Guys, we need to talk about Leena Krohn.
As a longtime fan of Tove Jansson (creator of the Moomins) and Aki Kaurasmaki (go check out the Proletariat Trilogy and Le Havre right now), I was curious to see what other weird-and-wonderfuls Finland had to offer. Turns out, Finland has so much to offer and we’re just waiting for more of it to be translated.
I’m about a hundred pages into Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction (Cheeky Frawg, December 2015) and it’s already one of my favorite things ever. Not, Oh, this is some good fiction favorite but, This is now an irrevocable piece of my soul favorite.
There are already some great profiles, plus some interviews floating around out there. But I simply want to write some thoughts on the feeling of strangeness one has when reading Leena Krohn, who, according to Cheeky Frawg’s website, is “For readers of Ursula K. Le Guin, Milan Kundera, Virginia Woolf, Tove Jansson, and Italo Calvino.”
(Also, let’s pause for a minute. Cheeky Frawg publishes Finnish authors and Amos Tutuola’s short fiction. Plus, Jeff and Ann Vandermeer – the minds behind the publishing – have recently edited a collection of feminist speculative fiction. These folks have taste.)
I’m reading Dona Quixote, which is essentially a series of short vignettes about people that float into and out of the narrator’s life. She has a “friend” who seems to be a romantic acquaintance, a young boy who is perhaps a son, and of course Dona Quixote, a very thin (compared to a stalk of straw), eccentric and mysterious older woman.
Their relationship unfolds through the creases of the unspoken, and we’re never really privy to anything outside their probing, plainly worded, philosophical chat.
The relation to Don Quixote is mainly brought to fruition through the context of an idea that Krohn broaches with a line of the poet/aphorist Mirkka Rekola: “Do not make images. Everything is.” I’m bluntly taking this at face value to mean that there is no difference between what is thought to exist and what actually does exist. There is no thing and image of thing. Only things. This is perhaps best illustrated in the story “The Darkness of Mirrors” in which the narrator visits a fun house full of mirrors with her children (named “The House of Laughter”) and leaves bereft of the certainty that herself and the mirror images are truly differentiated in a meaningful way.
“I thought that if I were to spend longer with my reflections, I would become confused with them, and no one would be able to say any longer where they had their origin.”
It’s a fairly common thing to look at yourself in the mirror and wonder which of you are the real one. (Is that fairly common? Gee I hope so…) Or at least to momentarily sit with the thought that perhaps your assumed roles (person/referent // reflection/reference) cannot be taken for granted. (See also: “Am I someone else’s dream? And does it matter?”)
But this is the feeling one gets throughout Dona Quixote. Everything is itself, but possibly also not itself at all.
A great example of the foreignness of the everyday (and my favorite vignette of the collection) is titled “The Brightness of Glass.” The beginning, to me, strikes such a chord of sci-fi/fantasy (which makes sense, as Tainaron, Krohn’s best-known work is decidedly of that genre).
“All around the city, in market-places, squares and on street-corners, small towers have been erected. I look at them for my delight; they please my restless eye.” Slowly, the description continues. They are green, yet the walls are made of glass. Sometimes there are lines of people formed in front of them. And then, “For two, such a tower is cramped, and yet it is built as a meeting-place, made for dialogue.”
It actually took me a while to get that she’s talking about phone booths. But you wouldn’t quite know this until you knew it. You wouldn’t even think to guess at what these towers “really are” because she’s telling you. So you just assume that the narrator is describing some strange kind of tower recently put up in the city. Krohn makes this wide circle around something so transparently itself in order to render it absolutely not itself.
It’s very easy to think of a telephone booth. But when we think of such a thing, we’re conjuring the image of it, not thinking of the thing itself. (Again, think of the Rekola quote.) This is why we do not recognize them at first in the text. Furthermore, they have characteristics that our image of telephone booths do not have: “But an anonymous rage is directed at these narrow glass rooms. Cracks like stars have been made in the glass walls, and often I have had to return home without success; it is not possible to make contact.” None of that at all says telephone booth.
Long story short, what makes reading Leena Krohn so off-kiltering and wonderful is this sense of the odd in the everyday. But it comes with you outside of the book. It’s a bit like when a friend comes to visit, who has never before seen your city. Walking side by side, you try to imagine their experience of the streets you see every day. This is a great pleasure while also fairly unnerving. And really, I think that this is what the character (figure?) of Dona Quixote is supposed to perform when placed alongside the narrator. She is meant to be that other presence with whom you must related, and who provokes the strangeness of the everyday world. She, like Leena Krohn, is the friend who comes to visit and then leaves wide open spaces inside your head that were previously filled with the mere images of what you see every day.