Strange and familiar

Issue 1/1986 | Archives online, Authors

Leena Krohn. Photo:  Katri Lassila

Leena Krohn. Photo: Katri Lassila

Tainaron is the name of the rocky headland from which the road to Hades starts. Leena Krohn has borrowed her book’s title from Greek mythology: the city of Tainaron lies in the volcanic region, on the banks of Okeanos. On the title page of Tainaron is this epigraph: ‘You are not in a place; the place is in you.’ The book’s subtitle is ‘Letters from another town’. The narrator of the book writes letters to her friend back in our world.

The inhabitants of Tainaron are different from us – they have the bodies of insects. In the street the letter-writer encounters a character whose ‘antennae wave above his muzzle-like face’, the café waiter’s mouth ‘protrudes from his face like that of a dragonfly grub’ and when her friend and mentor, Longhorn Beetle, smiles, it is ‘a slow sideways extension of the jaws to the two sides of his head’. Among the dedicatees of Krohn’s book is the well-known entomologist Jean Henri Fabre.

However, instead of drawing the parallels between the curiosities of insect life and those of human existence that are so familiar from other literature, instead of creating swift and telling allegories, Krohn gives her characters a life of their own, in which human existence is not presented as necessarily the crowning glory of nature, nor is it naively regarded as essentially no different from the animal kingdom. In this fantasy Krohn never points the moral finger, never seeks to educate. Tainaron may be the beginning of the road to Hades, but it is part of our own world. It is strange, and at the same time familiar.

Leena Krohn began her career as a writer in 1970 with a children’s book, Vihreä vallankumous (‘Green revolution’). It tells the story of a group of children who rebel against the suffocating effects of the town as an environment for living by capturing a walled park. Ihmisen vaatteissa (‘In human clothing’, 1976) is about a small boy called Emil and his friend the pelican, who tries to become human by putting on human clothes. Luckily, he is unsuccessful, for he is able to escape back into his own element, freedom (see Books from Finland 1/1979).

The line between children’s and adult literature is often difficult to draw, and of course it is not always necessary. But in the same way as Tove Jansson did, Leena Krohn appears to have started writing for adults. Kertomuksia (‘Stories’, 1976) is a collection of miniature pieces in which more sombre tones are already apparent. Although it is certainly possible in children’s books to deal with subjects such as hate, sorrow or fear, the often inexplicable cruelty and violence of the adult world cannot be presented, as such, to children. Simply: in order to write about adult life truthfully, the author must write for ‘adults’. Donna Quijote ja muita kaupunkilaisia (‘Donna Quijote and other citizens’, 1983) is a gallery of portraits in which Leena Krohn presents more of the short character studies already familiar from Kertomuksia. In these thirty miniature pieces, whose unifying factor is the narrator and her friend Donna Quijote, Krohn flashes us glimpses of the little moments of life that often yield vivid perceptions, startling or arresting, making something appear in a completely new light.

Tove Jansson and Leena Krohn are united by the same unrelenting curiosity about people. Both approach their subjects seriously, and both examine moral problems without themselves moralising in the slightest. Neither was morally didactic as a children’s writer, either: a good children’s book interests adults because of its freedom – freedom from prejudice, freedom to move in the world of the imagination.

Leena Krohn has received many prizes for her children’s books. Together with Hannu Mäkelä and Jörn Donner, she was among the final three on the Finlandia shortlist in 1985. Tainaron is not an easy book designed to reach a large audience; it chooses its own readers. It does not, of course, offer the excitement of thrilling plot, startling realism or a fashionable subject. The power of Krohn’s deliberately simple, undemonstrative and lucid style is in the impression of depth it gives. The fantastic element is a tool, a frame in which the writer sets her theme, nevertheless used quite differently from, for example, ltalo Calvino, to whom Krohn has sometimes been compared by Finnish critics. The mighty fantasy of Calvino’s works seems to have more value in its own right, the narrative and imaginary tricks a more traditional motive in involving the reader. Krohn demands that the reader gather together the fragments of his own memory, the phrases that are on the tip of the tongue, dreams, almost forgotten images and experiences. In places, Tainaron gives a sense of dejà-vu: for a second you sense you have been here before – then the feeling is gone. The impression of depth is born when the reader encounters something in his memory by retreating into himself. Small from the outside, large inside – it is quite possible for an extraordinary book like Tainaron to leave the reader cold; it cannot be opened by force.

There are 28 letters from Tainaron, evidently to a former lover; no answer is ever received. In describing her life in Tainaron the writer examines her own past and embarks on a series of very philosophical essays on all sorts of aspects of the human condition: the experience of rejection, the fear of violence, irony, sorrow, joy, nostalgia, self-criticism. Nevertheless, the writer takes on the customs of Tainaron. As winter approaches, like the other inhabitants, she retires to her own individual cell to sleep through the winter. Ahead lies the unknown future. This does not merely mean sleep, but change: enormous, basic change, a metamorphosis whose results are unknowable.

There is nothing about Leena Krohn that instantly labels her as Finnish: her world and her subjects are those of the pan-European urban reality. In Tainaron, as here, life is lived under the threat of the ‘great upheaval’; but the will to live, the endless invention of life and the belief in the power of change are stronger than depression or fear. Metamorphosis constitutes all the excitement and meaning of life and living: change is unavoidable, for in it lies the future.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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