Invisible cities

Issue 4/1992 | Archives online, Essays

Extracts from Leena Krohn’s collection of essays, Rapina ja muita papereita (‘Rustle, and other papers’, WSOY, 1989).

Past me hurries a man in a rustling anorak. He pushes a card into a crack in the wall. There is a whirring noise, a door opens and, shoulder first, he pushes his way into a cramped room. At eye-level is a black screen, and under it a group of buttons. On the buttons is printed: Cash. Statement. Balance. On an empty button someone has written: Holdup. A question appears on the screen, and deserves our undivided attention: Do you wish to continue with another transaction?

We do! We certainly do. The mild warmth that suffuses the automatic bank pleases me, too. Why shouldn’t it? The warmth of the machine, the heat of money, is itself one of the forms of human energy secreted by the city, however stunted and primitive it may seem as it oozes from the depths of the metal cabinet.

But sometimes the screen bears the message: Transaction interrupted, and then one must leave the room empty-handed. Leave, to witness transactions whose beginnings and endings are shrouded in equally impenetrable dusk.

Along the long street a wonderfully elegant woman sails toward me. I see her from far off, when she is still quite small. Her hair floats, she is wearing something red. But when she approaches, I see the boa is so worn that it has bald patches. Her frayed hems flap; each garment is striped with thick dirt. Everything she is wearing has once been fiery red, demonic red, from her shoes and stockings to her boa. She has a stiff, lined face marked by extreme strain.

When she turns the comer, I know that I have encountered a kingdom whose terrible history, thank God, I shall never know.

Who is always in a hurry? Who is always on the way from the bank to the post-office, from the office to the comer shop? She has an expensive coat which she has thrown, unbuttoned, over her shoulders. She grasps the lapels with one hand. Her business is important, presumably. Strange, though, that she is constantly on the move; one sees her in the streets around the university and in Kallio and in Mannerheim Street, one sees her, always busy, in the mornings, in the evenings, and at midday. A precipitance rising from her guts, shaking her entire being, sweeps her to different parts of the city, on errands that do not exist, leaves her fluttering like a leaf.

But she does not suffer alone. The fever that propels her torments others, too, in department stores, in petrol stations, at supermarket tastings…

There are not many towers in this city. The woman who looked as if she was carrying all her belongings on her head was the wandering minaret of my youth. Her swaying cupola was held together by tightly knotted hand-towels that had once been white.

That old woman there always walks under an umbrella, in the frost and in the heat, an umbrella which she keeps half-closed so that it conceals her face from passers-by. But even the umbrella cannot stem the torrent of curses, obscenities and abuse that falls ceaselessly from her lips.

A man looks past me with his one eye; the other half of his face has fallen away. I have my own time, he his. The place on which I tread is already another when other soles step on it. And yet we live in the same city.

But in what sense the same? When our times unintentionally brush against each other, I cannot help asking whether there exists any one and the same city, any city outside ourselves, any city an sich

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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