Saturday, June 27, 2009

Review: Elina Hirvonen's "When I Forgot"

Ray Taras, who covers contemporary world literature for the blog, reviews Elina Hirvonen's When I Forgot (Tin House Books, 2009):
Dysfunctional people, both Finnish and American, populate this short novel. Set principally in Helsinki, it is a story about the poisonous nature of violence. Fathers return from war to suffer psychotic episodes. They hurt their children and scar them for life. The unmistakable antecedent cause setting off this cycle of pathological behavior is war. In this novel, the theme of war extends from the U.S. invasion of Vietnam to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

But it is hard to construe this book as anti-American. Rather it is a melancholic narrative of contemporary life in Finland—one without alcohol, humor, or sisu (“spirit”). Thirty years his younger, Elina Hirvonen is as far removed from the playfulness and joie de vivre of an Arto Paasilinna novel as can be imagined.

First-time author Hirvonen is steeped in current affairs. She has worked as filmmaker, magazine editor, freelance journalist, and TV host. Many of her projects are concerned with the subject of migration. She herself has been living in Zambia writing, filming, and teaching. But the focus of When I Forgot is on Anna, a young Finn whose defining relationships are with her mentally-ill brother Joona and her befuddled American lover Ian. She becomes caregiver to one and anchor to the other. As she puts it, “My relationships had been based on two things: tending to someone’s needs, and despair” (p. 84).

A sense of foreboding affects most of the characters in this novel. They are shaped by the political and social events of the day. History makes Hirvonen’s men and women, they do not make history. This is a study of anomie in one affluent society—Finland-- and of aggression in another—the United States.

“Muddling through” is as much as Anna can aspire to. Dwelling on Mrs. Dalloway and on Virginia Woolf suggests other alternatives of escape to Anna. Hirvonen has acknowledged the inspiration she received from reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

Reflecting the novel’s ambiance, the prose is austere: “The evening was warm and thick with longing, but I felt none of it” (p. 160). The glittering lights of Kaivopuisto park along the harbor in Helsinki are a cause for gloom, not joy. Only mad Joona has character, even if it is to lash out at his sister, or morally blackmail her.

Is this an accurate representation of a despondent, anguish-ridden post- 9/11 world, as the book has been billed? It seems a stretch to read that into the narrative. Private life may indeed be structured by public affairs, by the polis. To one degree or another, America may have been traumatized by terrorism and itself resorted to it. Anna’s caregiving slips may produce harrowing consequences. But even under these conditions, individuals have stronger, freer wills than Hirvonen leads the reader to believe.
--Ray Taras
Ray Taras, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is the author of the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce
Per Petterson's To Siberia
Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger
Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses
M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song
3 Works by Dorota Masłowska
Andreï Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

Read an excerpt from When I Forgot.

--Marshal Zeringue