People are Insects

by Sören Heim

Last year Ichneumon suggested that I read Leena Krohn's, Tainaron. Mail from Another City, if I'd like to experience a really fantastic journey. Et Voilà...
It's not easy to write about Tainaron. The book as well as the fictitious city. In Russian "taina" (тайна) means secret, which maybe isn't that important, since the small fantastic novel in letters by Leena Krohn was originally published in Finnish. A specific meaning of the word in that language I couldn't make out – even with the help of Finnish speaking friends. But Tainaron invites the reader to associate freely. It is not easy to decide, what the 30 letters composing the novel – streams of consciousness without answer – actually want. I am reminded of the hobby-entomologist, who in trying to conserve beauty destroys it twice: by taking its life and by having it crumble under his hands. But this picture is worn out, as maybe is any scholarly reference to Nabokov, which comes to mind when talking about insects and literature. Parallels to Kafka, as identified by Desirina Boskovich because both Tainaron and The Metamorphosis are on some level about, well, metamorphoses, also don't shed a lot of light on Krohn's Work. So maybe the Russian “тайна” sets the right tone to approach the book. Or not? After all, if there is a secret, there usually is something to be revealed. And I'm just not sure whether that isn't a completely wrong expectation when approaching Tainaron.

Not a place at all

On a first glance, Tainaron is easily summarized. In 30 letters a nameless narrator tells us about her everyday life in Tainaron, a city mostly populated by more or less sentient insects. What exactly the narrator is doing there (some kind of exchange program? But she doesn't seem to have a return planed) remains unclear. She observes, interprets, sometimes reflects situations from a life before Tainaron. In a loose episode structure she paints the picture of a city not only always changing but also quite contradictory. Her guide Longhorn says in the 22nd letter: "Tainaron isn't a place as you may think. It's a happening without measurement. It is useless to make maps." But some chapters before we met the "measurer". A creature that measures with its own body "the length and width of streets, the diameter of squares and the height of buildings". The Measurer "walks like official representatives of the people, or such who know that everything has its measure and even more: who or what they themselves are".

"I am the measure of all things" the Measurer says, reciting the credo of early humanism, which in Tainaron has not only become questionable, because most of its people are insects.

A thing of beauty

Many impressions from Tainaron (the city) are of extraordinary beauty, also language wise, as far as one can tell from an English translation. But it's not really "the language" or "the writing" that is "beautiful". Rather, Krohn describes an outwardly strangely beautiful world, hardly to be imagined in any other way but overwhelming. The language in itself is a rather simple, it's the subject that shines. With regards to Krohn's style, I'd like to speak of a “fantastic naturalism”, used as a stylistic device that produces distance: It's the tension between the shiny surface and the prosaic, sometimes surgical, perspective of our protagonist, which makes Tainaron such a remarkable experience.

Maybe, this should be where I stop. Otherwise, I might end up like the entomologist above. It seems questionable whether it is possible to penetrate deeper into Tainaron. Whether a further exegesis will really enhances the experience of reading Tainaron, or whether it is just a hopeless task. Not because the beautiful is less beautiful when we try to understand it, but because Tainaron might be willfully constructed in order to evade the analytical mind. A trap, more serious but quite similar to John Lennon's "I am the walrus". A willfully fragile ambiguous thing, mocking intellectual criticism.

Is there a key?

On the other hand there are moments in Tainaron that suggest that there might be a key to the work, most likely to be located within the personal rememberings of the narrator. For example, there is a short dream of a chase and possibly a rape (and maybe this is a good place to admit that I am not sure whether I'm just copying other critics by speaking off the protagonist as "she". I can't remember any particular moment in the novel where sex or gender are explicitly mentioned. Maybe there is something I overread, or maybe I and others just assumed, because of certain childhood memories of the protagonist, because of the Authors gender – another тайна, another secret). There's also a short voyage of the protagonist to the outskirts of Tainaron, socially and economically run down dwellings. A hole opens up suddenly in quicksand during this voyage, hairy claws wait for the protagonist. She doesn't fall in and nothing more happens. Then there are a lot of general thoughts on the fragility of individuality, on changes and metamorphoses and on the question of what it means to say I/Me. And most importantly: These thoughts, as expressed and mirrored in the shapings of the city of Tainaron seem to be related to the time before. For example, the protagonist writes to her never answering partner "That you are so implacable in your silence, makes you gradually become more like gods or the dead. Such is your metamorphosis; and it is not entirely repugnant to me." Because of this Boskovich tends to read the whole book as an allegory on departing, maybe even on death.

Long after writing the first draft of this text I found out that Tainaron (Tenaros, Greek: Ταίναρος) also is the name of a city located close to a supposed entrance to Thanatos in Greek mythology. This would strengthen Boskovich's interpretation of Tainaron as a transition between life and death. Still I think the book shouldn't be reduced to that kind of narrow reading.

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Comments (go to latest)
Janne Kirjasniemi at 20:22 on 2017-01-09
The name Taina and Tanja(which I think is more close to the russian тайна, although I'm not sure) both have the same etymology, being finnish versions of the russian Tatjana, which comes from latin Tatiana, a roman name and also the name of a martyr, whose story is pretty typical for a roman martyr and doesn't seem to have anything to do with the subject matter. This probably doesn't help much.

It does sound like an interesting book, which I'm kinda shamed I've missed, since I too have finnish as my mother's tongue. But it's good to have aspirations and to-do lists, I guess.
Sören Heim at 09:16 on 2017-01-10
I tried to read up on the etymology on russian wikipedia, but I cant make sense of the abreviations... anyhow it's pronounced "tajnə" so soundwise not that close to Tanja, at least how I would pronounce it...

There is an ebook-version of all of Krohns work which might be helpfull in getting to know the author...
Janne Kirjasniemi at 12:00 on 2017-01-10
No, you're right, I managed to mix together the j(й) and the n(н), which I always manage to do, when I believe I remember it and try to go on without checking first(since I've supposedly learned the alphabet once).

In any case, it is an interesting thing, the russian meaning.
Sören Heim at 09:16 on 2017-01-11
It's interesting but maybe really just free word-association... but it would be nice to find out if there is a connection between greek Tainaron and the russian word for secret... with russia heavily influenced by greek orthodoxy...
Ichneumon at 00:56 on 2017-01-21
I'm glad you enjoyed this one, Sören! It certainly is a curious tale, yet one which pulled at my heartstrings in a way that I can't easily describe. There is something melancholy and ominous yet fragile and tender in it, particularly the odd fragmentary memories of the mysterious intended recipient of the letters and the closing implication of the narrator undergoing their own metamorphosis akin to Longhorn's.
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