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.