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A Conversation With Leena Krohn
An interview with Matthew Cheney
February 2005

© Ida Pimenoff
Leena Krohn
Leena Krohn
Leena Krohn has long been in the vanguard of Finnish fiction. The way she combines clear intellect, a biting style, sly humour and clear-cut language is simply brilliant. In her novel Unelmakuolema (A Dream Death) the writer puts forward people's paradoxical desire to live forever and die for good. The idea of eternity as a consciousness with neither beginning nor end is comforting -- the dead are still among us -- but it is also terrifying. Krohn has received several literary awards, including the Finlandia Award for her Matemaattisia olioita tai jaettuja unia (Mathematical Beings or Shared Dreams, WSOY 1992). Her books have been translated into Estonian, Hungarian, Swedish, Russian, Japanese, Lettish, French, English and Norwegian.

Leena Krohn Website (in Finnish)
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Tainaron: Mail from Another City
Leena Krohn Tribute Site (in English)

Tainaron: Mail from Another City

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I find few joys as marvelous as the joy of reading a book by an author whose name is entirely unfamiliar to me, and discovering the book to be a masterpiece. It's a rare occurrence, but one that happened recently with Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn.

Tainaron was first published in Finland in 1985, and has recently been published for the first time in the United States by Prime Books in a translation by Hildi Hawkins. It is only the second time Krohn's work has been translated into English; in 1995, the British publisher Carcanet released Hildi Hawkins's translation of two of Krohn's books, Doña Quixote (1983) and Gold of Orphir (1987), as one volume.

Within her own country, Leena Krohn is well regarded as a writer of everything from fiction and children's books to poetry and essays. In 1993 she was awarded the prestigious Finlandia Prize for best novel for Matemaattisia olioita tai jaettuja unia (Mathematical Beings or Shared Dreams), and her 1998 novel Pereat Mundus won the Young Aleksis Kivi Prize. Her work has been translated into various languages, including Swedish, Hungarian, Russian, Japanese, French, Estonian, Latvian, and Norwegian.

Tainaron is the sort of book that makes you want to go out and find everything else written by its author. Unable to do that, because I can't read a word of Finnish, I instead asked Leena Krohn if she was willing to be interviewed via email. Though a bit nervous about her ability with English, she consented, and we corresponded for a week in the middle of February 2005.


Since Tainaron is one of your only books to be translated into English, English-language readers can't really know how it fits in to your work as a whole. Is Tainaron typical of your writing in its style and subject matter, or is it different from your other work?

In some respects Tainaron is typical, in others unique. For instance I always build my novels from short chapters (the letters in Tainaron), which often can be read as independent short prose. And I have written about the life of insects and animals (artificial life, too) both before and after Tainaron.

Yet, Tainaron is perhaps the work nearest to me. My whole philosophy of life is in there. But as I have grown older, my voice is no longer so gentle and lyrical. Tainaron is at the same time allegorical and realistic (in its entomological details). My later works like Pereat Mundus: A Sort-Of Novel, and Unelmakuolema ("Dreamdeath") are satires about our own shattering, absurd world. Pereat Mundus is an apocalyptic dystopia, which has a very unorthodox -- even cubistic -- structure. The name of the main character is HŒkan, but every chapter has its own HŒkan. The novel has a quotation from Carl Sandburg as its motto: "There is only one man in the world and his name is all men."

Are there writers whose work you think has had an influence on your own writing?
Definitely, and a lot of them! First of all: Hans Christian Andersen and Anton Chekhov, both masters of short stories. Harry Martinson (not as much Aniara as his smaller masterpiece The Way to Klockrike), Edgar Lee Masters (I read Spoon River in Finnish for the first time at 10 and I loved specifically "Dippold the Optician" and "Theodore the Poet"), Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Il Gattopardo), Albert Camus (especially The Plague) and of course Franz Kafka. Two American writers who have had a strong influence on me are Emily Dickinson and Don DeLillo. Many Finnish poets you hardly know: Eino Leino, Edith Sšdergran, Helvi Juvonen, Mirkka Rekola...

I forgot Edgar Allan Poe. I first read his stories when I was 12. I think our whole civilization is like The House of Usher.

The House of Usher? Really?
Every civilization has its end, and ours has already grown extremely fragile from its internal hostilities, its overpopulation and its thoughtless ways of using natural resources. We have built on sand. "That once barely-discernible fissure" extends now "from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction to the base."

Do you think fiction writers have a responsibility to the world, or only to literature?
Literature is not an isolated island. All the citizens have responsibilities, and fiction writers are no exception at all. If they want to act as some kind of intellectuals, their responsibilities are even higher.

You said most of your novels are built from short, independent chapters. Do you have a particular reason for writing this way?
Yes, I have. For me it is boring and impossible to write long heavy prose. This way I am trying to construct some kind of musical, kaleidoscopic composition. Doľa Quixote was my first work constructed this way. It can be seen either as a novel or as a collection of short stories.

How did you decide on the order of the letters in Tainaron? Are they arranged as you wrote them, or did you play with the order after you finished writing?
I did play with the order, but the first and the last letter were self-evident.

This translation of the book is being marketed and reviewed in some places that specialize in the science fiction and fantasy genre. Do you consider yourself a writer of a particular genre of literature?
When I wrote letters to (from!) Tainaron, I never thought it as a sci-fi or fantasy novel, nor would I name myself a sci-fi writer. As I have written it, there is only a little bit of fantasy in Tainaron, but many facts of life.

Are the insects you described large versions of real insects, or are they more imaginary?
They have many properties common to real insects. The burying beetles do feed their heirs with carcasses, termite queens give birth almost incessantly, some caterpillars form various kinds of processions, etc., though metamorphosis is certainly the most central fact.

When you began writing Tainaron, how much did you know about the city, the characters, and the book's structure? Had you planned it all before you wrote, or did you discover a lot as you went along?
I wrote first a little story about insects. It was published in a magazine, but later I lost both the manuscript and the magazine... (This happened before the digital epoch.)

I liked so much the sound of the name Tainaron. I have never visited Greece, but I read that Tainaron in southern Greece is a rocky cape, like Helsinki, my birth town. In Greek mythology there was a cave entrance to the Underworld at Tainaron.

I knew hardly anything about the city when I began to write, and I didn't really plan anything.

The dedication of the book is interesting. Could you explain some of the references?
I dedicated Tainaron to Elias, my son (then a little boy, now a young journalist), and to J.H. Fabre, who was a marvelous French entomologist and writer in the nineteenth century (and to Queen Bee, mostly a fictional person). I owe much to J.H. Fabre and his passionate, exploratory spirit.

What is the origin of the illustrations in the book? Were they created specifically for it?
My sister Inari Krohn, who created the illustrations, is a painter and a print maker. For years, she has made xylographics and etchings, which often relate to natural history. Inari has illustrated some of my children's books, but not one of the novels, and she created these xylographics specifically for the American edition of Tainaron.

How did you work with Hildi Hawkins on the translation of Tainaron?
She did her translation very independently, but naturally I read her text, and we discussed many of the details, such as the names of people or species.

What is the state of fiction in Finland? Do you feel a connection to your audience there?
The Finnish people, who are well educated, have always read much. Last fall, for instance, was an exceptionally rich time for novels, and people bought books 14% more than the year before. Our literature has nothing to be ashamed of beside other European fiction.

The prints of my books have always been small. (There have been reprints though. The sixth edition of Tainaron for instance is currently under preparation.) So is my audience, but it is a very intelligent one. I am glad that in it there are both very young and very old people, both women and men. (This is not self-evident, if you are an older lady author.) Every now and then I get a message, which gives me joy and durability.

You said that your whole philosophy of life is in Tainaron. The philosophy that I most noticed while reading was that of the cyclical nature of life -- the continuing cycles of birth, death, and regeneration. Is that what you meant, or were you thinking of something else as your philosophy?
I wrote in Tribar that logically impossible constructions lie at the bottom of our society. They consist of material and immaterial things, true and not true, rational and irrational. I call them "tribars" (the term is physicist Roger Penrose's). I talk about "false" connections, where realities of different levels join into some kind of hybrid phenomena.

Fiction and so-called reality live in an odd symbiosis. Our civilization is not based on any rational fundament. Let's think about money, for instance. We think it as something material, but alas! -- what else is as speculative, as illusionistic, as liable to metamorphoses as money? What is "real"money? Not banknotes or coins, which are only images of money, not even digital conditions. Money is a phantom phenomenon; it's about our speculations of the future, our dreams of security. They are real, or "real" (you choose).

Tainaron is a distant place that reminds us of every place in the world in its plasticity, strangeness, frightfulness. But its properties are the properties of our own heart.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.


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