Leena Krohn is considered one of Finnland’s finest living writers. Having read Datura (Or a Delusion We All See) (Finnish, 2001; English translation 2013 by Anna Volmari and J. Robert Tupasela), I am convinced that: 1. Such statements are not hyperbole, and 2. If Krohn is representative of Finnish character, then the Finns are an interesting people.
Datura presents itself as the straightforward story of two years in the life of our unnamed narrator, the editor of a paranormal magazine, The New Anomalist. While the narrator dislikes her job, due mostly to the cynical management of her friend and boss, “the Marquis,” she enjoys getting to know the oddballs and eccentrics attracted to magazines like The New Anomalist. All the while, in an effort to cure her asthma, the narrator consumes the seeds of the datura plan given her as a birthday present. Are the oddities the narrator experiences a result of living in proximity to the Arctic Circle? Is it the influence of the magazine? Or are the datura seeds have unforeseen side effects?
By keeping chapters short, typically two to four pages, Krohn creates a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere. The details related in each chapter are episodic, snapshots in the life of the narrator and her acquaintances. This is not to say that the chapters don’t build upon one another, but the relationship of one chapter to the next is often tangential, with the whole only revealed at the end of the book.
Krohn’s language is beautiful, even in translation (a testament to the skills of the translators, no doubt). Consider, for instance, this early nugget on the nature of reality: “The dead of winter is like a pocket you can hide in. Winter offers one of the best illusions: the illusion that time can stop. If nothing grows, blooms, or flourishes, nothing can wither away, either” (page 25). Which happens to be exactly the way I feel about winter. Or this: “There are moments when everything is new, as if seen or heard for the first time, even language, words that I’ve read a thousand times. People, landscapes, items, even books. Now and then I stop at a familiar word as I read, and all of a sudden it amazes me, and I savour it like a new taste. For a fraction of a second I hesitate: what does the word refer to, does it really signify anything at all?” (page 33). What reader hasn’t from time to time come across a word or phrase and thought, “But what does this really mean?”
Which, incidentally, most readers will ask themselves as they make their way through Datura. The narrator glides from one odd encounter to the next, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Consider the Master of Sound, who develops a device that can mute all noise. Or the Pendulum Man, who determines whether or not food is safe to eat by swinging a pendulum over his plate. There’s Loogaroo, the vampire, or “Otherkin,” as the narrator refers to non-humans residing in human bodies. Such ephemera make up the narrator’s day to day experience. As with the contents of The New Anomalist, or the occult shop (“parastore”) the Marquis installs in the magazine’s offices, including a singing fish that bedevils the narrator, some readers may find themselves, “What’s the point?” Which, given Krohn’s interest in perception and reality, is to miss the point entirely.
Datura is a curious book that defies categorization. Is it “weird fiction”? Perhaps, but there are no cosmic monsters here. Krohn writes with a light touch, gently poking fun at her oddball characters even as she sympathizes with them. If the story seems aimless, be assured that you will enjoy its twists and turns. Krohn’s language is hypnotic, compelling the reader ever forward. Highly recommended.