In the 11th century, the German historian Adam of Bremen wrote that the Finns "are to this day so superior in the magic arts or incantations that they profess to know what everyone is doing the world over.... All this is easy for them through practice." Their command of words and sorcery is so legendary that modern Swedes who consult a fortuneteller say that they are "paying a visit to the Finns."
Yet why is it that only a few Finnish writers — among them Tove Jansson, Elias Lönnrot (compiler of the "Kalevala"), Johanna Sinissalo and the Estonian Finnish Sofi Oksanen — are known to American readers?
The challenge of translation is one reason — Finnish is a notoriously difficult language for nonnative speakers to learn, with gender-neutral pronouns and grammar. The Finns' often unconventional way of looking at the world may be another — think of Sibelius' yearning symphonies, the quirky films of Aki Kaurismäki, Alvar Aalto's undulating buildings, Jansson's endearingly amorphous Moomins.
Cheeky Frawg, a small press specializing in the literature of the fantastic, often in translation, is publishing an omnibus volume of the brilliant, visionary modernist Leena Krohn — think Jorge Luis Borges intersecting with Isak Dinesen, Flann O'Brien, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino.
The comparisons help put Krohn's body of work into context but do nothing to capture the ineffable, melancholy strangeness and beauty of her writing. This is great literature: Shame on us for only now discovering it.
Krohn has written more than 30 books for adults and young readers. A variety of works published between 1976 and 2009 are collected here, including six short novels and novellas, short stories, critical essays and novel excerpts, some of which have been difficult to find in the U.S.
The volume opens with "Dona Quixote and Other Citizens. Portrait (Tales of the Citizens of an Unusual City)." The book consists of a series of chapters, most only a page or two in length, which can also be read as individual stories — a technique similar to that of Lydia Davis and a hallmark of nearly all of Krohn's fiction here. The "unusual city," never named, is recognizable as modern Helsinki but a Helsinki at once as commonplace and marvelous as Gabriel García-Marquez's Macondo. Here is the narrator's first meeting with the eponymous protagonist:
"I was sitting on the pedestal of a statue when something passed me by. It was as long and thin as a piece of straw, and it moved so lightly that it seemed to slip along above the dust of the road. It had a pair of binoculars at its neck and it stopped by the railing and began to look out at the sea."
The piece of straw is an old woman known as Dona Quixote, and so odd yet acute are Krohn's descriptions of the city and its denizens that a reader is at first not quite certain whether the story is set on Earth or indeed if the narrator (or Dona Quixote) is human. It's as though the story was told by a member of another species, amazed by even the most mundane things.
This sense of mingled strangeness and recognition reverberates through all of Krohn's work, most clearly in "Tainaron: Mail From Another City." The narrative is framed as a series of letters, never answered, written by an unnamed woman to her distant lover, describing the city where she now lives — where the residents are insects.
Many of them are human-sized and possessed of human speech, their behavior a distorted mirror held up to that of Homo sapiens. In a vast, teeming beehive, the narrator has an audience with the immense queen, who, ceaselessly giving birth to her offspring, shrieks, "But what is a mother? … She from whom everything flows is not a someone …"
Later, at a funeral parlor, the narrator is shown the exquisite coffins that hold only "a single organ, often an eye or antenna [or] part of a wing, a part with a beautiful pattern." Told that there is no crematorium in Tainaron, she insists on knowing what happens to the rest of the bodies. The funeral director takes her to an underground chamber, where she is at first sickened and then exalted by the sight of dung beetles devouring the dead. "And here, then, was their work: to distill pure nectar from such filth, to extract from the slimy liquid of death health, strength and new life."
This singular vision of a transcendent connection between species also shines in "Datura," where ingesting the seeds of the titular poisonous plant subtly changes the way a woman perceives the world, and "The Pelican's New Clothes," in which a pelican befriends a lonely boy named Emil. Only children recognize him as a pelican: dressed in human clothing, the pelican calls himself Mr. Henderson. He gets a job taking tickets at the opera and is enthralled by "The Magic Flute." (He especially likes the birdcatcher, Papageno.) Reminiscent of Roald Dahl's work, it's a book that deserves to be called a classic.
As do nearly all of the extraordinary tales collected here. "Beauty is the universe's most enduring quality," Krohn, now 68, states in her afterword, "it is repeated in atoms and galaxies, numbers and relations and the way a tree grows." This is a writer whose work can rewire your brain, leaving you with an enhanced, near-hallucinatory apprehension of our fragile planet, and of all the beings that inhabit it.
Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction
Cheeky Frawg Books: 850 pp, $36.99