March 2016

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Recognizing the End of the World

The novels of Leena Krohn are like rain. Each chapter, often short, is an individual droplet with its own mass, shape, and velocity. These water droplets, these chapters, are individually titled and contain discrete events, often not connected by plot, though they share characters, places, and themes. You don't read on to the next chapter to solve a crime or discover a secret from a character's past. You don't even necessarily read on to find out what happens "next" -- not in the sense of cause and effect, one event influencing another. You read on to find out what's in the next chapter, each landing as a pinprick of wetness, until you reach the end and realize you are drenched.

Often what holds these chapters into a unitary object -- a Leena Krohn novel -- is the narrator and the place. The first Krohn I read, years ago, was Tainaron: Mail From Another City (translated from Finnish by Hildi Hawkins). Tainaron is composed of a series of letters, written by a faintly aristocratic-seeming narrator who is visiting a city of insects. The letters describe the inhabitants and culture of the city in terms both metaphorical and literal, each entry delving deeper into the city and deeper into the narrator. More recently, I read Datura, Or A Delusion We All See (translated by Anna Volmari and J. Robert Tupasela), in which the narrator is a subeditor for a magazine specializing in anomalies and alternative understandings of the world. The narrator encounters a string of characters in the magazine office, each with their own obsession, their own area of arcane knowledge and experience. "Reality," the narrator tells us, "is nothing more than a working hypothesis," and the diverse chapters are united by their presentations of a multitude of other realities.

The first volume of Cheeky Frawg's handsome Krohn collection, published in December 2015, includes both of these novels translated into English, as well as four others. (The second volume includes short stories, selections from still more novels, and essays about and by Krohn.) This collection was the occasion for me to finally read Pereat Mundus: A Novel of Sorts (translated by Hildi Hawkins).

Pereat Mundus contains the hallmarks of other Krohn novels. Its chapters are individually titled, and often quite short, with startling moments of philosophical revelation and events that dance between genres ranging from the surreal to the science fictional. Unlike the novels described above, however, Pereat Mundus does not use a first person narrator to unite its chapters into a whole. In some ways the novel doesn't even have a central character. Instead, the novel is united by a single name: Håkan.

Who is Håkan? Well. In "Cold Porridge," Håkan is a scientific assistant whose mind has been transferred -- entire -- into a computer, prompting the start of a new form of consciousness. In "The Son of the Chimera," he is a new creature, part chimpanzee, part wolf, part goat, and part human. In "The Society for Voluntary Extinction," he is a sociology student who becomes a fervent participant in a movement to convince humanity to voluntarily extinguish itself. Håkan is all of these characters and more, remade in chapter after chapter into someone new -- "the same, but nevertheless different" -- living in a slightly different world from the chapter before.

Pereat Mundus is also united by theme. Each story of Håkan takes us just to the precipice of destruction, the loss of the world. Or the loss of a world. The Håkan of "The Ice-Cream Seller," for example, serves mango ice cream on a beach as the heat rises and the ocean boils. "A Scroll When It Is Rolled Together" draws out this theme explicitly. Håkan is brought by curiosity to a town square where a hundred-strong cult has gathered in expectation of the end of the world, as foretold by their leader, Håkan's former schoolmate. At a café in the square, Håkan runs into his old history teacher. The preaching of the cult leader -- his descriptions of the destruction and wonder to come -- are set against the commentary of the history teacher, who recounts the failed predictions of cults and sects long past. Over and over again, men and women have been convinced the world was ending. Over and over again, they have been wrong. Håkan is tugged between cult leader and history teacher, their declamations like a murky version of an argument between angel and devil. He is overtaken by the emotion of the cult leader and then shamed by the logic of the teacher:

Everyone in the square shouted yes, and even many in the café joined the chorus. To his own surprise, Håkan heard his own, slightly shrill voice following the yeses that stumblingly followed one another, rising higher and higher in hysteria, striving more and more passionately.

"Håkan!"

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize."

His teacher was looking at him impatiently.

The chapter sweeps us toward the ending of the world -- the lights going out, a smell of burning -- each sign undercut by the history teacher. Is the world ending, or is Håkan simply naïve and gullible? The chapter cuts out before we find out for sure, leaving the reader caught between a long history of failed predictions and a present moment of heightened expectation.

For other Håkans, the lost world is internal. For example, in "A Heart Clothed in Black," Håkan is employed to read submissions for a publisher, writing a brief critique advising the publisher to accept or, more often, reject the submission. The chapter travels through the destruction of his passion to write his own books, then the destruction of his belief in honesty about writing, and ultimately to the end of his belief in literature at all. (That a story about the banality of literature can be, in itself, a moving piece of literature is a testament to Krohn's skill as a writer and Hawkins's skill as translator.)

In counterpoint to Håkan's plurality, and the plurality of endings, is a singular character, named Doctor Fakelove. His chapters appear at intervals throughout the book, telling first of his practice as an online therapist, and then of the letters he begins receiving from a new client, of course named Håkan. This Håkan is obsessed with the end of the world. His letters to Fakelove are full of cool logic, laying out the possibility and plausibility of extermination by sunspots, by mass extinctions, by asteroids, and by overpopulation. Fakelove battles these potential apocalypses with pop psychology -- what in Håkan's life has made him think this way? What was missing from Håkan's childhood that would give him this fear? Fakelove wields these questions as a shield against his own thoughts and fears. But his judgment over others can't save him. As the book progresses, and endings pile up in the intervening chapters, he is pulled inexorably toward an end he doesn't want to believe in.

Krohn manages these accumulating endings with an adeptness that explores both the many forms an end may take and the many reactions one can have in those final moments. Characters -- Håkans and others -- deny, yell, plead, shout, welcome, celebrate, and misunderstand the endings they experience. Often they -- and the reader -- are left with ambiguity, doubtful of how to feel.

One of my favorite chapters, "Phyllobates Terribilis," is layered with such ambiguity. Here, Håkan is a herpetologist. He specializes in frogs, loves them even, but the frogs are disappearing, as other animals have disappeared before them and others will after. (As animals are disappearing right now, as I write and you read.) He is in the field collecting samples, a bog inhabited in the past by hundreds or thousands of frogs, including some varieties poisonous to humans. This visit, though, he can only find one frog. He is overwhelmed by the knowledge that frogs are on their way out of this world, a loss he feels far more deeply than most: "There were, to be sure, other sorrows in his life, but the threatened extinction of the frogs was undoubtedly among the greatest of them."

In his depression, Håkan reaches down for a mushroom and is touched, briefly, by a large, red-spotted frog, the likes of which he hasn't seen before. At first, he is pleased. "How amazing," he thinks, "that at this moment, when he had already lost faith, the frog should touch his hand as if in greeting." Soon after, however, his arm begins to itch and swell and he realizes this may have been a poisonous frog. He works quickly, trying to pack up his things and make it to the road before night and before the irreversible spread of the poison. The approaching endings are multiple: the extinction of the frogs -- and of other animals and humans as well, at some point in the future -- and also Håkan's own threatened end, as he crawls into his tent, abandoning the attempt to pack as night comes on.

In the final paragraphs, Krohn offers an experience between hope and despair -- an ecstasy of uncertainty and annihilation. Outside his tent, Håkan hears frogs chirping and croaking: "In a trance, his hand already numb and senseless, accompanied by the rustle of the rain and the croaking of the frogs, Håkan was taken through the eras toward the wondrous time when he did not yet exist." Have the frogs returned? Is Håkan dying? We are left in the moment, without answers, only with the feeling of Håkan's wonder and the sense that humanity -- and the individual Håkans -- may end, even the world may end, but something still will remain. Some new life or new object. As the final chapter, "Vita Nuova," describes: "Where there was disintegration, there assembly began. Where the end seemed to loom, the beginning immediately dawned, new-born life, vita nuova."

***

Soon after finishing Pereat Mundus, I read "Forestspirit, Forestspirit" by Bogi Takács, a story from the June 2015 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine. It turned out to be a fitting accompaniment to Pereat Mundus. In Takács's story, an unnamed narrator shapeshifts through a forest, slowly revealing the aftereffects of a war in which the narrator was a soldier, given this ability to control individual cells, shifting not only into animals or plants, but also into swarms and mists and clouds. A boy comes to the forest, warning of an end -- not the end of the narrator, but of the forest in which the narrator lives, and to which the narrator has become attached. Like the various Håkans in Krohn's novel, this end drives the story. The old shapeshifting soldier worries at how to save the forest, ultimately pursuing a question of recognition. Identity is dismantled. The old shapeshifting soldier is categorized as a forest spirit. The machines of the encroachment take the form of millipedes. A man in green is an uncle or may be a "true" forest spirit, if such a thing can exist. The ability to recognize "trees" and "forest" is turned against the machines that would destroy both. There is hope, here, but underneath that hope is an essential question: When the world ends and a new one arrives, will we recognize it? Will we recognize what we have lost -- or what we have gained?