Tainaron: Mail from Another City – Lena Krohn

What a marvelous book Lena Krohn’s tiny Tainaron is! I admit that I chose it for my train read precisely because of its size. It’s merely 130 pages long, many of them filled with illustrations and the blank spaces that follow the end of chapters, in this case letters. Tainaron consists of thirty letters sent by a woman to her unnamed once-lover, over the huge mass of Oceanus, from the eponymous insect-inhabited city where she has emigrated for an unknown reason. It is not a novel, nor is it really a novella. There is no overarching plot; in fact, most of the novelistic mechanics that is part of our conditioning cannot be found in it. The psychological core of that very Western literary form, rooted in the socio-economic interaction between character and society, is simply not much of a concern for Lena Krohn. We never get to learn why the anonymous author of the letters came to Tainaron, how she makes her living, whether she has a job at all.

Instead, Tainaron is a confession of sorts, albeit an oblique one. It is also a series of metaphysical musings on the nature of life, death, identity. It is about change, in its many forms that lurk in every facet of being. Each letter tells us of something different: of gardens with gigantic flowers that can easily swallow you whole, of strange processions that fill streets like rivers, of mass self-immolations, of queens who do nothing but give birth, and of a prince ignored by his own people. But despite all that, there is coherency to Tainaron, even though it is of a different kind. Krohn’s alien insectopolis is so gutturally strange and eventually unknowable, for the narrator and for the reader, that the mind cannot but seek similarities with our human world. She is well-aware of this cognitive reflex (Krohn, but her narrator as well, I think) and walks with confidence the tight-rope between metaphorical fiction and SF. What makes this work is her vivid and evocative style, captured wonderfully in the translation from Finnish. Tainaron might be just 130 pages long, but every sentence in it demands your full attention, that you actively imagine yourself there and bring into sharp relief the smorgasbord of images that sleep beneath the words. Thus, the book feels much bigger, as if it is a building with thirty different rooms, and each and every one of them can be explored anew many times, never surrendering an ultimate meaning.

This is a book that will convince you to reread it, possibly many times. You read a paragraph and are struck by the sheer beauty of its words and phrases. Then you momentarily lose yourself in the cloying, creeping reality of that utterly strange world, only to find yourself being pulled back by the realization blooming in the back of your mind, while the same grasps for strands of meaning, that on some level that reality resembles our own so much it really hurts to even think the thought. After each letter you collect those shards, tally and catalogue them, separate and mingle them in jars made of yet newer analogies, quickly put together and disassembled to test multiple hypotheses. Eventually you give up and just let go, but you can now discern (at least you think you can) some tendencies, dependencies, cyclicities. The map is not the territory and a terrain in the process of constant recreation cannot ever be mapped, nor is there any point in trying to do so. Such is life, such is Tainaron that is always being demolished and rebuilt; even the measures of its buildings cannot be put down in the documents of history, as in every generation a new Surveyor is born in the city, whose body – the cartographer’s very instrument! – will capture a different story, a different map, meaningless to any reader of the future.

The same goes for identities – their metamorphoses fill the book and every imaginable crack in time, they whisper of infinite cycles and unimaginable leaps in meaning. The narrator asks one of the oldest citizens of Tainaron – a man carried around in a bag, because he is too weak to walk on his own – what has been the most difficult thing in his life, and he answers–– “The fact that everything recurs and must always return and that the same questions are asked again and again.” The narrator herself struggles, throughout her letters, to come to terms with change, she clings to her own understanding of the necessary nature of predictable causality:

“Really,” said Longhorn (her guide and mentor in Tainaron, who is literally a longhorn beetle), without showing any kind of sympathy, in fact teasingly. “So you want everyone to be someone. You want what someone is at the beginning to be what he is at the end.”

“But surely! There has to be some kind of continuity!” I shouted. “Development, naturally, but at the same time––loyalty!”

 In another letter she wonders at the literal metamorphosis that the citizens of Tainaron go through, how it is possible for one to undergo complete transformation and abandon their previous self:

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.”

 And although she speaks little of her life on the other side of Oceanus and of her once-lover, who never answers her mail, much is revealed about her fears and hopes, mirrored in the text and Tainaron itself. In one of the shortest and most startling letters she describes the inner dwellings of Tainaronians, which some of them carry around themselves, like armor on the outside and a comfortable hollow on the inside:

Some of them carry their innermost apartment, a one-roomed flat which fits their dimensions like a glove, with them everywhere. But this has the drawback that one cannot always make sense of what they say, for it echoes and reverberates from the walls of their private apartments. It is also vexing to me that I cannot always tell where the dwelling ends and its inhabitant begins.

Poor things, who never come among people without this innermost shield. It reflects the terrible vulnerability of their live. Their little home may be made of the most diverse ingredients: grains of sand, bark, straw, clay, leaves… But it protects them better than others protected by armour, from every direction, and it is a direct continuation of themselves, much more so than clothes are to you or me. But if it is taken away from them, they die––perhaps simply of shame, perhaps because their skins are too soft for the outside air, or because they do not have any skin at all.

 Did somebody take her armor away from her, one might ask. Did she flee the human world to escape, or did she die, or crack in the head? Did her lover do it to her? Or maybe she did it to him?

And then there are those who cannot bear such a situation, those who wish to see everything face to face and to reveal, open, show the whole world the nakedness of things…. Now and then the temptation becomes overwhelming to them, and they split open the house of some poor unfortunate. I awake to shrieking, sigh and turn over––and soon fall asleep again.

 Those are sad and chilling paragraphs. Perhaps because they are so painfully truthful, despite the frailty of their metaphor. At the end, when winter comes to Tainaron and Oceanus freezes over, and everybody goes to stasis, she herself makes a pupa to sleep in, to transmogrify; frightened, but excited as well to see the world through new eyes when she wakes up.

Tainaron is no allegory. It does not provide easy answers, or ask easy questions. And you will want to reread it, knowing that you will never exhaust it. It is not meant to be read like a novel, and it sports very distinctly the detached and yet piercing quality of Scandinavian writing, in the spirit of other famous fabulists like Lindgren and Jansson. It is a book you can get lost in, in its magical strangeness, but it will never deny you the surface – that will always be there, visible, and you will always want to return to it, not being able to bear the poignancy of the letters for too long. But at the same time you will long for that bittersweet quality and for the truth that has to lie buried somewhere in them, never excavated in full. I will refrain from rating the book on a numerical scale, as in this case it seems a meaningless exercise. And anyway, I expect to reread it many times in the future, so I am not eager to fix a label to it.

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