(Trigger warning for discussions of Child physical abuse and Mental Illness)
Elina Hirvonen is a Finnish writer and documentary filmmaker residing in Helsinki who has written three novels to date with her first foray into the literary world being nominated for the2003 Finlandia Literary Prize. Her latest novel, “Kun aika loppuu” (“When Time Ends”) was published in 2014, and has been getting prominent praise for her insightful grappling with a slew of difficult political and existential questions highlighted with frank considerations and bare depictions of often grim subject matters, such as mass suicides. Her cultural work as a writer also includes numerous columns in major newspapers such as “Helsingin Sanomat” which have detailed and delved into such diverse subject matters as censorship, racism and even into the questions and struggles of writing itself. Notably, in an interview with the newspaper “Kodin kuvalehti”, Hirvonen candidly discussed the myriad of normative social pressures applied to us all with her recounting of her teenage years under the constant stress of trying to be a straight A student and to be constantly perfect. This pressure also meant that she felt forced into being constantly polite and happy, which lead to self-harm; something that the adults circling around her and her anxiousness seemed oblivious to. Hirvonen has made a name for herself in her frankness in her opinions, telling her own story of mental health and last, but by no least, writing books that brutally show the dark side in everyday life. This brings us to the review of her debut novel, “When I Forgot”.
When her debut was translated into English in 2009 the novel obtained a review in “The New York Times”, and was in 2014 translated into Swedish, where it saw an outpouring of favorable reviews from the Swedish literary press. Both of these, along with being translated into Polish and other numerous languages, gave the book an international audience which is unusual for a Finnish Language novel and novelist. The story is a merger of narrative lines navigated between the course of a single day, and the exploration of memories triggered by its events. The plot is put into motion when Anna, a young woman, gets a phone call from her mother asking her to visit her brother in the psychiatric hospital in Helsinki. Anna is reluctant and expresses huge resentment towards her brother, stating her constant and adamant resolve to reject the company of her brother. This request for a visit to her brother unleashes memories of her first meeting of her soon to be American live-in boyfriend, and begins a mental wandering tracing the memory landscape of her childhood traumas.
Exploring the terrain of her childhood Anna recalls the vicious and abusive actions her father lashed out onto her older brother, beating him savagely. It is not only physical abuse Anna remembers her father committing; he was also frequently cruel and dismissive, unreservedly malicious regarding the deadly spiral of Joona´s growing mental health problems, which in turn seem to be inexorably linked to the violence Joona suffered at the hands of his father. Even in the midst of this obvious abuse to her brother, the deadly dynamics of this abuse casts Anna in a web of insecurity mentally making her see herself as secondary to Joona. This lethal doubt of Anna is fueled as the fathers own violence towards Joona being spontaneous and unpredictable, which are followed by a discordant favoring of Joona. The father also insisted that the family just simply ignore his violent behavior, and its effects on Joona´s mental health. Anna´s pathway through her memories fills her with guilt, horror, and exhaustions in the web of violence and ignorance – they bring her to many times struggle with taking care for her ill brother.
Along with the strong narrative trail of weaving Anna’s past and present to explore her mental and moral struggles, the novel interestingly breaks this rotation of past and present in featured letters and papers Joona writes throughout his life, giving glimpses into his feelings of happiness, sadness and paranoia. And we find a added sphere of examination to Anna’s enclosure in the horrors of memory in Ian, her American boyfriend, who’s intersection with events entice another angle and question to the story .
I´ll try not to spoil too much, so this review is going to focus more on the themes in this novel. A major themed explored is family dynamics and domestic abuse. Anna is haunted by the violence her father played out on the body and mind of her brother, which leads her to feel uncertain and axious about herself as a individual. This violent past also haunts Joona insistently, as explored in the narrative device of the biographical papers he writes as a child detailing his growing unstable mind. The descriptions of the assaults are graphic, which makes them all the more unsettling. Even more disturbingly, one assault occurs after Joona lights a small fire; Anna´s narration makes it clear that he starts the fire because of his mental health problems. Despite this behavior being motivated by the growing mental problems in Joona, the father still fails to recognize this action as a current in Joona’s declining mental condition and viciously beats Joona.
Elina Hirvonen explores the toxic series of abuse and mental degradation in this scene detailing the horrific enclosure of abuse and its social/behavioral ramifications where it is ignored that the child´s disadvantages prove that their actions are out of their control, an aspect unhappily not often investigated in stories and media. “When I Forgot” explores societies silences around this aspect in child abuse and brings to light the ableism that sadly exist more than often in domestic abuse causes. Hirvonen stands on steady narrative grounds here as statistics actually have shown that a large percentage of children with disabilities and illnesses (whether physical or mental) are in fact more likely to face excessive violence in home environments.
As hinted from this direction of the novels themes comes also a nuanced examination into the despairing struggles of being mentally ill, and the conflicting feelings tormenting the loved ones operating around the individual with these dreadful battles. Joona, through the letters he writes, illustrates the fear and suspicion people around him express towards him in the midst of his battles of the mind. These letters describe a fierce rejection for openly and honestly admitting his health issues, both in dating scenes and in contact with his landlords. Anna on the other hand despairs that her brother may never have a normal life or even his own family. When others recognize Joona´s struggles with his mental issues, his opinions are directly discounted, his thoughts dismissed, and his personhood ignored. He is branded only as a mad man outside of community and the social. This aspect was particularly interestingly discussed in the novel, since Joona has legitimate concerns and thoughts about the world, but whenever his ideas or desires are expressed they are considered irrational at best, and nonsense in the usual case. However the mode of the narrative, and the line of thinking detailed in the novel, shows the reader that similar expressions, when stated by the “normal” actor, are taken seriously and considered evidently rational. Hirvonen plays here with double standards. Actions/thoughts, even if irrational, are taken more seriously if we view the person as sane, if we don´t we dismiss the very same actions and thoughts.
Anna throughout the entire novel struggles with her role as caretaker for Joona. While usually these plotlines paint the ill loved one solely as a burden, Joona is explored in the novel in a much more subtle and complex fashion. His erratic behavior, while in most instances is a burden for Anna, have also occasionally bordered on the heroic in situations where she has needed him. Anna, also, honestly describes her own actions toward Joona as sibling rejection, and often as straight out betrayal. Anna has complex emotions in these situations; she loves Joona but is uncertain what to do about him most of the time. She wonders if her actions really help him or not, if she is a hand in stabilizing Joona or if she contributes to the shove downward adding to his misery. This despair is exposed on the surface of Anna’s ambivalence as reflected in the face of a Joona who may never be able to fit into society, to be seen as “normal”.
In the midst of this morass of confusions, though, we still see a Joona who attempts to grasp and control his own life and actions. His narration is often motivated in the attempt to defend himself from rejections and accusations, and depicts a person with a deep sense of what´s right and what´s wrong. He has a strong moral compass, which tragically is drowned out often by his severe problems. And the relationship of brother and sister, regardless of the disintegrations of abuse and mind shattering problems, strives and achieves a strong bond. Under the guise of this bond and struggle the true trajectory of novel, transcending the horrors of abuse, could be read as Anna and Joona´s unconditional love for each other being tested, and whether or not it can remain. Intense stuff.
The final theme I want to discuss is the novels depiction of the growing Anti-Americanism that started to grow in the early 2000´s. At the onset of “When I Forgot” Ian, as an expat American, struggles in Finland Post 9/11 and, with the Iraq war just emerging, he finds himself branded only as a political and social outlier. Ian has moved to Finland and speaks Finnish, yet can sense that his students and colleges at the University he works at are, quite unsubtly, being passive-aggressive towards him or aggressively dismissive. This escalates into full blown nasty remarks, which leads him mentally into a confused state and creates doubts about his identity to himself (since he doesn´t sit well with being “just another American”). Ian realizes that people will now look at him only through the distorting and singular prism of the nation/state. As his own identity is quite tangential to the notion of a “nation”, and since he has few happy memories from back home, returning to the states seems an impossible option. Hirvonen uses the cliqued reading of individuals as bounded by only state (as well as others are bound by race and ethnicity) and explores how this misreading (here the anger towards Americans) is a misguided and a confusion and often dripping with hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Hirvonen explores how this mentality (which reduces individuals to nations, races, sexes, etc:) is injudicious and only makes Others who are guiltless a focus of hateful dismissal. In this device the novel interrogates why Anti-Americanism (as with any prejudice: to racism, ageism, sexism) is so simplistic and toxic, especially inside of progressive movements (this can be accepted since Americans have “power”. But the reading should be individual as the government of a Nation should not be ideologically bound to individuals).
Being hostile to someone just for being from a nation, a religion, ethnicity, etc. shows our irrationality and inclinations for simplistic aggressions, and we can find great thanks that this form of “Othering” the individual is grappled with by Hirvonen in the midst of all of the other despairs and hates she explores in this strong and forceful work.
Go check this novel out. It´s got great themes, it´s short so it won´t be difficult to get trough, and it´s utterly touching. A solid work.
For another account on Anti-Americanism, check out Bess Rattnay´s account on it at Salon.