They Know Not What They Do
A novel by Jussi Valtonen
(Original: He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät)
Joe Chayefski is an American professor of neuroscience, whose life gets turned upside down because he didn’t know what he was doing, did not realize the consequences of his actions or lack thereof—and nobody else really knew what they were doing either.
Twenty years ago he spent a few years in Finland and had a son with a Finnish woman, but he left them and didn’t keep in touch, only sending a card once a year. But his son Samuel did not forget him, and now Joe’s past is messing up his life in ways he never could have dreamed of.
And what is this new iAM device that his daughter comes home with one day? The one where you don’t need to tap or click any buttons, that doesn’t have a screen, that can literally read your thoughts and provide you with content as fast as you can think? What is the company behind the device really up to at the school? And what are these little neuro optimizer pills he finds in her purse? And who broke into his lab and is terrorizing his family and why?
Jussi Valtonen is an absolute master at describing characters, how people feel and how they justify their behavior. It was literally a joy to read, for the language alone, and I often found myself smiling at how he’d phrased something so eerily well. How Joe views Finns and what the Finnish characters think about Americans, made me laugh because I’ve heard them all too, from all sides, so the author definitely got that right. (Still, I do want to mention that in the novel, Joe is in Helsinki in the early 90’s and the city has changed a lot since then!)
Valtonen tackles seemingly everything on every level, big and small themes, all rolled up into an entertaining story that keeps you hooked.
Consequences of past actions. Misunderstandings that last for years. Personal relationships, moral dilemmas, cultural differences, technology, and social media. How things aren’t always what they seem to be. Are they ever, really? And how do you even define that?
It’s a work of fiction, but it’s deep, and it will make you think about a thing or two during and after reading it. Just the kind of story I like.
I can’t say anything about the translations, but I assure you that the Finnish original is fantastic. In fact, He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät won the Finlandia Prize in 2014, the most prestigious literary award in Finland.
The English title is They Know Not What They Do and in German it’s Zwei Kontinente. I assume it’s been translated into other languages as well.
He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät has been on my shelf for years, so long that I had no idea what it was even about. But, wanting to read something in Finnish, I plucked it from the shelf without a moment of hesitation, somehow sure that this was it. Maybe I liked the title. Or the fact that it looked nice and thick. Since I’ve been reading non-fiction books about the brain and have been listening to a neuroscience podcast, it felt like a very weird and wonderful coincidence to have pulled out just this book, in which the main character is a neuroscientist.