Book review: Datura, by Leena Krohn

7 10 2016

Leena Krohn is a long-established Finnish writer of fiction that could variously be described as speculative, literary, or weird. She’s received numerous awards for her writing and has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award. Her Wikipedia page lists over thirty titles, comparatively few of which are available in English translation; for those looking for an overview, much of the English-translated material has been released by Cheeky Frawg Books in Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction, which runs to 800+ pages.

datura

Datura (or A Delusion We All See) (Datura tai harha jonka jokainen näkee, 2001, translated by Anna Volmari and J Robert Tupasela) is a short novel, somewhat picaresque, that relates the happenings at the office of the small and esoteric New Anomalist magazine, a journal crammed with opinion pieces, reports, and speculation on a plethora of paranormal, metaphysical, and outlandish topics. Of the two people involved in the production of New Anomalist, only one (the long-suffering, sporadically cranky subeditor and the novel’s narrator) actually works on the magazine; the managing editor, Markus (known to all and sundry as ‘The Marquis’) merely comes up with a series of unworkable ideas and unreliable story leads for the subeditor to pursue. It’s hard to like the cynical and shallow Markus, who at one point decides that what’s really needed in the magazine’s associated mail-order store, co-located in the subeditor’s workspace, is a large consignment of novelty rock’n’roll singing fish; the subeditor—who is at least (generally) willing to listen to people, even when she finds it impossible not to privately class them as cranks—is a more sympathetic figure.

The novel opens with the subeditor receiving a potted plant—thought initially to be an angel’s trumpet, but subsequently revealed to be datura—as a birthday present from her sister and brother-in-law. Having heard something of the (dubious) pharmacological properties of the plant, she subsequently commences to dose her tea, whilst at work, with trace quantities of the datura’s crushed-up seeds, in the expectation that it may alleviate her chronic bronchial troubles. It does seem as if it is indeed having some effect on her breathing, but is this the datura’s only influence?

The book is subdivided into three ‘seed pods’, each of which comprises a dozen or so short and only loosely interconnected chapters, as the subeditor meets various of the New Anomalist‘s contributors, would-be advisers and subscribers, identified by such descriptors as The Master of Sound, The Ethnobotanist, The Hair Artiste, The Timely Man, and The Trepanist. Each of these quirky, iconoclastic individuals seek to persuade the subeditor of the wisdom of their vision, while the beleagured subeditor strives to make progress with a commissioned article on the Voynich manuscript, the inexplicable farsightedness of Nicola Tesla, or the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion. But telling you this tells you nothing of the quality of the writing, which is delightful: immersive, playful, deep, and a little detached. It all reads like some weird blend of Italo Calvino and and Tove Jansson: there’s a precise experimental otherness about it which is reminiscent, a little, of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, while the brief chapters’ free rein across a bewildering range of topics, often illuminated by sharply introspective analysis, carries hints of The Summer Book or Sculptor’s Daughter (a sense I found particularly strong with the chapter ‘The Puddle’, which is one of my favourite sections within the book). The text’s dry understated humour I found reminiscent (again) of Jansson, but perhaps more strongly of Flann O’Brien, with its gift for poking fun without, somehow, ever making a direct target of its participants. It is, quite simply, a joy to read.

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