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Tainaron: Mail from Another City
Leena Krohn, translated by Hildi Hawkins, illustrated with etchings and xylographies by Inari Krohn
Prime, 124 pages

Tainaron: Mail from Another City
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 Interview: Leena Krohn
Leena Krohn Tribute Site (in English)

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

Great tomes have been written by writers whose single ambition was to capture all of life -- an impossible goal, of course, and one that has led to a lot of wasted, awful verbiage.

And then there are writers of short stories like Anton Chekhov or Jorge Luis Borges or Grace Paley, writers who capture the essence of life with only a few pages, a few perfect details, a few words that sink deeper into our imaginations than hundreds of pages by other writers -- and we discover that literature does not need to be voluminous to catch the substance of life's infinity. The great babbling blurt of a doorstopping novel may miss more life than the intense whisper of a fable.

All of which is just to say that Leena Krohn has, with a slim volume of thirty letters written from an imaginary city of insects, given us a lens of words through which to consider reality, a microscope to reveal yearning and wonder, a telescope to look for what it means to be human, a window and a mirror and an eye other than our own.

An impatient customer in a bookstore might grind their teeth at my bland philosophizing and attempts at lyrical praise. "That's all very well and good," the customer screams, "but what's the novel about!"

Tainaron is about identity and empathy and metamorphosis and death and life and humanity and --

"A city of insects, you said?"

Yes, indeed, a city of insects, of human-sized bugs, but more than that -- and of course you're thinking of Kafka at this point, of the city Gregor Samsa (who woke up one morning after a night of fitful sleep to discover he had metamorphosed into a monstrous insect) dreamed of escaping to from the tiny bedroom where his family tormented him -- but no, this is not Kafka, this is less portentous, less angst-ridden, more wistful and --

"But I don't like bugs. Why would somebody write a book about a city of bugs?"

Because sometimes it is best to use fantasy to imagine our way back to where we actually are. Here, let me read to you:

Some of [the citizens of Tainaron] carry their innermost apartment, a one-roomed flat which fits their dimensions like a glove, with them everywhere. But this has the drawback that one cannot always make sense of what they say, for it echoes and reverberates from the walls of their private apartments. It is also vexing to me that I cannot always tell where the dwelling ends and its inhabitant begins.

Poor things, who never come among people without this innermost shield. It reflects the terrible vulnerability of their lives. Their little home may be made of the most diverse ingredients: grains of sand, bark, straw, clay, leaves.... But it protects them better than others are protected by armour, from every direction, and it is a direct continuation of themselves, much more so than clothes are to you or me. But if it is taken away from them, they die -- perhaps simply of shame, perhaps because their skins are too soft for the outside air, or because they do not have skin at all.

It's a beautiful, sad image, is it not? People who carry home so close to themselves that their voices are muffled and they can die from exposure, from having the armor of where they live torn away so that they are nakedly alienated from the place where they belong. But Krohn doesn't stop there, no, she continues and lets the imagery expand beyond any simple metaphor:
Who would be so cruel as to tear from them this last shield! Oh, I have heard that such things, too, happen here in Tainaron; I have been startled by the moans of death-throes in the deeps of the night.

But I have my own theory concerning why this happens. For, you see, those who constantly drag their houses with them remain unknown to other people. One can gain only a brief glimpse of them, if that; they are always in hiding.

The idea grows roots and tentacles, particularly if you remember that the narrator, the writer of the letters, is a human who has come to visit the city, that the letters are written to the human home far across the sea, and so far there has been no response.

We learn through this fantasy as much about the narrator as about the city, and the two entities entwine, they grow and reflect from each other, until the city is an extension of the narrator's psyche and the narrator is one piece of the city's mysterious mind.

But we're not done yet, because there is one more paragraph to this particular letter, and it adds depth to something already so deep as to be nearly unfathomable:

And then there are those who cannot bear such a situation, those who wish to see everything face to face and to reveal, open, show the whole world the nakedness of things.... Now and then the temptation becomes overwhelming to them, and they split open the house of some poor unfortunate. I awake to shrieking, sigh and turn over -- and soon fall asleep again.
If I were in an even more grandiloquent mood than I already am, I would say that that paragraph contains all the contradictions, glories, and evils of humanity. Instead, I will simply say that all I have quoted here is but one example of what makes Leena Krohn such a truly great writer. She uses fantastic events, situations, and images, yes, but not merely for the pleasures inherent in oddity. Tainaron resonates because its words fuse imagination with many possible meanings, allowing the book a weight far beyond its slight physical size, its thirty short tales, its 124 pages.

You want, though, to know what the story is. You want a map of the book, just as, in the twenty-second letter, the narrator wants a map of the city. The narrator goes with a guide, an insect named Longhorn, to an observation tower on a hill above Tainaron, and Longhorn points toward the west:

There, where a straight boulevard had run a moment ago, narrow paths now wandered. Their network branched over a larger and larger area before my very eyes.

"And this goes on all the time, incessantly," he said. "Tainaron is not a place, as you perhaps think. It is an event which no one measures. It is no use anyone trying to make maps. It would be a waste of time and effort. Do you understand now?"

Well, do you? Tainaron the book cannot be mapped any more than Tainaron the city could be, because with each reading it changes, and with each reader. It is not a single story, but rather a conglomeration of stories whose borders blend into each other, whose words echo other words, until the book becomes a harmony in the reader's mind, a suggestion of even more stories than the ones told on the pages.

Tainaron ends with impending hibernation, a stasis that promises regeneration. The reader who can resist returning to the first page and starting all over again is stronger than I, because within the words that create Leena Krohn's imaginary city, rereading is its own rebirth.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

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

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