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.