Jagannath

Jagannath - Karin TidbeckI read Jagannath as soon as Jeff VanderMeer let me have the ebook edition to sell. Since then BristolCon and Kevin’s visit have happened, so I’m having to reacquaint myself with the book. This is a real pleasure.

Of course you don’t need me to tell you that. This is a book, and debut collection no less, that comes with enthusiastic recommendations from Ursula Le Guin, China Mièville and Elizabeth Hand. You don’t see that every day. Of course, as Liz points out in her introduction, Karin Tidbeck is not quite as new a writer as she seems. This is not her first book; it is her first book in English. Nevertheless, while Tidbeck has now had a novel published in her native Swedish, Jagannath represents a substantial proportion of her fiction output to date. It is an impressive achievement.

But what, exactly is it? Well, it is a collection of short stories. Those stories, as you might guess from the people publishing them, and recommending them, are typical of what is usually called “weird fiction”. They are, she says ominously, exactly the sort of thing that tends to win World Fantasy awards. I think that a nomination next year is a strong possibility. And yet, Jagannath is also something fresh and different.

The reasons for that are partly cultural. Weird fiction often riffs of folk legends of scary supernatural beings. Several of the stories in Jagannath do so, but in this case they are scary supernatural beings from Swedish folk tales. “Reindeer Mountain”, for example, is a tale about the vittra, which Wikipedia tells me, unhelpfully, are nature spirits that could be elves or dwarves. Tidbeck’s vittra look like elves, but live inside the eponymous mountain of the title, thereby partaking of both Tolkienian natures.

Once you start looking at the behavior of these creatures, of course, they start to seem quite familiar, but Tidbeck is still able to present them in fresh and distinctive ways. “Some Letters for Ove Lindström” is a story about an elf-woman who comes out of the forest, bears a child with a human man, and vanishes again. That’s a fairly standard narrative, but Tidbeck tells it from the point of view of the child, now a grown woman, who is sorting through the effects of her recently deceased father and trying to make sense of her life. Why did her hippy mother disappear without warning one day? Why did her father become an alcoholic? And what is the mysterious bell-like sound she occasionally hears coming from the woods.

Then again, some of the creatures may not be Swedish at all. “Pyret” tells of a race of shape-shifting beings who are able to disguise themselves as sheep, cows and even people. It seems that they like to be near humans. If they are creatures from Swedish folklore then their existence has been erased from the Internet by the massive online presence of a popular brand of children’s clothes. Tidbeck may have made them up. They might even be aliens. Who knows? Does it matter?

Other stories are more obviously science-fictional. “Augusta Prima” and “Aunts” deal with the nature of time, and the possibility of worlds outside of time. The title story, “Jagannath”, is a post-apocalyptic tale, though it is not clear whether the dead world in which the tale is set used to be ours, or is somewhere else entirely.

In some places, time is a weak and occasional phenomenon. Unless someone claims time to pass, it might not, or does so only partly; events curl in on themselves to form spirals and circles. – “Aunts”

Indeed, being unclear is perhaps the signature effect of the collection. Liminality is key to all that Tidbeck does, and is key to weird fiction as well. The stories in the collection often leave you unsure as to what actually happened in them, and that’s a good thing. It is the prime source of their creepiness. There is something out there, or hiding in the shadows, but you don’t know what it is, and you are afraid to find out.

It is worth noting at this point that Tidbeck translated all of the stories herself. This is unusual. Hannu Rajaniemi writes in English, but he has lived in Scotland for years. Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris, but has chosen to write only in English. Tidbeck lives in Sweden, writes in Swedish, and then re-writes her fiction in English. I’m struggling to think of anyone else who does that unaided. I’m sure that it teaches you a heck of a lot about language.

The reason that people such as Zoran Živković employ translators, even though they are fluent in conversational English, is that fiction is hard. To do fiction really well you have to know the language really well. Tidbeck is good enough to get published in two languages. And she’s also inventive enough, and a good enough story teller, to impress some of the best in the business. People like that don’t come along every day.

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