Palimpsest: so long as the streets glow with the memory of people

The Oxford English Dictionary has this to say about the word palimpsest:

a Paper, parchment, or other writing material designed to be reusable after any writing on it has been erased. Obs.

and this:

b. In extended use: a thing likened to such a writing surface, esp. in having been reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multilayered record.

Finnish author Kjell Westö mesmerised Protagonist, Narrator and, vicariously, the occasional Interlocutor alike, with his novel Missä Kerran Kuljimme or, as it was written, Där vi en gång gott or as it might be in English, Where once we walked or Where we once went. A story spanning the first four decades of the twentieth century, it features on this blog for the way it treats Helsinki itself as a protagonist, the star of its bitter-sweet and sometimes gruesome narrative.

The book also recalls an important reality of Helsinki that goes back to long, long before I was born: the memory of a place that was truly, curiously (as in, inquisitively) cosmopolitan. It also recalls the horrors of the civil war from the unusual point of view of privileged urban Swedish-speakers. It also tells of a hunger for novelty, like jazz and other music that helped make life tolerable again after the war.

Palimpsests of all of the above are there for the seeing in much of Helsinki still and certainly in the street names even if, as in “young” countries self-conscious of their history, street names have a habit of changing. If it sometimes feels like Helsinki is changing too fast too much, the early 20th century must have been a trauma for anyone who had known Helsinki in the late 19th. But in those days there were only a handful of families who could claim they went back several generations as Helsinki-born. And yet when the massive growth came, starting just before the turn of the century, for decades it produced the very stuff that most people agree now is excellent – as urban planning and as architecture, streets, parks, waterfronts, homes and public spaces, even industrial buildings.

One of Westö’s book’s characters lives as a child in Yrjönkatu on Dianan Puisto. He habitually traipses around the city with his father who sets up his camera to document the change and the scenery, particularly when it snows. This character was like the photographer Signe Brander, one imagines, who was actually paid to document a disappearing world. (And perhaps he was like those of us who stop equally compulsively in 2010, to document our surroundings with cameras or phones.)

Such a character might well have photographed these late-nineteenth-century buildings on Yrjönkatu. In the book, it’s his friend who writes something like this – apologies for halting translation – the book is only out in Swedish and in Finnish translation.

Every single place where a person has walked carries a memory of that person. For most people it’s invisible but those who know that person and love them see the image totally clearly as they walk by. So long as those loving people are here, that’s how long the image will remain, even after that person who once walked there has died. That’s why streets they sometimes glow with a warmth when we walk them. … Remember, dear Henriette: so long as someone knows we once walked here and so long as someone remembers us with warmth, the streets will carry our names.

And Dianan Puisto, now renamed – again – Kolmikulma for transport purposes, certainly is photogenic. It’s where Kamppi, Kaartinkaupunki and Punavuori meet.

Here it is from a variety of angles, the traces of historical eras and architectural fashions still visible. The first image, from before the snows, is an 1880s office building by Sebastian Gripenberg which some of us got to know when we went in to buy our first subscription to Helsingin Sanomat. Corner of Ludviginkatu and Erottajankatu. The daily moved into its glass box in 1999 leaving Ludviginkatu to house its museum and other cultural pursuits. On the corner is now a bar serving those for whom image matters, and a bit further down an independent restaurant carrying the same name (Grotesk), that routinely gets good reviews, foreign and domestic.

The rest, well, just buildings until you stop to ask for their stories.

P.s. if only our camera were better, our patience more, well, more early-20th-century, we might have managed a better picture of Tähtitorninmäki (below) as well. Tell you what, if you get a chance, just go for a little walk there yourself some time.


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