The Short Version: The first major collection (in English) to take a career-spanning look at the works, both major and minor, of Leena Krohn. Strange cities, robots, clones, a “paradox archive”, a deadly plant, and more populate the tales collected here and the whole presents a truly unique voice in all its many timbres.
The Review: It’s easy to believe, for Americans and perhaps for members of English-speaking society at large, that we have available to us all that we will ever need, written in the English language. How else can we explain the willful ignorance that allows such authors as Leena Krohn to go all-but-unknown to English-speaking readers? We are satisfied with our Murakami and our Ferrante and we pat ourselves on the back, thinking we’ve tasted literature of another linguistic tradition… but the world is a far broader place if only we pause to consider it.
Enter Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, the publishers of Cheeky Frawg Books. It’s through their efforts that I’ve been introduced to authors like Karin Tidbeck, Amos Tutuola, and of course Leena Krohn. This collection, spanning Krohn’s entire career so far (from 1976 to the present), is an ambitious next step for the tiny publisher and one that makes them suddenly an indispensable part of the publishing community, putting them right alongside the likes of New Directions and Europa Editions in the ranks of publishers helping bring international voices to audiences too blind/unaware to’ve otherwise sought them out.
The immediately jarring thing about Krohn’s writing is that, as Jeff VanderMeer points out in his introduction, her work is made up of “short chapters advance the overall story arc but also form complete tales in and of themselves.” I noticed this when, after finishing one of the novels and knowing I only had a few minutes to read, I leapt ahead with the idea that I’d read one of the short pieces. But most of the “short fictions” included here are, in fact, excerpts of larger novels and its wowing to realize that Krohn’s work functions on both of these levels. After all, it’s the rare author where you could lift up a section of their work and have it stand alone as a self-contained closed ecosystem of a story – and, with Krohn, it works with literally every section.
This creates an interesting dissonance for the reader, though. Gold of Ophir, for example, is almost impressionistic with the way individual stories aggregate and begin to form a whole – but there is a conscious sense of these stories being individual when you’re reading the novel. Instead of trying to tell an individual story, it’s almost as though Krohn wants instead to evoke something and so she creates these smaller eruptions that all push the reader towards understanding the larger picture – a picture that is too complex to be considered just an ordinary story but is more akin to a massive classical tapestry or fresco. She evokes a sense of place, character, and time but on the scale of legend, even if it seems altogether smaller than that word would imply.
Tainaron, the most famous (perhaps) of Krohn’s novels and Datura are, perhaps, the most novel-like in that the story has a linear sense of motion, a beginning and an end – progress that won’t be too jarring for those unaccustomed to the weirder side of fiction. (Of course, they’ll have to deal with the utterly surreal things like a city inhabited by bugs or a break with reality brought on by a malevolent plant, but that’s a different point.) There are other moments – the way Gold of Ophir constantly breaks away from the reader, the way some of the short stories/excerpts create an intensity of world in just a handful of pages – that are stranger, both in form and content and these moments may challenge readers. But Krohn never sets a challenge that the reader can’t attain. These are not dense novels-of-ideas, they are not so Weird as to destabilize reality entirely, but they skew just far enough outside the expected/ordinary that it takes the reader a moment to catch up. Most of the time, anyway.
I wasn’t crazy about the novel that opens the collection, Doña Quixote – a lighter work that reminded me of Calvino in its airiness and, for perhaps some preconceived notions of what I was getting into, the novel’s relative ordinariness was jarring to me. The gauzy journeys around around a city that some canny Googling tells me is in fact a version of Helsinki and while the writing was beautiful at times, it swept past me. I couldn’t get my hooks in. It was only later, in the other novels of the collection, that I found myself unable to get away from this dense tome. The final novel that I read (I was, as previously mentioned, jumping somewhat out of order) was Datura and I read it in a single sitting, blowing off several other things I needed to be doing, because I could not let the opportunity pass me by to consume the story whole. In some respects, this might be the ideal way to engage with Krohn’s work: whole. The individual pieces, yes, can be taken as whole entities unto themselves – but to consume these small pellets one-by-one in a single sitting opens up the reader to the bigger meal that is any given novel. This is a rare pleasure.
I’ve decided that I won’t go into the individual novels and stories piece by piece, but will instead say that Gold of Ophir may be my favorite. It contains, I think, the most mystery of any story in these collection tales and I was relentlessly compelled to read on, in the hopes of uncovering if not answers perhaps another facet of the mystery, not unlike the way it felt to arrive on Myst Island for the first time with no idea of what to do… but, with each step, discovering more and more that you did not know.
And yet even as I say this, I’m not sure I can truly pick a favorite. Krohn’s work for children is full of amazing modern-day folktales, “Me and My Shadow” from Hotel Sapiens had me running to the internet to find a fully translated copy of the novel (sadly, it does not yet exist), and Tainaron reminded me of Ambergris, New Crobuzon, even Bohane – a sister city to these magical fictional locales and one just as compelling, just as alive. (In particular that novel reminded me of VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword, which I haven’t read in a long time and intend now to give a long-overdue revisit.) There was almost a surfeit of wonders here – how could I pick just one, or even just a few?
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Unknown to me until this collection was announced, Leena Krohn has vaulted into that pantheon of writers of whom I’ll read anything just to read something more of hers. Her work is not always the most “accessible” in the traditional sense and the patchwork/quilt/mosaic structure of the tales (short chapters, nearly each of which can stand alone as their own short story) can require a certain state of mind – but once you’ve accessed that state of mind, you never need to struggle again. She’s an author who more people need to know – but Finland, for example, already does know that. The folks at Cheeky Frawg have done a great service by insisting so forcefully that she’s an author to dive deep with. The tome might appear daunting, clocking in well over 800 pages, but I assure you: the rewards are tremendous.