Month: February 2020

They Know Not What They Do

reading Valtonen book

They Know Not What They Do – Jussi Valtonen (London: Oneworld, 2017)

Reading They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen, is a bit like looking in on a group of observant and smart people, who share thoughtful, even profound, observations on love, disappointment, and American and Finnish culture, but who just happen to be on a sinking ship. You – and they – can never forget that things are only going to get much worse. Set against Helsinki’s endlessly brooding winter skies, and the droning of cicadas in Baltimore’s summer heat, a feeling of inescapable doom hangs over this dystopic novel as its flawed characters meet, mate, and make mistakes. The book feels somewhat long at 470 pages, but perhaps that’s just because, while there are lots of surprising plot twists, tragedy never feels far away.

They Know Not What They Do is an apt title. Joe, the ambitious American protagonist, Samuel, his estranged Finnish son, Alina, Samuel’s mother, and others in the novel seem to lack self-awareness in a normal, bumbling, struggle-through-the-day kind of way. However, they’re not lucky in life. None is able to escape the extraordinarily tragic consequences of failings that seem, in the end, fairly ordinary. This is part of the novel’s power. We’ve all made these mistakes, and if we haven’t met such tragedies, perhaps we’ve just been fortunate. The inside back cover states that Valtonen is not just a fine author and an exceptional wordsmith, but also a psychologist. He clearly knows day-to-day human weakness. Although he’s sympathetic, he’s a realist. The often very funny black humour will keep the reader going, even while a sensitive reader sometimes wants to put the book down rather than go through yet another looming misunderstanding, disappointment, or mistake.

If anything marks the book as Finnish, perhaps it’s this close attention to failure. As a Canadian reader, I’m familiar with literature where simple survival is victory. Finnishness and Americanism are presented as opposites, and are played up in the novel. But the stereotypes are presented only to be subverted: the American protagonist ends up paralyzed by indecision and fate, while the Finn achieves a sort of resolution.

The language throughout is clear, crisp, and its observations razor-sharp: the reader would never know the book was originally published in Finnish (translator Kristian London). Valtonen won the Finlandia Prize for this book, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s exceptionally observant, and extremely well-written. Academics will recognize their foibles in its sharp-eyed observations of university politics, but so will fatigued young parents, adolescents just entering college, and the middle-aged trying to decide if they’ve accomplished anything with their lives. They Know Not What They Do was written by someone who very definitely knew what they were doing: if you can handle the coming tragedy, it’s well worth getting to know these people as well.

Do You Mind if I Sit?


In memory of OS

Tears in his eyes, an old man tells me he wishes I wouldn’t choose

“Now Thank We All our God”

quite so often.

It’s a nice hymn, he says. I’m sorry Pastor.

Don’t mean to be a bother.

The organist likes it too. I can tell,

because the way she plays it. She really plays it. Poom, poom! – he laughs.

I sang that when I was nineteen, Pastor.

A young man.

He looks closely then. Checking to see if I can picture him

at nineteen.

Not like now, he says.


In my navy uniform, or what was left of it after going over the Italian wire.

I was lucky to get to that bunker. Lots didn’t.

I know other people like it.

He’s wipes a rheumy eye. Liver spots on his hand. It’s a good tune, he says.

Where was I? Oh. Yes. The problem is,

when I hear that hymn

I hear everything else:

The shells, the pain.

The ones who drowned. And we who remained,

standing tall, trying to be brave.

Five hundred men in that bunker, pastor. Singing Nun Danket like our lives depended on it.

The dust in the air. The wounded. The maimed.

And after the Amen –


No one knew what came next.

Until into that silence the senior officer said three words.

“Now we surrender.”

Oh Pastor…

That’s what he said. He smiles.

I’m an old man.

It’s a good hymn. It just makes me cry.

My war ended thanking God.

You see? He takes my hand.

You do what you want. I can’t be thankful enough.

That’s my problem. But. He leans close:

Soldiers stand, he says.

Do you mind, terribly,

if I sit?


(I just heard the news that my former parishioner, about whom I wrote this piece, passed away a couple days ago. The years I was his pastor he quietly refused to sing another hymn from our hymnbook, that I found out later had been used, with different words, by the Nazi regime during WW II).