Leena Krohn, Datura
November 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
Some novels have that magical “moment” in which the reader decides right then and there that this novel is worth continuing. It might be a heart-wrenching observation by a character or a striking event that immediately captures that reader’s attention. Yet other novels do not contain such “ah-hah!” moments where everything just clicks together. First a page is read, then another five, perhaps two or three chapters. There is something that is happening, but the reader can’t quite put her finger on what that might be, so she continues on, plowing through the narrative and overturning plot stones that may make her pause for a minute to see what she has uncovered before resuming her read. In these novels, when the final page is read, the reader perhaps realizes that she has completed a journey that has led her through a series of “moments” that she did not recognize them for what they in fact were until the conclusion draws things together in such a fashion that the completed narrative whole is much more than the sum of its scenic parts. Those are the sorts of novels that continue to haunt readers long after the story is presumably “complete” and the reader has chosen to read another narrative.
Finnish writer Leena Krohn’s Datura, originally published in 2001 but not made available in English translation until earlier this year, is one of those books. It begins innocently enough, perhaps, with this little bit about a flower, or rather datura flowers:
I can only blame myself and a certain flower for my current state. Or two flowers, actually. (p. 11)
Intriguing, yes, but nothing overtly surprising about a character reminiscing about how a flower might be responsible (is it in a symbolic or a very real sense, though?) for some nebulous “current state.” But there is something further down on the first page that immediately caught my attention:
“It’s a crown imperial, ” she said.
“But it might not be,” I insisted.
What made me say that? A sudden thought that the flower was unknowable, not just by me, but by anybody, even people who knew its name. But I wasn’t able to express this epiphany in a way that other people could understand. I didn’t mean that the flower had some other name. What I wanted to say had to do with being, not naming. The name of the flower was something completely arbitrary and beside the point. The flower was not what it was called. Not this flower. Not any flower. (p. 11)
Here Krohn has embedded a narrative “hook” that snagged me. What is so important about the “being” of the flower in question? In which directions could this story go? There were no reveals, no expository points that explained why this “crown imperial” was apparently so important to the story. Instead, Krohn took this musing on the nature of the object and she spun off a story that went deeper and deeper into that inscrutable mental realm in which the things that we think we understand turn out to be the elements that are most incomprehensible to us.
Datura revolves around flowers, yes, but it also revolves around mysteries that humans have set up for each other. One such example is the Voynich Manuscript, written in a script that no linguist or cryptologist has ever managed to decipher. Krohn uses this mysterious manuscript to add to the layers of intrigue as the intrepid narrator goes on a quest, initiated by her magazine publisher, to explore the oddities of her city. The odd “crown imperial” at the beginning is only a harbinger for the weird discoveries that she makes as she wanders through the city, going from one inexplicable event to another.
The story is strangely linear. I say “strangely” because although the narrative largely unfolds in a Point A to B to C fashion, there is a faint sense that there are things occurring underneath the narrative surface that are distorting or twisting the events. Krohn has crafted her scenes carefully in that there is just enough vagueness to keep the reader trying to guess at what really happening and enough concrete detail to which the reader can lash themselves to in order to keep from being drowned in the swirling narrative flow. The result is a fascinating story that surprises the reader with nearly each page, but with a consistency to it that when the final page is read, the logic of it (or as much as “logic” can come into play in a world that seems to be experiencing a semantic shift that leaves in doubt the “reality” of what is encountered by both narrator and reader) is so strong that the patterns that perhaps the reader had only half-understood on an intuitive level seem so apparent in hindsight. Datura is one of those novels that will occupy its readers’ thoughts for virtually all of its pages without containing a singular “moment” that by itself will summarize its thematic elements. Its virtue lies in its silent, creeping quality that does not rush at its reader full-bore but instead envelops the reader, leaving her to puzzle over just why this short novel of nearly 200 pages has occupied her attention for an inordinate amount of time before providing a payoff that somehow both confounds and exceeds her expectations. Very few stories manage to achieve this and Krohn’s novel certainly is one of the better “weird” fictions published in 2013. Highly recommended.