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Elina Hirvonen: When I Forgot

I have noWhen I Forgotw made several attempts at describing When I Forgot, the debut novel by young Finnish author Elina Hirvonen, but each attempted paragraph has been disappointing, dull, and confusing. The novel itself is not disappointing, dull, and confusing, but it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Anna, the narrator, spends the ‘present-day’ span of the novel sitting in a coffee shop, about to go to visit her brother Joona in mental hospital but not quite managing it. She remembers moments from her early childhood, from her teenage years when Joona was already mentally ill, and from the recent past. This is a novel about family histories, stories that families tell about themselves, and subdued, everyday tragedies that make families fall apart. Anna’s story is echoed by that of her American boyfriend Ian, whose father was a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, but the relationship between Anna and her brother makes the novel what it is: an intense co-dependence made all the more painful by good childhood memories, when things had yet to go so wrong. As she says: ‘I want a childhood to reminisce about. A life to tell others about. A brother with a real life.’

The characters relive and reinvent their memories through creative writing; Anna has written poetry relating to her brother, and Ian spent her childhood making up stories about a superhero father. This structure is naturally complicated by Anna being the narrator: she not only re-imagines her own story, but also imagines Ian re-imagining his. These relationships culminate in the time leading up to the war in Iraq, which makes this very much a novel of its time – and gives its melancholy, Finnish atmosphere an international edge.

What I liked best about this novel is that in spite of the 9/11, Iraq and Vietnam references it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. The global events provide context to the personal histories, but the book remains intensely personal: the political never takes over. Hirvonen refers to Mrs Dalloway, but even if she hadn’t, I would probably have made the connection. Just like Woolf’s novel, When I Forgot has a profound sense of life going on no matter what: ‘Memory is one of life’s burdens that we can do nothing about’ – there are no happy endings, but at least we may learn to bear our burdens a little better.

(Incidentally, Mrs Dalloway seems to be a peculiarly potent literary reference in this day and age – there is The Hours by Michael Cunningham, of course, and Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park which I read recently. Every novelist seems to find something different in Mrs Dalloway, too: if Arlington Park was about the Clarissas of this world, When I Forgot is about the Septimus Smiths and their Lucrezias.)

Finnish is a tricky language to translate to English because the difficulties are less obvious: there is no odd syntax that you fix must, as in German, and Fennoisms don’t jump out of the text with the exuberance of Gallicisms. No, more often than not Finnish translated to English just sounds a little ‘off’, and you cannot say why. Whenever I try translating something myself, it feels like singing in a slightly wrong key, but being unsure what the right key was supposed to be. After the first chapter I was worried this might be the problem with Douglas Robinson’s translation of this novel, but it quickly turned out to be very readable – and, looking through the novel in its original Finnish, faithful too. It had a rather American feel to it, and some ‘wannas’ and ‘gonnas’ to capture the informality of spoken Finnish, but considering the story, this did not seem out of place.

Final Verdict: Some readers will doubtless find this a little formless, a little plotless. There is very little sense of closure, and I can’t put my finger on any particular memorable moment – except a traumatic Christmas scene that stands out vividly in my memory. Rather, When I Forgot is a fragmented but intriguing whole – like a piece of embroidery that Anna picks up, stitches with her own memories and those of others, and then sets aside half-finished. If you like the sound of this, the chances are you’ll enjoy the book. I did.

Portobello Books, 2007; hardback, 180  pp.; original Finnish title Että hän muistaisi saman, transl. by Douglas Robinson; ISBN: 978 1 84627 094 9

7 comments on “Elina Hirvonen: When I Forgot

  1. Jackie
    November 22, 2007

    The layout of this book, the memories explored whilst sitting in a coffee shop is a clever idea & one that would interest me in reading it. So often troubled adults have awful childhoods, but the happy one in this case would balance things more. The retro cover fits the mood as you describe it.
    Your comments on translation was interesting too. I’ve always wondered at the difficulties involved & if it made a difference what languages were used.

  2. Leena
    November 22, 2007

    Yes, the process of translation is something that intrigues me enormously. The pair of languages in question does seem to make a difference – some languages sound natural translated to a certain language, but all wrong when translated to another. I can’t help wondering why.

    What makes me wonder even more is that Tolstoy sounds better to me in English, but Dostoevsky in Finnish (wish I understood Russian so I could try out the originals!). Could be that the whole natural/unnatural thing is just a personal quirk.

    I love the cover too; it’s a gorgeous little hardback. (And the colours look nice on this blog, don’t they? ;-))

  3. lisaonsea
    November 22, 2007

    This sounds great. Very unusual. And I’m intrigued as to what you say about Finnish to English translations sometimes sounding ‘off’.

    Just out of interest, Leena, would this be a book that you would re-read in future?

  4. Leena
    November 23, 2007

    Hmm. That’s a good question, Lisa. I’m not a big re-reader – for pleasure I tend to re-read only my favourite 18th- and 19th-century novels (and LOTR!), because they’re usually so huge and there’s so much to remember (or forget) and savour in them. Plus ‘comfort reads’ like my fave children’s books, Wodehouse, Waugh or Heyer. Other books I re-read only for specific reasons, and the shorter the book is the less likely am I to re-read it just because – I often look at something like ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ by Jean Rhys on my shelf and say to myself, ‘oh yes, that was so great’ but feel no urge to pick it up again… wonder why.

    Anyhow, the short answer is no. I don’t think so, especially as I already read it in two languages. But ask me again in 10 years ;-)

  5. Leena
    November 23, 2007

    (However, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it as a Christmas present to friends, which is a far more reliable litmus test where I’m concerned…)

  6. john k lindgren
    May 18, 2009

    I presume the Hollywood script is already approved by Hirvonen et al.

    Let me recommned the soundtrack: Leonard Cohenski
    The Future, of course and JS Bach interpretations by Glenn Gould – only Glenn Gould. Le Canadien.

    And at the end the final scene Valse Triste; Janne Sibbe -aka Jean Sibelius.

    Panta rei

    John Koistinen Lindgren
    http://www.catsanook.com

  7. john koistinen-lindgren
    August 30, 2009

    Finnish literature a part from Elina Hirvonen. Who do you recommend.

    Who is the most famous contemporary Finnish writer today?

    John Koistinen-Lindgren
    CarSanook!
    Bangkok

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This entry was posted on November 20, 2007 by in Entries by Leena, Fiction in translation, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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