The Finnish writer and documentary filmmaker, Elina Hirvonen, was one of the international guests attending the Open Book Festival last year in September. During the festival, she spoke about her novel, When I Forgot, originally published in Finnish in 2005. Two years later, it was translated into English and followed by Farthest from Death in 2010. Hirvonen’s third novel, When Time Runs Out (2015), was published to great critical acclaim in Finland. The English translation became available soon after Hirvonen’s visit in South Africa and is as relevant to our contemporary reality as it was at the time of its inception. Wherever we are in the world, news of mass shooting reach us on a regular basis and the intensely polarised opinions about the motivations, circumstances and the consequences of such actions continue to dominate global discussions.
Hirvonen’s fictional take on such horrendous acts is deeply insightful. The book was written and published in the aftermath of the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik committing the horrific attacks in Oslo and on the island of Utøya in which 77 people died. There is a time-shifting reference to the event in the book: “Almost twenty years ago a Norwegian man killed dozens of young people on an island where they had gathered to talk about politics.” Hirvonen sets her story in Finland, in downtown Helsinki. Aslak, a young man, climbs to the roof of a building, aims his weapon at two unsuspecting women below, and fires: “They may be mother and daughter, he thinks, as he sets the rifle down for a moment, shaking his arms and taking a deep breath as if after a long dive. Then he raises the rifle again and takes aim at the woman, who is holding her hat as she runs for safety.” Within moments other passers-by become his victims.
It is one thing when you face an enemy you are aware of. Falling victim to a random act of violence is something none of us can guard against, which makes the possibility so much more frightening. Additionally to the loss of a loved one, the families and friends of mass shooting victims have to deal with this cruel unpredictability. And it is all around us: “In some extraordinary way we have grown used to killing. We have grown used to the feeling of insecurity caused by violence, to the grief which everyone wants to share, to the huddles of candles in the streets and in the school playgrounds, to the hearts and cloying ballads of social media which people try to share after such events. We have learned to deal with death and a daily insecurity, but not with the silence of a killer.”
Hirvonen’s When Time Runs Out looks at that silence and a different kind of suffering involved in such a situation – that of the family of the perpetrator: “When a quiet pupil comes to school with a weapon under his long coat and shoots ten of his classmates, everyone is supposed to think about the victim’s parents. How awful it would be to be one of them… You can talk about fear and anxiety to others because everyone recognises this. Parents who forget to breathe when reading such news because they know that the shooter could be their child bear their horror alone.”
When Time Runs Out is mainly told from the perspectives of Aslak’s mother, Laura, and his older sister, Aava. Their relationships with Aslak are complicated in diverse ways. Laura finds it extremely difficult to find a sense of connection to her son. Aava, who is a doctor working in conflict zones around the globe, has a closer relationship with her brother, but struggles to reach him when it matters the most. The family, including the father, battles to understand the troubled, impenetrable young man growing up among them.
When Time Runs Out is divided in five parts and each is preceded by a fascinating epigraph. The one which opens the novel comes from Susan Sontag’s seminal work, Regarding the Pain of Others: “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” It pinpoints the nearly impossible task of the characters face, given the situation they find themselves in. With the fourth epigraph and what it stands for, Hirvonen adds a complex dimension not only to Aslak’s motives, but his mother’s vocation in the context of their story. The quote comes from a scientific paper by Craig A. Anderson and Matt Delisi: “However, no country will be immune to the violent consequences of global change.”
Laura works for an environmental organisation, specialising in climate politics. When Aslak is younger, he hears her lecture on the topic of climate change. It is a rare moment of sharing between them, but whereas Laura thrives on the passion for her vocation and her professional support of policy change, her son’s solution to the problem is driven by a sickening logic and inspired by a need to belong to something seemingly meaningful, no matter how cruel or misguided.
Hirvonen never excuses any of Aslak’s crimes, but offers us a credible story of what makes a person turn to absolutely senseless violence. What is most impressive about Hirvonen’s novel is that she does not let his family off the hook either. The author never lectures or points careless fingers. She makes the reader stare into the barrel of that rifle with which Aslak is about to shoot innocent people. She shows us what it means to stand there along with his helpless mother when the police come to tell her the news. We witness his sister trying to breathe through the night on the other side of the globe when she intuitively feels that something horrible is unfolding, but is paralysed by her brother’s last messages and the silence which follows.
Hirvonen’s storytelling is a fine act of balance between compassion, responsibility and blame. When Time Runs Out will make you reconsider your assumptions about this terrifying topic.
When Time Runs Out
by Elina Hirvonen
Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 April 2018.