Intelligent living

8 June 2015 | Fiction, Prose

Minna Lindgren

Minna Lindgren. Photo: Ville Palonen.

In Ehtoolehdon tuho [‘The decline of Twilight Grove’, Teos, 2015), the final novel in a trilogy about life in an assisted living home, employing human staff has become too expensive and the old folk are part of a pilot project in which they are cared for by electronic devices, monitors, cameras, ‘smartwalls’ and cleaning robots: ‘there was intelligence everywhere, masses of it, just a hiccup and something terribly intelligent would happen.’

The aged lady residents don’t like their new life, but they’re resilient; they’re not about to let the new technology defeat them…

Minna Lindgren’s mordantly satirical, often hilariously funny writing has earned her a wide readership. Translations of the trilogy are soon to appear in English, German and French.


An excerpt from Ehtoolehdon tuho [‘The decline of Twilight Grove’, Teos, 2015). Review by Soila Lehtonen

‘You’re 97 today! Your wakeup call service today congratulates!’

As if she wouldn’t have remembered. Ninety-seven was almost a hundred. She and Irma had decided that they would refuse to turn one hundred. It would only make trouble. One lady, in the bottom apartment of the A staircase, had received an invitation to the health centre on her birthday. Apparently all five-year-olds were called in for monitoring of their motor and psychological development, and when this lady turned 105, the computer system thought she was a toddler. The computer didn’t recognise numbers over one hundred. Siiri thought the lady should have kept the appointment; she would have done, for the tests were fun. You had to draw a triangle and walk along a straight line. Not that easy for someone of 105. But the lady didn’t go, she just made a terrible fuss about it and complained to everyone, until she died before her complaints reached the right official.

‘Heartfelt thanks,’ Siiri said to the smartwall, which pressed an image of a bunch of glowing, bright red roses upon her in honour of her birthday.

Siiri poked the smartwall randomly, as it hadn’t dawned on her where the gizmo was actually located or how you were supposed to control it. But everything was like that these days at Twilight Grove: you touched and jabbed at surfaces. There was intelligence everywhere, masses of it, just a hiccup and something terribly intelligent would happen. Siiri’s little two-roomed flat was full of sensors, probes, chips, transmitters and cameras, which monitored her life. Somewhere in the depths of her mattress there was even a vigilant contraption that, for want of anything better to do, observed her incessantly while she slept and recorded every movement as if it had nothing better to do. If she were to fall and to fail to get up sufficiently quickly, the smartnodes on the floor would send a message to the alarm centre, and an ambulance and its paramedics would rush to help her to get up. This would ensure that old people did not die on the floor. In Finland, there was unanimity on the subject that dying was more tragic if it took place on the floor at home than in a health-centre bed. There had been an emotional debate in a full session of parliament, which she often watched together with Anna-Liisa and Irma.

Life in the smartflat was really quite amusing, if you were able to cope with the surprises arranged by the computers. For example, a visit to the refrigerator was always a big adventure. You never knew what the refrigerator would tell you this time.

‘Remove. Half. Litre. Of. Sour. Milk. Sell-by. Date. Today.’

Siiri’s refrigerator was a young woman, quite cheerful but a little bit full of herself. Irma had absolutely wanted hers to have the voice of an older man, and it was really funny when her refrigerator turned out to be the former main announcer from Finnish Radio, who was familiar to all of them from the exchange rates and shipping forecasts of years gone by. Irma had immediately begun to call the fridge her admirer and she had desperately tried to teach him to say ‘butty’ instead of ‘sandwich’.

‘Even a parrot would have a bit more brain,’ she had huffed angrily, when her industrious teaching brought no result.

At first, the talking fridge had just seemed like a bit of fun, something that got you into a good mood since you didn’t have a cat or a husband, but in fact it saved the old folk from bouts of food poisoning and diarrhoea. Many of them ate spoiled food, as they didn’t look at the sell-by date. Or they might forget a piece of salmon at the bottom of the fridge for two weeks until it turned into green slime. Something like that smelled so bad that one lady’s smell alarm had begun to make such a din that they thought they must be in the middle of an air-raid.

To begin her breakfast and to appease her fridge, Siiri drank the half-litre of milk whose best-by date was today. If you tried to shove in something that should have been eaten the day before yesterday, it would start to nag annoyingly, and she didn’t know what to do to calm it down. She was always having problems with liver casserole.

‘You did not follow the instructions. You did not follow the instructions. You did not follow the instructions,’ the fridge sometimes repeated for hours on end, always in the same tone, with too much emphasis on the beginning of each word. It was enough to send an old person to their death, to make them lose their will to live and shrivel up, tortured, at the dining room table, felled by the fridge’s sermon, with an only slightly spoiled liver casserole in the frying pan.

‘I’d rather listen to my admirer sermonising than to those volunteer workers,’ Irma would have said, if she hadn’t been online in real time during this conversation. Those were the kinds of words the daisies of Twilight Grove used as they helped its residents adjust to their new living environment. There was no real staff any more. No exercise or crafts coaches, no kitchen staff, social workers, wardens, no carers or even trainees in the theoretical care of the elderly or immigrants temporarily employed in the name of social integration, just computers and an indefinite number of volunteer helpers who trained the residence to enjoy the machines.

Twilight Grove, in the Munkkiniemi district of Helsinki, was no longer your run-of-the-mill terminal care centre for the elderly. A renovation, which had taken more than a year to complete, had proved to be much more extensive than supposed. Everything had been made new and the result had been sold to an international quoted company. Now the assisted living building was a pilot project for the monitored care for the elderly, whose founding and activities were funded by three different ministries. The politicians and businessmen believed that the transformation of old people into laboratory animals was the salvation of society and the future global solution to the world’s most explosive problem, old age. Finland would rise from its economic predicament when its diverse health and care technology conquered the world and demonstrated once again the miracles Finnish engineers were capable of.

‘This is our last service to society,’ Siiri said to herself, wiping the table clean after breakfast with the leg of her old pyjamas. She had eaten one hard-boiled egg and a piece of crispbread, by force of will, as she no longer felt hungry and ate merely out of a sense of duty.

At the same time Irma’s head appeared, huge, on her smartwall, just as if she had heard Siiri babbling to herself amid the sensors and the gadgets. Irma’s white, curly hair stuck out untidily in all directions, and she had butty crumbs on her lips and big sparkles in her ears.

‘Damned contraption!’ Irma shouted, not looking at Siiri, but staring angrily somewhere to the side. ‘Drat and bother! Say your name and press enter… my foot…”

There was a peculiar clunk and Irma disappeared from Siiri’s wall. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro thundered away in the background. Siiri listened for a moment and understood that it was the first act. Count Almaviva had found the page Cherubino on a chair under a blanket in the maidservant Susanna’s room. Then Irma came back and looked piercingly at the centre of the screen, as if she were very angry with Siiri.

‘Ir-ma. Län-nen-lei-mu. Enter! How in tarnation does this wall work? Eeny meeny, I want to get out of here. I can’t leave my own home! Help, for God’s sake. Are there still any of the staff members we used to call janitors? Can anyone hear me?’

Irma had wandered out of range of the camera, but Siiri could hear clearly her squawking and the general confusion caused by Cherubino’s discovery in the wrong room at the Almaviva court. At the top bleated the gossiping singing teacher with his tenor. Irma became more and more panicky, she let out some screams and cursed, sighed and whimpered, from time to time flashing past the camera, hair flying. All of a sudden the music stopped, as if cut with a knife. It was quiet, horribly soundless, until Irma began to sing, high and hard, Alessandro Stradella’s ‘Pietá, signore’. Siiri pulled on her dressing gown and rushed to rescue her friend.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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