The best tales are always deceptively simple. They seem to be about one thing when, really, they’re about another entirely. A few characters, some simple props. One, two, three seemingly inconsequential events. Maybe four at a push.
Like the finest vacuum cleaners, they suck you in before you know it. They have you churning and spinning, both frightened and excited at the same time. You may think you know where you are going. In truth, you don’t. And neither do you, in all honesty, care.
The Beggar and the Hare is one such novel. It’s a fable. But unlike Aesop, it doesn’t preach.
This is simple story about Vatanescu, a working class Romanian construction worker, who wants, according to the publisher, “a future for himself and a pair of footballs for his son.” That’s all there is to it. At least, on the surface.
My English teacher once said to me that the key to a novel’s success, at least in the way it tells a story, is to have a memorable character at its centre. Someone you care about. Someone you’d go out for a meal or a drink with. Someone you want to share things with.
With Vatanescu as its central character, The Beggar and the Hare succeeds admirably. Ambitious, caring, a little naïve, a touch melancholy, he engages you in the way he always puts his son and his sons wishes and wants right before his own. This leads him on a journey from Romania through the length and breadth of Finland. He is in search of work. He is in search of money. He is in search of hope. He is in search of happiness, or, at least, the happiness he hopes that all or each of these three things will bring him.
And yet, there are the slightest flickers of desperation and danger in the corners of his mind, which keeps things both frightening and exciting for him and us. In Vatanescu’s quest for money, he encounters the ruthless and even more ambitious Yegor, a Russian human trafficker, who seems at first to be his salvation. Yegor, however, as we soon discover, also has a twisted sense of morality and values which brings Vatanescu and he into direct conflict with each other.
Money is to be made. Money has to be made. But, the author, Thomas Kyro, asks at each turn, at what cost is this to our country and ourselves? This is what Vatanescu and Yegor find out during the course of the novel. Kyro’s great trick in keeping us reading is keeping things deceptively simple.
The hare Vatanescu befriends during his journey through the geography, society and class system of modern day Finland (although, in truth, it could be almost any modern-day country) appears as just that: a hare. But both it and Vatanescu are, when one dares to read more closely, so much more.
Vatanescu is a fine representation of the modern day European working man, with all his naïveté, honesty and human flaws. The Hare stands in well for that which represents hope and luck in this world (and ours). Yegor, meanwhile, stands for all that is wrong in a corrupt and capitalist western state and the excitement in this novel lies in seeing how the author uses these characters as mouthpieces and pawns in a far bigger, grander and more ambitious game plan.
We follow Vatanescu because we warm to him, in all his innocence and sheer good heartedness. We see why he would look up to, and come to fear someone like Yegor and yet — and this is perhaps Kyro’s finest trick in his box — we never judge either of them. We come to see both characters as products of their backgrounds and circumstances. While their deeds may either sicken or sadden us (or in many cases, both at the same time), they never lose our interest.
In this respect, the novel which The Beggar and the Hare most calls to mind is Anne Holm’s classic 1963, I Am David. Both have protagonists who are unsure of themselves and their surroundings, both are ambitious and curious in equal measures and both have a light of hope running throughout their stories.
In this respect also, The Beggar and the Hare calls to mind films such as Jakob the Liar (1999) and Life Is Beautiful (1997). The darkness and fear may be all around, but if you peer into the distance, you will find light to see you through. If the The Beggar and the Hare has a weakness, it is that, at times Vatanescu is just a little too sentimental and optimistic for his own good and also, Yegor comes across as a bit too much of a James Bond bad guy for him to be truly and consistently frightening. These, however, are minor gripes with what is, overall, a riveting read.