Leena Krohn (1947 — ) is one of the most respected Finnish writers of her generation. In her large body of work for adults and children, Krohn deals with issues related to the boundary between reality and illusion, artificial intelligence, and issues of morality and conscience. Her Collected Fiction has just been released by Cheeky Frawg Books and is also available through StoryBundle this month.
Her short novel Tainaron: Mail From Another City, reprinted in Collected Fiction, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and International Horror Guild Award in 2005. Tainaron shares some affinities with the work of Kafka, while being utterly original. Each section of the novel illuminates the next, with the weird element serving both as strange adventure and parallel to the real world. It is one of the most important works of post-World War II dark fantasy. The following essay is a reprint of a prior 101 Weird writers feature, in celebration of the publication of Collected Fiction.
Tainaron is the kind of work that defies classification or description. There are a few things that we may say definitively about it (and only a few things). First, it is a novella narrated through a series of thirty letters. These letters remain unanswered, so we see the story through the eyes of the nameless letter-writer alone. Her topic is her travels through Tainaron, an unfamiliar city peopled by sapient insects. (We might call them insects with souls.)
Each letter is a self-contained slice of life, blending observation and introspection. Most describe a single incident, experience or conversation. Each one further illuminates the nature of life in the city. In this fragmented fashion, the letters slowly build on one another, revealing the novella’s larger arc. The structure is reminiscent of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino or Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, with a crucial difference: while both of these books devote each short chapter to describing the circumstances of a unique world, Tainaron focuses exclusively on its one eponymous city. And yet, in its fluid and fluctuating nature, Tainaron the city seems to encompass many worlds itself. At any rate, the effect is similar. Scenes of increasing surrealism paint a picture of a place that, despite its weirdness, begins to look surprisingly like home.
What, and where, is Tainaron? It’s a city, like any other: it has its desirable neighborhoods and its slums, its streets and shops, its social structures. It’s home to “vanishing spires of cathedrals, the liquid gold of the cupolas of minarets, and the pure capitals of a Doric temple.” It is a great melting pot and a diverse ecosystem, where strange persons of all kinds live and work together. Sometimes, their insect nature is quite apparent; other times they seem quite human. (Miss Pumilio, for example — the frail old lady who lives above the narrator in her first home in Tainaron — does not seem to be an insect at all.) Tainaron is located at the edge of a vast body of water called Oceanos, which separates the narrator from her native city. Apparently, Tainaron is also located in a volcanic zone; scientists warn of possible destruction.
It’s a city, like any other, but it’s also a way of being, or a way of seeing. In the twelfth letter, our narrator writes, “…suddenly the earth gave way beneath my feet and I remembered once more that beneath Tainaron is nothing but a crust, as insubstantial as one night’s ice.” Something about Tainaron is fleeting and fragile; like a paradigm or a metaphor, it is upheld only through belief. The city’s emblem is the Ferris wheel. “Ferris wheel, wheel of fortune… Sometimes my gaze fastens itself to its spinning and I seem to hear, until sleep comes, the constant humming of the wheel, which is the voice of Tainaron itself.” In the end, Tainaron is perfectly mutable. It is a city of constant change, defined only by its endless state of motion.
In fact, in the twenty-second letter, as the narrator’s attempts to catalogue the city prove fruitless, her friend Longhorn informs her: “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.” This description of the city could equally be applied to the book. Like many groundbreaking works, Tainaron is difficult to describe. It exists at the level of language, where ambiguity and nuance hold sway. It is not quite like anything else. In its unfamiliar method of exploring an unfamiliar place, it may be inaccessible at times; and yet as the story develops, the writing becomes addictive, mesmerizing. Krohn’s language is lyrical and evocative, but there’s something else, as well — her subtle, glancing way of probing at the mysteries of life and death. Unexpected insights arise from the mundane, but they are suggested so delicately they remain almost intangible.
In this circuitous style, Krohn touches on ideas, backs away, then approaches from another direction; meaning accrues in the sidesteps. The central theme is change and transformation, which threads through every chapter. As one might expect in a city peopled by insects, metamorphosis is a key aspect of life in Tainaron.
Here you can bump into a stranger, and he will come up to you like an old acquaintance and begin to remember some past amusing coincidence that you apparently experienced together. When you ask, “When?”, he laughs and answers: “When I was someone else.”
Along with transformation, another major theme is that of individuality. As these themes develop, they find intersections and interconnections, eventually weaving their way into a single question: What is the soul, and will it survive? Or: Who will we be after we’re gone?
Though Krohn would never state it in such simplified terms, the novella seems to stage a debate. On one side is the notion that people carry with them an essential sameness, lasting from lifetime to lifetime; that a soul survives throughout the ages, no matter what form it takes. On the other side is the assertion that we are all manifestations of a central essence, endlessly combining and recombining from pieces of what we once were and will be again.
Of course, the debate remains unresolved. But there is a certain reassurance to that fact; each vision is comforting in its own way.
Is continuity essential to selfhood? Can one separate the self from its surroundings? And must one be someone to be? These questions linger at the edges of the narrator’s many odd encounters in Tainaron. And Krohn develops them with such subtlety, it feels a bit heavy-handed to draw them out. I do so only with the caveat that there is far more on the page.
The question of identity is first directly addressed in the fourth letter. In this chapter, the narrator is taken to meet the queen: a vast, formless creature confined to a windowless cave and surrounded at all times by a crowd of busy servants. The narrator is astonished when the queen addresses her accusingly,
“You think, don’t you, that I am some kind of individual, a person, admit it?”
… It was a most extraordinary voice, for it seemed to be made up of the murmur of hundreds of voices.
Baffled, the narrator agrees. But when the queen asks “So tell me, who am I?” the narrator struggles to respond.
Before I could even think of an answer to this question, I realized at last what was happening in the back part of the room, which was filled with the queen’s great rear body…
The queen was giving birth! She was giving birth incessantly.
“You are the mother of them all, your majesty,” I replied, humbly.
But the queen is not satisfied with this answer, because, as she says, “She from whom everything flows is not a someone.” Perhaps there is no satisfying answer; to serve as the source of life is a difficult burden. To be inseparable from everything can be unaccountably lonely.
In the eleventh letter, the narrator is allowed audience with Tainaron’s prince (already a foil for the powerful queen). She is surprised to find him abandoned to his tower, a decrepit and lonely figure. It seems he has not entertained a visitor in quite some time. Eager for anyone who will listen, the prince tells her about his departed princess. The princess has been gone for ages, and the prince no longer searches for her, but when she first disappeared, he spent many hours exploring the city, searching for her in the faces of strangers. He says,
“For I should have known her in any disguise, even if she had been through the most comprehensive of metamorphoses, that you may believe. For the images of shared secrets had remained in the princess’s eyes, and they, at last, would have revealed her immediately, but in the interrupted flow of on comers there flowed only the loam of strange memories…”
The prince, at least, believes that there is an essential essence to the soul, glimpsed through its windows. He clings to the idea that he’d know his lover, even if she was someone else. But perhaps this is only a fantasy.
Finally, in the sixteenth letter, the narrator is introduced to a person whose transformations are more instantaneous. The mimic: glimpsed first as a pile of stones, then a grassy knoll. Vexed, the narrator asks her friend Longhorn to explain.
“My dear,” Longhorn said, and looked at me, waving the extensions of his antennae, “do you believe that the Mimic could have a personality? Today he is one thing, tomorrow another. Wherever he is, that is what he is – stone a moment ago, now the summer’s grass. Who knows what form he will take tomorrow.”
But the narrator feels a certain unexplainable pique against the very idea of the Mimic, and declines Longhorn’s invitation to meet him. Gently, Longhorn rebukes her: “So you want everyone to be someone. You want what someone is at the beginning to be what he is at the end.”
Perhaps the narrator’s resentment of this fickle creature reveals unexamined feelings toward the silent recipient of her letters. Letter after letter she writes to her unknown lover, receiving no answer; as readers we find ourselves the uncomfortable target of her supplications, accused of indifference yet incapable of answering. We are the lover who’s changed, or died, or simply gone away. “That you are so implacable in your silence,” the narrator writes in her twenty-first letter, “makes you gradually become more like gods or the dead. Such is your metamorphosis; and it is not entirely repugnant to me.”
Little is revealed about this lover, nor the narrator herself. Like the Mimic, both are vague and ambiguous, serving primarily as filters for raw experience. Yet in a rare instance in the thirteenth letter, the narrator recalls a moment between herself and her lover, walking between two churches, discussing the soul. At the same time she offers a description of herself:
I seldom look in the mirror, but always there is someone there who gives me my eyes. And the root of my nose is bluish; a line has inscribed itself at the corner of my mouth like a drypoint groove. But this is no proof copy, and the acid of everyday life corrodes, prepares that which is the soul.
Though our narrator has been meticulous about documenting Tainaron, she is a bit like a tourist who visits a human city for just one season and concludes it is always summer there. But fall comes to Tainaron, and then winter, bringing yet more changes that the narrator cannot escape.
The first to be affected is Longhorn, her dear guide. As he’s accompanied her on her explorations of the city, she’s learned to know him intimately — and been astonished by his kindness. She feels dependent on him for her survival. But with winter comes sleep. Longhorn must retreat into his pupal cell (a kind of cocoon for beetles, constructed from mud and debris). When he emerges, he will be someone else entirely.
Eventually, winter sleep will come to the narrator as well. Tainaron is not just a place one visits; it is a way of being. If one dares to take up residence there, one cannot be immune to the forces of change.
As I came to the end of this novella, a sort of narrative began to emerge in my head. I found that, unconsciously, I’d begun striving to assign meaning to symbols; I was looking for the key to an allegory. In my mind I was building a story about an aging woman whose lover has died, or gone on before her to somewhere else; without him her world has become unfamiliar. Tainaron is a place she creates in her mind, while she grapples with her own mortality and prepares for the inevitable. Or perhaps Tainaron is a place between worlds, a spot to pause in the afterlife.
But then, I willed myself to resist this impulse. The story is too universal; it doesn’t deserve to be contained to any one narrative, any one interpretation. It doesn’t ask to be measured.
Regardless, the three final letters cast doubt on the story as it has been told so far. Perhaps there is no such place as Tainaron. Perhaps there are no insects with souls (or perhaps there are no humans). Perhaps there has never been a lover to receive these letters. Or perhaps he has been there all along. Like the debate on the nature of the soul, I prefer to leave this story an open question.
Finally, our narrator begins her twenty-fifth letter with the following story:
Do you remember the entomologist who thought he saw a cloaked moth on the ground? He was delighted, and picked it up, only to realize that it was no more than a piece of rotten wood. Then, of course, he threw it away in disappointment.
I wonder why — already preparing to leave — he nevertheless crouched to seek once more the piece of branch he had thrown away. But how diligently and closely he had to examine it before he saw: it was a cloaked moth after all.
Look closely. Look again. This, I think, is Tainaron.