Why This Book Should Win – The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by BTBA Judge Katrine Øgaard Jensen

Katrine Øgaard Jensen is an editor-at-large for Asymptote and the editor-in-chief for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories – Translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella
NYRB Classics

When growing up in Northern Europe, you come to expect a certain level of gloom in all good storytelling; even children’s stories are not meant to be cute. In fact, most tales that my grandmother read to me before bedtime were absolutely brutal and still fill me with equal amounts of nostalgia and unease whenever I think of them.

Some of these haunting tales were written and illustrated by Tove Jansson. They were part of the adventures of Moomintroll, a dreamy-faced, hippopotamus-like creature, which became Jansson’s most successful creation and inspired several television series, films, an opera, and theme parks in Japan and Finland. The most memorable stories for me included the Hattifatteners: silent, tall, ghost-like creatures who can’t speak nor hear and have flaring hands attached to their neckless heads that feature one set of eyes. They are drawn to lightning, which makes them electric and dangerous; they travel the sea in small boats in groups of uneven numbers and they collectively own a barometer. In one story, a character steals this barometer and they relentlessly pursue him until they get it back. In another story, Moominpappa travels to the lonely island of the Hattifatteners, discovering the secret to their weather-obsession: they cannot feel emotions unless confronted by lightning.

The storyline of the Hattifatteners is terrifying, heartbreaking, and comforting simultaneously. In that sense, Tove Jansson’s selected short stories for adults in The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories (New York Review Books, 2014), is not far from her children’s literature. The Hattifatteners are simply swapped with isolated people: voyeurs watching others act around them, observing and feeding off the lightning, longing to connect, unable to participate in the world.

The opening story, “The Listener”, encompasses this theme of isolation beautifully. It’s a subtle tale of Aunt Gerda, a thoughtful and attentive listener, who undergoes a sudden change.

As the years went by and Aunt Gerda’s weight of insight grew, it troubled no one that she knew so much about them. They counted on her protective faculty; they let themselves be misled by her peculiar air of innocence and neutrality. It was like telling secrets to a tree or a devoted pet and never having afterward that queasy feeling that you’ve given yourself away. But now it was as if Aunt Gerda had lost her innocence.

Aunt Gerda decides to draw a map of everything she knows about everyone with neat ovals representing people and lines revealing their relationships: thefts of money, children, work, love, trust, and a single attempted murder, which makes her feel a cold thrill as she inscribes it.

Sometimes Aunt Gerda sat quietly without trying to remember, simply immersed in her solar system of past and emerging lives, sensing the future changes in the lines and ovals, inevitable in the light of obvious cause and effect. She felt a desire to forestall what must happen, to draw her own lines, new lines, maybe in silver and gold since all the other colors were taken. She toyed recklessly with the idea of making the dots and ovals movable, game pieces that could shift their context and create new constellations and entanglements.

The idea of observing, and sometimes even taking over, the lives of others reemerges throughout The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. The ultimate culmination of this manifests in the titular story where an old acquaintance steals a woman’s memories until the thief finally ends up appropriating the other woman’s life.

So why should The Woman Who Borrowed Memories win the Best Translated Book Award? Because it is impossible not to be moved by Jansson’s stories, translated from the Swedish with great sensitivity by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella. As Lauren Groff writes in her introduction:

The terror of what’s outside makes what’s inside warmer, gentler; the light presses bravely against the danger and darkness. We read Tove Jansson to remember that to be human is dangerous, but also breathtaking, beautiful.

Jansson’s collection offers both terror and consolation for anyone who has ever been a Hattifattener on that lonely island, desperately monitoring the weather and waiting, once more, for lightning to strike.

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