about things you never had, you have lost, you miss or you would like to have.