Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath

Here is an inconsequential story; a number of my childhood memories are in England, in the early evening (between school and bedtime, of course) and suffused with a sort of golden light that I used to assume was purely the result of nostalgia. It was only on trips back as an adult that I realised that the light actually was different. For now I’m assuming it’s the result of being at different latitudes or something equally scientific.

And so Tidbeck’s “something about the light” is something I see all over this collection, and it makes it weird and alien in a way that nothing else quite could.


From last week’s column:


 “There’s something about the light here that makes the longing bloom”, says the narrator of “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrӧm”, an early story in Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck’s first collection, Jagannath. Tidbeck’s work is full of this sense; of an unknown longing, sounds barely heard, a hole in the world, something at the very edge of perception.

The collection opens with “Beatrice”, a story about a man who falls in love with a plane. “Franz Hiller, a physician, fell in love with an airship” is not in itself a fantastical sentence, but in the pages that follow it we’re rapidly moved into a world where falling in love with a machine is – if not common – not unheard of, where relationships between machines and humans are possible; and where failures to understand one another can have, as in all-human relationships, horrible, stomach-turning consequences. It’s a lot to pack into a few pages, and Tidbeck achieves it by being entirely matter of fact about her weird, compelling world.

Jagannath is a collection of short stories, written over a decade, many of which have been previously published in Swedish or English. Yet there are certain ideas to which Tidbeck constantly returns so that, intentionally or not, certain stories build upon others. “Brita’s Holiday Village”, for example, has a writer on holiday meet some people who claim to be distant relatives. There’s something fundamentally off about these people, who seem to be almost too much “a cliché of Swedish culture”.  Meanwhile, the strange pupae she’d seen under the eaves of cottages seem to be empty. The next story in the collection speaks of the Vittra, creatures of legend who look human but aren’t. A later story, “Pyret”, is a cod-scientific report of a chameleon-like creature that mimics and infiltrates groups of animals, often bringing good fortune to the herd or flock. The Pyret is only able to superficially assume the shape of the creature, however, and it craves physical contact. Tidbeck gives us a nightmarish village taken over by Pyret in the form of humans, and then abruptly moves us from horror to sadness, as these creatures slavishly imitate human action without success. As with “Beatrice”, one of Tidbeck’s great strengths is this subtle shifting between moods.

Similarly, “Cloudberry Jam” and “Miss Nyberg and I” both contain women who “grow” creatures of their own to love. “Aunts” is a story about characters who are mentioned briefly in “Augusta Prima”, and it deals, like “Jagannath”, with self-regenerating, autophagic creatures. “Brita’s Holiday Village” and “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrӧm” are told in similar confessional voices to the narrator of “Rebecka”.

In her afterword, Tidbeck speaks about the process of translation, and of writing in a language that is not her own. “Being exposed to both [British and American English], neither of which is your own, makes it difficult if not impossible to keep track of what word (and often pronunciation) belongs where. You make do with the resulting composite.” What she doesn’t say, though her fiction bears it out, is that the “resulting composite” may carry either or all of its potential meanings and pronunciations. The title story is an example of this. “Jagannath” is Sanskrit, of course, and refers to the huge chariots pulled during the Rath Yatra, under whose wheels devotees were apparently crushed. The word has passed into English as “juggernaut”, used to mean a large, often destructive, scheme or movement that requires complete devotion from the followers who make it up. Tidbeck uses it to describe a massive lifeform- a “Mother” who generates the children who live and work inside her, and who are absorbed back into her when they die. By using the Sanskrit form, and in an English book, she gives the situation both sets of meanings to draw upon.

The stories in Jagannath move between the almost-real and the wholly fantastic, all of them precise yet quietly unsettling. It’s a strange, powerful collection, and one I will be returning to.


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