A book from every country — F

A review of one book from every country in the world, from A to Z, uncovering hidden gems of world literature.

Finland

Arto Paasilinna — The Year of the Hare (1975)

Setting: Rural Finland

What it’s about: A Finnish journalist abandons his dreary city routine in favour of a Tom Sawyer like romp through the Finnish countryside.

The plot is very simple. Driving back from covering a story with his newspaper’s photographer, their car hits a hare. He rushes out the nurse it, and when the photographer gets tired of waiting and drives off, his meeting with the hare somehow triggers a change in his way of life. He refuses to come back to the city, instead adopting an itinerant life travelling north through Finland, encountering all manner of picturesque adventures with his hare on the way.

“The journalist sat on the edge of the ditch, holding the hare in his lap: he resembled an old woman with her knitting on her knees and lost in thought. The sound of the motor-car engine faded away. The sun set.
The journalist put the hare down on the grass patch. For a moment he was afraid the leveret would try to escape; but it huddled in the grass, and when he picked it up again, it showed no sign of fear at all.
‘So here we are,’ he said to the hare. ‘Left.’
That was the situation: he was sitting alone in the forest, in his jacket, on a summer evening.
Vatanen got to his feet, gazed at the sunset’s last redness through the forest trees, nodded to the hare. He looked towards the road but made no move that way. He picked up the hare up off the grass, put it tenderly in the side-pocket of his jacket, and left the allotment for the darkening forest.”

Why you should read it: If you work in an office, the transformation from office drone (‘The beauty of the Finnish summer evening is lost on them both’) to man of nature:

“They drove through the lovely summer evening hunched, self-absorbed as two mindless crustaceans.”

The best book from Finland? Arto Paasilinna is very popular in Europe, and has a whole body of work translated into French. He doesnt seem to have done so well in English, surprisingly.

I also recommend Surunen, Liberator of the Oppressed, in which an Amnesty International supporter tires of writing letters and sets of on Tintin-style adventures to break prisoners of conscience out of jail. It has the same surreal, magical spirit as Year of the Hare.

You’ll like this if you liked: Into the Wild. This is a rocambolesque, Tom Sawyer-meets-Walden like adventure, with a mixture of the slapstick and depely poetic. What starts as a nonsense plot soon becomes addictive.

Into the Wild

Rating: ** (where *-good, **-great, ***-masterpiece)


France

Faiza Guene — Some Dream for Fools (2006)

Setting: Contemporary Parisian suburbs.

What it’s about: A soulful tale of dead-beat, no-prospect life in the Parisian banlieu, and its accompanying struggles with bureaucracy, violence and racism, told with a brilliant, raging flippancy. The protagonist, an Algerian immigrant, moves through service jobs while caring for her disabled father and trying to keep her younger brother out of trouble.

It is at its most poignant when describing the small injustices, the humiliations of migrants reapplying for a residence permit, queueing from 5 AM and still waiting all day for their turn:

An old man, a Malian I believe, missed his turn because he didn’t recognise his name. The women called Mr. Wakeri, once, twice, three times before moving without any qualms to the next person.
He had been waiting there since dawn, and his name was Mr. Bakari, and that is why he did not get up. Somebody told him in bambara that they had certainly already called his name, she tried to negotiate his way to the counter, but it was too late.
He had to come back the next day.

She starts spending time in a cafe where the waitress sees her writing her diary and thinks she is a writer, and asks her what she writes about:

“Its mostly social stories, I would say. The stories of people who slave away because society hasen’t given them a choice, who try to find a way out and know a little bit of happiness.”
“And that interests people?”

Rating: **

The best book from France? Two other novels stand out:

La Douleur by Margeurite Duras is a harrowing short story about the end of the Second World War in Paris. A Parisian woman, loosely connected to the resistance, struggles to cope with her husband’s return from a concentration camp, a shadow of a man. When he returns, so shocking is his appearance (his skin “like cigarette paper”, his insides visible) that his friends tear down the welcome home banners and weep. Deeply harrowing.

Another very appropriate book for these times is The Plague by Albert Camus. Whether you consider him French or Algerian, this is most certainly a book about France — the city under plague an allegory of France under the occupation.

What’s missing:

Fiji

The only novel I could find from Fiji, Kalyana, was so dull I could not bring myself to include it. Any other tips?