Friday, December 4, 2009

Reading Journal: "When I Forgot"

Elina Hirvonen, When I Forgot. Translated by Douglas Robinson. Tin House Books 2009. Originally published in Finland in 2005. 180 pp. $12.95.

Elina Hirvonen's first novel is set in the shadow of 9/11 and during the build up to the Iraq War that followed. The broken lives of its characters float downward like debris from the tragedy, carrying with them memories of a lost wholeness. Anna, the narrator, is suffering from survivor's guilt. Her troubled brother Joona was beaten by their father, and has landed in a mental hospital suffering from severe psychosis. Anna feels bound to him, she wants to help him, and she wants to forget him. Anna's lover, a visiting American academic named Ian, is the son of a Vietnam vet who came home shattered from the war. As America prepares to go to war in Iraq and anti-American demonstrations fill the streets of Helsinki, Anna and Ian painfully struggle to piece themselves together. Anna and Ian are like human twin towers, reduced to emotional rubble by the people and events—both personal and political—that collide with them.

The narrative shifts between present and past, and between the stories of Anna and Ian. Both were unpopular and persecuted in school. Both came from troubled families. Ian has become an academic—he originally comes to Finland to lecture on Virginia Woolf—and Anna has become a journalist. As the novel opens, Anna is sitting in a cafĂ©, and seems to be reading Michael Cunningham's The Hours: "There's the book. There's the world I am allowed to enter. Three women on a single day in different time periods. The writer Virginia Woolf who filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the water."

The novel itself feels as if it has rocks in its pockets, pulled down by the pervasive tone of irredeemable despair and by the seriousness of its purpose. Hirvonen's writing lacks the lightness of touch that marks her countrywoman Tove Jansson's stories of loss and disillusionment. Hirvonen gives us the image of Virginia Woolf weighed down with rocks, walking into the river to drown herself. Jansson gives the image of her Anna's old furniture piled up on the ice out in the harbor, waiting for spring to break up the ice and pull it all down:
Far out on the ice lay a dark pile of rubbish waiting for the ice to break up, a monument to Mama and Papa's complete inability ever to get rid of possessions. How remarkable, Anna thought. The ice will go, and everything will sink, just go straight down and disappear. It's bold, it's almost shameless... Later it occurred to her that maybe it wouldn't sink, not all of it, maybe it would float to another shore and someone would find it and wonder where it came from and why. In any event, it was not even the least bit Anna's fault.
The ice holds things up, but even when it's gone, some things will float. In Jansson's world, there is some buoyancy—some of it is Anna's personal self-deception, much of it is the human will to stay afloat. At the end of Hirvonen's novel there is a moment of lightness, as her Anna seems to float above her reflection in the puddles of a spring thaw. For me, that lightness came too late.

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