Sunday, March 20, 2011

Johanna Sinisalo, Troll: A Love Story

Johanna Sinisalo's Troll: A Love Story is a strange, dark, stunningly beautiful novel about the boundaries of humanity. The premise is that trolls, longstanding elements of Scandinavian myth, have at last been documented by science. This process (which has happened with a great many creatures like the giant squid and the rhinoceros, both of which were once considered mythical) transforms them from "monsters" to "animals," as they are shifted from books of mythology to books of biology.

They remain, though, highly elusive, rarely captured or even observed. Still, as has been happening win many large predators from wildcats to bears to wolves, habitat destruction and global climate change has shortened their periods of hibernation and pushed them closer to human settlements.

The plot begins with advertising designer Mikael (aka "Angel") stumbling home, partly drunk, to find some local teenage thugs beating someone beside his building. He yells and threatens to call the cops, and when they scatter, he finds that they have been attacking a young troll, roughly human-shaped, though tailed, jet-black and feline in its litheness but clearly in terrible shape. Against all good sense, he scoops up the wild "animal" and brings it into his apartment:
It's very weak. When I lower it onto the bed it doesn't struggle at all, just contemplates me with its reddish-orange feline eyes with vertical pupils. The ridge of its nose protrudes rather more than a cat's, and its nostrils are large and expressive. The mouth is in no way like the split muzzle of a cat or a dog: it's a narrow, horizontal slit. The whole face is so human-looking ... It's easy to understand why these black creatures have always been regarded as some sort of forest people who live in caves and holes, chance mutations of nature, parodies of mankind.
Each short chapters is told from the point of view of one of a handful of characters (Angel, his ex-lover "Dr. Spiderman," his frightfully oppressed mail-order-bride neighbor Palomita, and so on). These are interspersed with passages from other books and journals, real and fictional, that give background on the troll mythology and biology, ranging from Aki Bärman's The Beast in Man: An Enquiry Concerning the Kinship Between Man and Wild Animal in Myth and Fantasy (1986) to Väino Linna's The Unknown Soldier (1954).

Angel becomes increasingly fascinated, captivated, obsessed with the troll, and this relationship begins to eclipse all of his human relationships, professional and personal. The novel is driven by the interior concerns of several characters, external pressures on and between them, and the ticking time-bomb of the razor-clawed, sharp-toothed wild animal in Angel's bedroom.

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