09/2009: The Reinvention of modern Helsinki in Kjell Westö’s Där vi en gång gått (2006)

When works of “fiction“ dealing with particular historical periods receive some attention on screen, on the stage or in books they easily turn into semi-official visions or preconceptions of the period and/or the place concerned. Victorian London has been “captured” by Dickens no less than post-Revolution Paris by Balzac to a degree no academic historian or sociologist could ever match; Orson Welles’ Third Man has defined ideas of what Vienna in the late 1940s must have been like, and Fellini’s Dolce Vita soon came to be considered as an iconic portrayal of postwar extravagance in Rome.

It remains to be seen whether Westö’s novel will attain a similarly prominent status as regards Helsinki in the first third of the 20th century; it has not been turned into a movie so far – although there was a theatre version in Finnish (Missä kuljimme kerran) performed in Helsinki in 2008. The attention it has received since its publication three years ago has been extensive, anyway. In line with historical sensibilities, the experience and remembrance of the Finnish Civil War of 1918 were commented on extensively. It can be argued, however, that the main plot of the novel is the biography of Helsinki itself: from a fast-growing adolescent around 1900 to a mature and in some ways marked adult in the late 1930s. As with human beings, some cities are more up to their times than others, some age prematurely, others remain surprisingly robust. Helsinki is portrayed as prototypically modern in Westö’s text – and I hasten to add that these lines do not stem from a literary scholar nor from an expert in the history of Helsinki, but from an urban historian new to the Finnish capital, linguistically incompetent enough to read the text in German translation (btb Verlag, 2008), but intrigued just the same by the panorama it draws.

Obviously, the author is utilising signifiers of modernity to portray the city as an emerging European metropolis. This holds true for the import of the latest fashion(s) like jazz music, enjoyed in the company of other young adults and of creatively composed drinks in the 1920s;
for the extending international connections exemplified by sailor Allu Kajander, whose professional and emotional travels are virtually spanning the globe, or by the much revered, well-off and independent-minded “new woman” Lucie Lilljehelm moving to Paris several times – also in contrast to Henriette Huldqvist, the ageing actress from Stockholm. Various other impulses from Berlin and from the U.S., as emblems of interwar modernity, are integrated into the novel’s plot.

Modern technology, as manifest in the urban infrastructure, is a running theme throughout; electric street lamps, the extending tram network, automobiles and even airplanes abound, visual attractions like photography, cinema and mass spectator sports (notably men’s football and women’s tennis) loom large, but most of all the unremitting building activities in town are dwelled upon. From icons like the National Theatre, Torni and Carlton hotels, Stockmann’s department store and other notable constructions (which also staged and fuelled social segregation within the city, although nothing could rival the “Long Bridge” in that respect) to the more generic densifications of Töölö or Vallila as fast-growing additions to the urban texture, the physical unrest of buildings – in parallel to that of the main characters – sets the pace for Westö’s narration.

Only against such a background, the moral and political issues in the novel gain plausibility: a society, whose tensions and polarisations do not decrease after the closing of the Russian period and the Civil War, agitations and eventually destructive excitements of all sorts, but still the omnipresent “will to grow higher than the grass” (as the novel’s subtitle would be translated). The setting for such novel experiences – in the Finnish context, but arguably also beyond – is pictured vividly in Westö’s tale of urban (and social, less so of moral) modernisation, although it is put into perspective, somewhat more “stoically”, by the portrayal of “immutable” factors, notably the defining power and unpredictabilities of Finnish weather.


Marc Schalenberg