When I Forgot, by Elina Hirvonen, trans. Douglas Robinson

Echoes of Woolf in modern Finland
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The Independent Culture

'Life. London. This moment in June. This moment in April... How sad if someone were to kill herself without knowing that moments like this exist." As she sits alone in a Helsinki café, Anna Louhiniitty, a young journalist, ignores the demands of her mobile and, as the words she remembers suggest, uses some free moments to review her life through the prism of a book: Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. It was her lover, the American Ian Brown, formerly her university supervisor, who put both the novel and its author her way.

Just as in Mrs Dalloway the flux of ordinary life is offset by the disturbed world of Septimus Warren Smith, so Anna sees her past and present thrown into constant relief by the chaos inhabited by her elder brother, Joona. An aggressive maverick in their adolescence, he is now a sectioned psychotic. As she sips Campari and picks at a mozzarella salad, Anna must decide whether to go to the hospital to see him. Wasn't she responsible for his last crisis? "Psychosis is a word. Suffering isn't. There's just an intolerable dread of existence: you'd DO ANYTHING to make it stop." Joona's sentences turn Anna into "the beautiful writer who walked into the water with a stone in her pocket".

Joona and Anna are the children of a Lutheran priest and his Swedish-educated wife, ambivalent parents at best. Joona ceaselessly infuriated his father, who would thrash him savagely. Yet both parents had difficult pasts continually erupting into their adulthood, as the mature Anna now appreciates.

In a further correspondence to Mrs Dalloway, Anna's portrait is compounded by another anguished history, Ian's. He is the son of a Vietnam veteran destroyed by his experiences, and a mother who found a route out of so much suffering only through a new partner. When September 11 struck and George Bush invaded Iraq, Ian understood the destabilising resonance of both event and subsequent action. In the marvellously done recollection of Helsinki's demonstration against the Iraq war (a counterpart to the public spectacles in Clarissa Dalloway's London), Ian is turned on by the young Finns he has gladly joined, for his American provenance. Violence is not the prerogative of the politically benighted.

Many will feel that Mrs Dalloway has done ample service as role-model. But they would be unjust to hold this close kinship against this novel. Rather, it shows how a major work can act as springboard for the creation of another, freestanding artistically and honestly engaged with important themes. After all, Mrs Dalloway enjoys a similar relation to Ulysses. No previous Finnish novel has had such international success as When I Forgot; its intelligence and power make this deserved.

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