After He Was Out of the Woods
By Chris Lehmann,
deputy editor of Book World, whose e-mail address is email@example.com
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; Page C02
A Love Story
By Johanna Sinisalo
Translated from the Finnish by Herbert Lomas
Grove. 278 pp. Paperback, $12
Malevolent spirits turn up on our doorsteps all the time, but Mikael Hartikainen, the protagonist of Johanna Sinisalo's imaginative and engaging novel of urban fantasy, must contend with this specter in distressingly literal form. Mikael -- a gay freelance fashion photographer known as Angel, thanks to his well-sculpted form and beatific physiognomy -- returns to his Helsinki flat late one evening after a rare rebuff from a would-be romantic partner. Peering into his building's courtyard, he discovers near a circle of garbage cans a bona fide creature of the forest: "It's small, slender and it's curled up in a strange position, as if it were completely without joints." He briskly carries off the clearly infirm, immature dark being -- "light, bird-boned, weighing far less than a child of the same size" -- and places it on his bed. On closer inspection, the troll (for this is clearly what Angel's windfall is) turns out to be quite "human-looking," albeit with "reddish-orange feline eyes with vertical pupils" and an elongated feline-type nose, but otherwise with all the facial features of a "flat-faced primate." It's no wonder, Angel muses, that trolls have so long been viewed as "chance mutations of nature, parodies of mankind." It's also no wonder that Angel thinks that his rare find is "the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
Angel begins nursing the troll back to health, frantically surfing Internet sites devoted to Scandinavian folklore to learn what exactly you give a mythical woodland beast to eat. He names his baby troll Pessi, after a downbeat, earthy troll character in a famous Finnish children's book. However, his ad hoc feeding methods yield no results; Pessi remains listless and unresponsive, "like a fluttering candle flame." It's only when Angel calls upon -- and opportunistically seduces -- a former lover who also happens to be a veterinary surgeon that he learns his new companion likely harbors some nasty internal parasites. Once Angel sets out, no less opportunistically (and illegally), to obtain some high-powered antibiotics, Pessi springs energetically to life, "a whirlwind . . . bright-eyed, bounding about here and there like quicksilver." And this of course is where the trouble starts. Pessi has, in the great tradition of domesticated mammals, bonded with Angel as an alpha male, and Angel becomes steadily more enchanted with both the idea and physical presence of his pet troll. This infatuation, too, has biological origins: Pessi has been emitting a powerful strain of pheromones, the scent molecules that (as Angel's vet friend patiently explains) "signal rutting or fear or state of health, or the status in the troop. They manipulate and control and tempt other members of the troop and the species. And your troll's emitting some very powerful pheromones." In other words, Angel is being subtly recruited to life in a troll pack, even while blithely pursuing his own human agendas -- and when said agendas conflict with Pessi's notions of proper conduct the fur quite literally flies. This tension gets aired rather predictably in Angel's love life -- he develops the habit of distracting any gay friends who want to visit his apartment by promptly putting the moves on them and insisting they adjourn to their places.
But the more damaging conflict in this human-troll alliance is a professional one. Once Pessi regains his health, Angel photographs him for a high-profile ad campaign, outfitting the troll in a new line of jeans called Stalkers, and pawning the strikingly lifelike photos off to his ad agency contact as an elaborate bit of Photoshop wizardry. Soon Pessi sees his denim-clad image in a magazine, and registers a very human sort of reaction at being an unwitting fashion stooge, while of course letting his displeasure be known in more typically troll-like manner. Gradually the elements of this drama of betrayal build to a horrible catharsis.
Sinisalo handles all this mythic conflict in an admirably matter-of-fact way; her main innovations have to do with the novel's narrative structure. She has all the players drawn into Angel's dark fairy-tale intrigue relate their part in short first-person snippets, which are then intercut with reference materials, of both online and print vintage, recounting the Finnish history of troll-sightings and the symbolic significance of the forest creatures in the nation's myth and folklore. A subplot also builds around another captive in Angel's building: a Filipina mail-order bride named Palomita who is gradually enlisted into the cause of Pessi's care and feeding.
All these overlapping narrative voices nicely underscore the moral of Sinisalo's ingeniously constructed fable: The stuff of ancient legend shadows with rather unnerving precision the course of unloosed postmodern desire. As countless literary and psychological authorities remind us, the runty dark creatures of our fairy tales are little more, symbolically speaking, than surrogates for our own darker urges. Or as Mikael reads in a passage from the Finnish book that gave his troll his name, "Life . . . was no longer like a picture book for children, which you look at and then throw away. . . . She had a feeling that there was something fearfully compelling in the book, that the tints of its pictures glowed on even in the night, when the dusk of the north came down to flatten them out." One might say much the same of Johanna Sinisalo's brightly accomplished update of such death-haunted childhood reveries.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company