Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction, by Leena Krohn
published by Cheeky Frawg, December 8th 2015
Where I got it: Received eArc from the publisher (thanks!)
this is part one of a multiple part review.
Covering over 30 years and including over 800 pages of surreal speculative fiction and critical essays, I wouldn’t want to boil all my thoughts down into one review. To encourage myself to linger in these pages, to enjoy what I’m reading instead of rushing through it so I can write one review that covers a woman’s entire career, I will be writing multiple reviews to cover the works included in Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction. Originally published in her native Finnish, the works have been translated by Hildi Hawkins, Bethany Fox, Anna Volmari, and J. Robert Tupasela, among others. In this first review, I’ll be discussing Tainaron: Mail from another City, and The Pelican’s New Clothes. What’s so wonderful about everything I’ve read so far in Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction is that any one of these short novels, or excerpts, or short stories, has so much meat to chew on. There’s so much here to think about and play with and attempt to understand, and fall into. This collection as seen as a whole is like a meta fractal. The further I fall in, the more I see, the more patterns I see, and the more patterns I want to see. That will make more sense to you if you take this journey with me.
Tainaron: Mail from another City, written in 1985 is a fascinating short novel that consists of over two dozen letters, sent from a woman who is visiting the island city of Tainaron. She never gets a response to the letters she writes, and in occasional fits of frustration she asks the person she is writing to why they never respond. Even so, the letters become a sort of diary for her, a place to privately write down all her strange and amazing experiences in Tainaron. Experiences like meeting a neglected prince, an upstairs neighbor so strange that she ended up moving to a new apartment, and public displays of chemical pleasure. Tainaron isn’t like any other city, it’s not even a human citizen. This is an island populated by insects, in all their myriad beauty. There are beetles and bees and Queens who continually give birth, and insects that mimic other insects. It’s hard to know exactly what everything is, because the letter writer refers to everyone she meets simply as “people”, which I loved.
The primary themes of Tainaron include that of metamorphosis and inevitability. All the insect residents know winter means hibernation, and hibernation means metamorphosis, and changing into a new form is just something everyone does, and why get anxious about any of this, since it is inevitable? Sometimes people remember who they were before, sometimes not. I was reminded a bit of a scene in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, where the chemistry of chrysalises and metamorphosis is discussed. That the creature who goes into the chrysalis is genetically and chemically different than the creature who emerges. That the first must cease to exist for the second to be born, and that this change is inescapable.
Our human visitor, what are her thoughts on metamorphosis? I wonder if she wishes she could become someone else, someone who isn’t a stranger in this city, someone who can stop writing letters to a lover who never responds. Change is inevitable, and our experiences shape the person we become. Tainaron is easy to read, yet has philosophical depths to explore upon rereads. Everytime I go back to Tainaron, I know it will have changed. And I know I will have changed. Did the character go through a metamorphosis, or does the reader?
Also on the topic of the inevitability of change, but written in a much, much lighter tone is The Pelican’s New Clothes, written in 1976. An obvious play on words of The Emperor’s New Clothes, this story follows Emil, who is quite sure his new neighbor is a Pelican. Emil and the other children he plays with can see right through the Pelican’s disguise, yet the adults see what they want to see: an eccentric middle aged man, and berate the children for so rudely insulting this kind, quiet man about how he looks like a bird. Emil and the Pelican form a strong bond when the boy agrees to teach the bird how to read and write. Written for a younger audience, The Pelican’s New Clothes is enjoyable both for adults and children. In fact, this is the perfect short novel for a parent to read a section outloud to their child, and then the child reads the next section to the parent. You can enjoy it together. A very poignant scene is where the Pelican misses his home so horribly that he goes back home for a visit, only to find that his family barely recognizes him. He’s adopted so many human behaviors, and is now no longer bird enough to be accepted by his family, but not human enough either. The only way he can go back to being a pelican is to truly do just that – to leave everything he loves about human cities behind, to forget everything. Emil has some hard decisions to make as well.
Is this a failed metamorphosis? Was the Pelican unable to completely change into a new being, and leave who he was behind? When he was living as a human, he missed his home, missed his family. And then when he tried to go back to being a bird, that didn’t work for him either.
And now, a hard decision. Do I finish up reading Mathematical Creatures and Pereat Mundus, or do I go back and reread Tainaron?