Book review: Jagannath, by Karin Tidbeck

28 12 2017

Karin Tidbeck is a Swedish speculative fiction writer and creative writing instructor who works in both Swedish and English. (There’s a fascinating afterword by Tidbeck which offers an analysis on the differences between those of her stories written initially in English and those that started life in Swedish.) To date, her books comprise one novel, Amatka, released in both Swedish and English, one Swedish-language short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? containing eight stories, and one English-language collection Jagganath containing thirteen stories, the first seven of which also appear in Vem är Arvid Pekon? (I’ve previously also reviewed Amatka, here.)

Jagannath

I’ll offer brief comments on each story, before I give an overall summary.

In ‘Beatrice’, Franz, a physician, and printer’s assistant Anna both fall in love; not with each other, but with, respectively, an airship and a steam engine. This is a tragic and surprisingly tender tale that sets up the tone of the collection very effectively.

‘Some Letters for Ove Linström’ is an eerie, fae-tinged tale of a late father, a lost mother, and a daughter trying to find her way in the world.

‘Miss Nyberg and I’ tells of the relationship, seen through the eyes of its possibly-envious narrator, between a rebellious green-thumbed artist and the small, possibly wooden, homunculus that has been her life’s secret companion. It’s a wistful and quietly beautiful story, but also elusive.

‘Rebecka’ is a sexual assault survivor who wishes she wasn’t, but her numerous attempts to take her own life are divinely intercepted (then left to be cleaned up by Rebecka’s loyal friend Sarah). This is a compact, powerful, highly disturbing tale which goes to some very dark places, as uncomfortable and as resonant in several ways as Connie Willis’s ‘All My Darling Daughters’.

In ‘Herr Cederberg’, the eponymous plump businessman of the title pursues a flight of fancy inspired by two teenage passersby jokily comparing him to a bumblebee. This is an entertaining enough story, but it seems decidedly lightweight when placed against those preceding it.

‘Who is Arvid Pekon?’ will be innately recognisable to (and will probably confirm several of the suspicions of) anyone who has had the misfortune to telephone a government department, where former ventriloquist Arvid answers calls with a disturbing versatility. This is probably the most humorous of the stories in the collection, blunted only by an abrupt and not particularly illuminating ending.

‘Brita’s Holiday Village’ seems like the perfect retreat for a narrator who wishes to finish a novel she doesn’t know how to start. But what’s with the large pupae hanging from the trees? This one is, by Tidbeck’s standards, almost straightforward, its ominousness overt rather than camouflaged.

‘Reindeer Mountain’, the collection’s longest story, is seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Cilla, who accompanies her sister Sara and her mother to the decaying, trash-filled cottage from which their curmudgeonly granduncle Johann is shortly to be evicted. While the girls are exploring the cottage’s attic, they discover a chest containing the wedding dress of their great-grandmother, a woman claimed (by several in the extended family) to have been a vittra, a form of elfin nature spirit whose genetic heritage in this case appears to be a propensity to eccentricity and temperamentality. Brooding and elegiac.

‘Cloudberry Jam’ is a bizarre, affecting tale of a strange birth and an attempt to shape the nature of that which will not be shaped. To summarise it in greater detail would probably not illuminate much.

‘Pyret’ is a fictionalised study of a creature from Scandinavian mythology, the ‘Pyret’, a generally benign animal-mimic thought to have been displaced by urbanisation and changes in land use patterns. It is, ultimately, strongly atmospheric and just a little bit creepy.

‘Augusta Prima’ inhabits a timeless realm built on privilege and cruelty. But when she discovers a working pocketwatch in the jacket pocket of a corpse (presumably a casualty of the lethal games of croquet played by Augusta and her peers) she finds sprawled beneath a garden shrub, she starts to question what time is, and why her surroundings don’t obey it.

The three ‘Aunts’, who live in the same orangery visited by Augusta in the preceding story, are dedicated to the task of gorging themselves to the point of a Mr-Creosote-like obesity. This surreal and macabre piece may, or may not, be a comment upon inequality.

In ‘Jagannath’, newborn symbiont is put to work helping out with the peristalsis gang within the belly of Mother, a perambulating meatship on a far-future Earth. But Mother is dying … This one’s your average rite-of-passage tale, filled with uncomfortable mechanovisceral detail.

Having now read both Amatka and Jagannath, I’m tempted to say that Tidbeck’s shorter fiction is stranger than readers of her novel might expect, perhaps because the internal logic to a short story need not be so constrained by the requirements of plot as is the case in a longer work. The logic, by the way, is one of the things most notable about Tidbeck’s stories: though they are, demonstrably, all kinds of weird, they still strive to make sense, and the various outcomes have a kind of grim inevitability about them which is both appealing and disconcerting—this, I think, is true of all of Jagannath‘s stories with the possible exception of ‘Who is Arvid Pekon?’, which seems determined not to distil any discernible meaning or completion. Though all the stories, more or less, are immersive and fascinating in their own various ways, those that most strongly impressed me were ‘Beatrice’, ‘Rebecka’, ‘Some Letters for Ove Linström’, and ‘Reindeer Mountain’.

 

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Book review: Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck

3 08 2017

Karin Tidbeck is a Swedish author, creative writing instructor, and Swedish / English translator: her two English-language books to date (one short story collection and one novel) have both been self-translated. Her stories generally fit somewhere along the fantasy / weird fiction continuum.

Amatka

In Amatka (Amatka, 2012, translated in 2017), Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two, an information assistant with the Essre Hygiene Specialists, travels to the outpost colony of Amatka, seeking to elucidate opportunities for EHS sales growth to the region. Vanja is billetted at Household No. 24, the home of Nina, Ivar, and Ulla. Her hosts are pleasant enough, but it soon becomes apparent to Vanja that there is considerable resistance to new hygiene products in the colony.

The world in which Amatka is set is an austere, industrial, almost Soviet society in which mushrooms appear to be the principal source of protein, coffee, and writing material, and in which words have a settling power sufficient to stabilise the otherwise-transient materials from which clothing, furnishings, and other belongings are constructed. Every object must be marked with its name (its function) and verbally reminded of that function with reasonable frequency: stating the obvious can be a vital survival tool if you do not want your suitcase to spontaneously dissolve into a puddle of undifferentiated gloop (as happens to the sometimes-negligent Vanja early on in her stay in Amatka).

Amatka is a strange book: elusive, downbeat, asking more questions than it answers. Indeed, it’s not at all certain that it answers any questions … and yet it’s a strongly visual piece of writing, with the saving grace that it takes its central whimsical conceit with an utter seriousness that almost commands immersion. It’s as though Tidbeck has set out to create the most pallid second-world setting possible—a landscape of ice, cold lakes, and tundra, capped by a consistently grey sky—and has then sought to impose on it a sort of oppressive, farcical beauty that cannot adhere to such a substrate. Vanja’s need to understand her surroundings becomes infectious, while everyone about her (including her new lover Nina) is either a collaborator or an informant. It becomes obvious that the status quo cannot endure, but what is the alternative?

By placing language and the importance of the written word and the oral record at its core, the book invites comparison with Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, though I’d argue that a more obvious and perhaps more appropriate point of comparison—an overly-restrictive, ritualistic, communalistic society in which vegetable matter (and yes, I know, mushrooms aren’t technically plants, let alone vegetables, but that’s how they’re classified in the marketplace) attains central importance as a force for change—is with Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s chili-fired novel The Core of the Sun, which I’ve previously reviewed here. Both provide vivid depictions of distinctly odd and yet somehow recognisable societies, both present inquisitive and inwardly-rebellious female protagonists (the chili-addicted ‘Vanna’ in TCotS, the meek and scatty ‘Vanja’ here) railing against the strictures of those societies, both fit solidly into a categorisation of ‘Scandinavian weird’ literature. Both have a kind of consistent, subversive strangeness about them. It’s fair to say, though, that Tidbeck’s novel is the more exotic of the two, eschewing the clean-lined surrealism of Sinisalo’s prose for a more cryptically impressionistic setting, at once superficially bland and quietly unsettling. Useful analogy could also be made, I suspect, with the work of Leena Krohn (for example, her delightful Datura, which similarly riffs off the transformative power of vegetation) or of Anna Tambour, but I’ll leave this as an exercise to the interested reader.

Amatka doesn’t waste any words, though due to the constraints of long-form prose, it doesn’t quite have the same sparkle as Tidbeck’s shorter fiction, much of which is dazzlingly strange (and for which I’ll furnish a review at some future date). Nonetheless, it got its hooks into me. I found myself somewhat compelled, once I’d finished reading, to repeatedly name the objects around me, just to be on the safe side; because, while Amatka is undeniably fiction, one just cannot be too careful.