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.


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.


Book review: Kalpa Imperial, by Angélica Gorodischer

30 10 2016

Angélica Gorodischer is a multi-award-winning Argentinian writer who for many years has been active in a variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, and crime fiction. Only a small fraction of her work has yet been translated into English.


Kalpa Imperial (combining La Casa del poder and El Imperio mas vasto, 1983, translated by Ursula K Le Guin) is a collection of thematically-connected short stories that trace the repeated rise and fall of a fictional, never-specified empire, as narrated by a sometimes-irascible storyteller. The partial histories embedded within each story, always overlaid by the storyteller’s observations on the human foibles of the protagonists and the audience, are so tenuously connected to each other that the overall arc of the collection might best be described as a ‘mosaic epic’, rather as though one had chosen several widely-spaced chapters from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and forced the reader to interpolate the intervening narrative. The somewhat distant, second-remove presentation of the individual storylines gives the work a feel more of mythology than of fiction. Several of the stories (or, if you wish, chapters) feature no directly-reported dialogue, but instead offer passages that describe occasional episodes of discourse interspersed with the storyteller’s opinions on a broad variety of matters; it’s refreshing when, as in ‘The Pool’, one of the chapters (or, if you prefer, stories) with a greater degree of immediacy, actual conversation occurs.

The geography of the Empire defies precise identification (though it appears to occupy a northern-hemisphere location); so too does its chronology. Other than the storyteller, there are no characters whose biographies extend from one story to the next, and it’s entirely possible, indeed likely, that the tellers of the various stories are not the same individual but rather a sequence of storytellers representative of that occupation, since several of the storytellers speak of their particular narratives as though these are things of the recent past, or indeed the present. Several of the stories reference cars, planes, and other modern inventions, others reveal a more primitive technological level, and yet each story makes mention of a sequence of emperors and empresses, with so many disparate lineages and dynasties, never connected, that the span of the full collection must be at least several thousand years in total. There’s thus a sense of stream-of-consciousness, of surrealistic anachronicity between (but not within) the various stories. This, too, I suppose, conveys the texture of mythology or legend, a sense that doesn’t get adjusted until midway through the final tale, ‘The Old Incense Road’.

Other than The Silmarillion, it’s difficult to find points of literary comparison. There’s a sense in which an analogy can be drawn with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy—a timeless, emblematic seat of power, riddled with schemes and concealed conflicts— although where Peake’s novels are almost painstakingly precise and specific, Gorodischer’s stories are carefully obscure, and with a much broader sweep. A closer comparison might well be with Samuel Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon cycle, though I haven’t read this and know of it only by reputation.

The focus of the stories in Kalpa Imperial is often on the nature of power, or the occurrence of transitions of power, and on the interactions between leadership and society. There’s frequently an allegorical slant, and numerous examples of unchecked cruelty and corruption. There are battles, sometimes of arms and sometimes of wits (and sometimes of one versus the other), encompassing, at times, a cast of thousands and at other times just two. Good emperors (or empresses) follow bad, and vice versa, with the nature of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ always contextual and subject to redefinition. Sickness and deformity is frequent, and the need for an heir is a repeated refrain. The intent, I think, is to convey a sense of history, while not remaining captive to historical constraints. This all probably makes it sound as though the book is lacking in personality, which isn’t the case: some of the characterisation is exceptionally vivid, though in other places it seems deliberately enigmatic.

Because of its emphasis of the long view, within which the personal and the specific struggles to surface, Kalpa Imperial isn’t a book that lends itself to rapid digestion. It’s hardly a pageturner: I found myself reading perhaps a dozen pages at a stretch before needing to take a break. It is, though, undeniably well written; beautiful and elusive; constructed with a careful if haphazard eye for detail.

Done well, a mosaic novel can be greater than the sum of its parts. Kalpa Imperial is done well. And the involvement of Le Guin as translator is an endorsement in itself.