Contradictory logic

Issue 3/1991 | Archives online, Authors

It is unavoidable, really, that in her new book, Umbra, Leena Krohn should have found herself addressing paradoxes. She has long examined the complexities of humanity: good and evil, life and death, the biological relation of Homo sapiens and other creatures with the world, the contrasts of life and the extremes of phenomena. Humanity is filled with paradoxes, but the most difficult of them all is the paradox of evil: does an evil-doer will evil because he must? Or must he do evil because he wills it?

Umbra is a doctor. He works in a hospital; some of surgery hours are spent at a clinic called Aid for the Overstrained and at a research centre whose name is Negative Influences, which cares for violent criminals: rapists, sadists, paedophiles. Umbra is interested in the compulsion of pleasure that drives his violent patients, in the shadow that swallows conscience, the suffering of knowledge of the truth. ‘Moral sensitivity is one of the human senses,’ Umbra ponders. ‘Most people have it. In the clinics patients it is absent. Perhaps they were born without it…’

Umbra is a stocky, balding, middle-aged man whose great passions have already evaporated – among the small pleasures that remain to him is sucking eucalyptus pastilles. His only hobby is The Paradox Archive: ‘a great work of compilation. His purpose was to incorporate into a single whole different species of paradoxes: logical, mathematical, philosophical, visual, auditory, physical, geographical, cosmological….’ ‘Practically all Umbra’s spare time was going into his Archive. Acquaintances who knew about his preoccupation brought along new paradoxes: the postcard that showed a curved hammer, banging a nail into its own handle; the card with the legend “Please ignore this notice” ’.

Most of his patients, too, are paradoxical in one way or another. One of them, a woman, has formed her body into a ring, and the next day, in her hospital bed, she has changed into a figure of eight lying on its side, a symbol of infinity. Another is Don Giovanni: the old operatic hero has lived a couple of hundred years beyond his time, and is now finally approaching death. It is Don Giovanni’s servant, Leporello, who called on Umbra’s help. To Aid for the Overstrained comes a woman whose face seems to be covered by an awful mask which she cannot take off: other people can believe that they are what they seem. Not me. I know different from people who carry ordinary faces. It is my certainty. For this knowledge I have paid a horrible price. My destiny is this knowledge. And nevertheless I have to live, as if I were.’

rreH nieK, on the other hand, is a character who lives backwards: he has begun to grow younger, and remembers his future, but not his past.

Leena Krohn’s first book, for children, bore the title Vihreä vallankumous (‘Green revolution’, 1970) – long before the Green movement impinged on public consciousness. At the end of the 1960s in Finland, revolution was almost exclusively a concept of the political left; in that context, almost unimaginably, the title of Krohn’s book verged on the paradoxical. The book 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. Some years later, she started to write books for adults. Krohn has said that as late as 1980, she had the feeling that her work was not to be taken seriously: ‘I wasn’t prepared to endanger a single hair of my head. I was over 30, and beginning to wander, to lose my way as my writer before I had really begun. I was like Chekhov’s writer in The Seagull, whose writing was never more than “pretty and coquettish”. I was bound for the genteel ruin of hack writing.’

Donna Quijote (1983) brought its author a little more satisfaction: ‘I wanted at last to find an open and musical continuum, a form which would freely seek its space in the borderland between the short story and the novel, a mobile whole in which each chapter would nevertheless be a complete unit in itself.’

Tainaron (1985) meant, for its author, a degree of surprise, of paradox: ‘I wrote Tainaron out of the most personal energy, which turned out to be of a completely impersonal quality. I ended up saying more than I had intended, or even knew.’ The book is made up of 28 letters written by a citizen of the town of Tainaron, which is reminiscent of cities we know, but nevertheless strangely unfamiliar, since its inhabitants are insects. The collection of short stories, Oofirin kultaa (‘Gold of Ophir’, 1987), inhabits the same no-man’s-land between fact and fiction. Rapina ja muita papereita (‘Rustle and other papers’, 1989) is a collection of essays in which Krohn touches on the paradoxical relationship between consciousness and reality.

There is nothing about Krohn that labels her as peculiarly Finnish; her world and her subjects are part of a pan-European urban reality. She herself says: ‘I don’t know how women’s language differs from men’s language. I do know that I don’t write as a woman or as a Finnish citizen. Both as a writer and as a person I still try to believe that the world is full of people, not just men and

Realism, still more naturalism, is foreign to Krohn’s writing: ‘Every artist is an illusionist,’ she says. ‘Artists don’t need to aspire to the level of so-called real life; they know that all other social activities are just as symbolic and illusory as their own. Fictions, agreements, are forms of government, administrations, exchange rates, bonds, laws and statutes. Their profound irrationality far outstrips the irrationality of art.’

Finnish contemporary literature has for a long time been characterised by its realism; we have very few writers of fantastical prose. Krohn’s writing is like a unicorn among domestic animals. In terms of the critical reception of her work, the juries of literary prizes have often put Krohn on their shortlists – Tainaron, Rapina and Umbra all appeared on Finlandia Prize for Fiction lists, and Rapina was also a candidate for the Runeberg Prize. Krohn has faithful readers, but she is not a writer for the so-called mass market.

The fate of the written word does not concern Krohn. ‘Art and literature in no way compete with the computer, because however complex their functions, they do not try to make everyday life any easier. People need art and literature for something completely different: as a yardstick to measure the infinite complexity of life.’

One day, there appears at Umbra’s surgery a neutral computer which can change its own connections. Its name is Eccehomo, and it has an unusual problem: it announces that it is afraid, which disturbs both its functioning and its owner.

‘Umbra popped a eucalyptus pastille in his mouth and, sucking it, stared ever more fixedly at Eccehomo… ‘ “I doubt whether we do ultimately live in the same world. For I’m more than a logical idea. You don’t perform human actions as I do. You have no sex. You’re unable to be evil, so you’re not free, as I believe myself to be. Why couldn’t a soul – if there is such a thing – inhabit a silicon dwelling? Silicon is more durable and secure, less vulnerable to danger, than the human body. There are many differences between flesh and silicon, but one is outstandingly different. Ask me which.'” “Which?” Eccehomo asked. “No, don’t ask,”Umbra retorted. “It’s something you know nothing about. The answer’s suffering. Crude, naked, loathsome. Learn how to suffer, Eccehomo: only then will you begin to learn what’s right and what’s wrong. Only when you learn to distinguish between them will
 you be able to suffer.” ’

‘Art, too, is information technology,’ Krohn says. ‘It communicates information about humanitys own consciousness, our most valuable possession, the most important factor in human life.’

In order to describe reality through fantasy, Krohn had to give up writing children’s books. What children’s writer could deal with cruelty and violence? The paradoxes of evil must be approached in
 the adult world.

Krohn also portrays the paradoxes of joy. ‘When Umbra was younger, he was often overcome by joy. Where did that joy come from? It came suddenly, unexpectedly, against all reason, cause and 
consequence. Even now it sometimes returned, although ever more infrequently.’

Chaos and decay originate from the same source as growth and order, form and reproduction; life contains within it the possibility of continuation, a future of metamorphosis. In Oofirin kultaa, Krohn affirms: ‘Joy is the state of being for which we were born, and in which it is intended we live and die.’


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