It’s rare, almost unheard of, to encounter an author so extraordinarily gifted she appears to have sprung full-blown into the literary world, like Athena from the head of Zeus. But we live in extraordinary times, and with Karin Tidbeck, we appear to have gotten the artist our times deserve.
A hundred years ago, the great fantasist Lord Dunsany wrote of the world beyond the fields we know. With the ascent of fantasy as the dominant popular literary form of the early twenty-first century, we’ve seen that world grow increasingly gentrified, commodified, and mainstreamed. This is a long way of saying that, when it comes to speculative fiction, it takes a lot to surprise me. I can’t think of when I last read a collection that blew me away the way that Jagannath has, or one that’s left me somewhat at a loss to describe just how strange and beautiful and haunting these tales are.
Of course, Tidbeck’s appearance on the literary scene isn’t quite as sudden as it seems to me. She’s been publishing for a decade, and many of the stories contained herein first appeared in her native Sweden, where they were collected in Vem är Arvid Pekon? English translations of several of these tales have been published in U.S. and U.K. magazines and anthologies. In 2010 she attended the prestigious Clarion Writer’s Workshop, a longtime proving ground for writers who have gone on to become major voices in the field. She’s also one of the few writers of the fantastic to have received a grant from the Swedish Authors Fund. Her first novel will be published this year in Sweden.
Yet there’s still something startling about the presence of so many remarkable pieces in such a deceptively slender volume. In its feverish intensity and sublimely estranging effects, her work sometimes evokes that of James M. Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon); in particular, “Aunts” and the title story can hold their own with Tiptree’s classic depiction of alien consciousness, “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death.”
But Tidbeck’s writing is more generous and far emotionally engaged than Tiptree’s. Even when the inexplicable occurs, as it does throughout these tales, a reader responds as Tidbeck’s characters do, with an underlying empathy. Their sense of loss or astonishment or melancholy resignation never trumps the deeper sense of recognition that, as Hamlet observed, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. As in “Augusta Prima,” where the title character asks,
“I have to know… What is the nature of the world?”
The djinneya smiled with both rows of teeth.
In an interview earlier this year, Tidbeck spoke of the crepuscular (real) world where she lives in Sweden:
We spend a lot of time in twilight, which is a liminal condition, a no-man’s land. The light has an eerie and melancholy quality. I suppose this has carried over into my writing as well, both in the sense of the eerie and melancholy, but also the sensation of having stepped sideways into another world where the sun has stopped in its course.
This liminal sense of transcending borders holds true for all of the stories in Jagannath, which span folktale, fantasy, magic realism, science fiction, and, in “Pyret,” a Borgesian taxonomy of an imaginary creature. Many of these tales are disturbing; they are also darkly funny and, to this American’s sensibility at least, genuinely strange. Tidbeck shares with the great Robert Aickman a gift for invoking a profound sense of disassociation from the world we think we know, pointing us toward a breach through which any number of unimaginable things might (and do) emerge. More than anything, there is a palpable absence in many of her stories: of loved ones (especially parents); of the passage of time; of knowledge of the very world the characters inhabit.
Still, Nature abhors a vacuum, even in a parallel plane of existence, and unforeseen things emerge to fill that void. “Reindeer Mountain,” perhaps my favorite of all the stories collected here, is a tour-de-force of the uncanny. “Arvid Pekon” may make you reluctant to ever pick up a telephone again, and “Brita’s Holiday Village” reminds one how unsettling a resort in the off-season can be. The narrator of “Cloudberry Jam” recounts a conversation with the creature she has made in a tin can:
“Why did you make me?” you said.
“I made you so that I could love you,” I said.
Similarly, Karin Tidbeck has written these stories so that readers may love them. I certainly do. And I suspect you will, too.
Franz Hiller, a physician, fell in love with an airship. He was visiting a fair in Berlin to see the wonders of the modern age that were on display: automobiles, propeller planes, mechanical servants, difference engines, and other things that would accompany man into the future.
The airship was moored in the middle of the aviation exhibit. According to the small sign by the cordon, her name was Beatrice.
In contrast to the large commercial airships, Beatrice is built for a maximum of two passengers. An excellent choice for those who live far from public airship masts or do not wish to be crowded in with strangers. Manufacturing will start soon. Order yours today, from Lefleur et Fils!
Franz had had no previous interest in airships. He had never seen one up close, let alone travelled in one. Neither had he any interest in love. At thirty, he was still a bachelor; his prospects were good, but he had been profoundly disinterested in any potential wives his parents had presented to him. His mother was becoming more and more insistent, and sooner or later Franz would have to make up his mind. But then he found himself here, in Berlin, facing this airship: Beatrice, her name tolling like a bell.
Franz couldn’t stop looking at her. Her body was a voluptuous oblong, matte skin wrapped tightly over a gently rounded skeleton. The little gondola was made of dark wood (finest mahogany!) and embellished with brass details (every part hand-wrought!), with thick glass windows that rounded at the edges. Inside, the plush seat was embroidered with French lilies, facing an immaculately polished console. Beatrice was perfect. She bobbed in a slow up-down motion, like a sleeping whale. But she was very much awake. Franz could feel her attention turn to him and remain there, the heat of her sightless gaze.
He came back the next day, and the next, just to look at Beatrice and feel her gaze upon him. They could never touch; he once tried to step inside the cordon but was brusquely reprimanded by the guards. Franz could sense the same want from her that filled him, a longing to be touched.
He sought out the representative of Lefleur et Fils, Lefleur the younger, in fact: a thin man with oil-stained fingers who looked uncomfortable in his suit. Franz offered to buy Beatrice outright; he would write a check on the spot, or pay in cash if needed. Out of the question, Lefleur the younger replied. That airship there was a prototype. Not at any price? Not at any price. How could they start manufacture without the prototype? Of course, monsieur Hiller was welcome to order an airship, just not this one.
Franz didn’t dare explain why he wanted the prototype so badly. He accepted the catalogue offered to him, and returned home. He thought of Beatrice while caressing her picture in the catalogue. Her smooth skin, her little gondola. How he wanted to climb into her little gondola.
After two weeks, the fair closed. Beatrice was taken home to Lefleur et Fils’ factory in Paris. Franz fantasised about travelling to the factory, breaking into it at night and stealing her; or pleading his case to the owners, who would be so touched by his story that they would let go of her. Franz did none of this. Instead, he moved out of his parents’ home, much to their consternation, and left for Berlin where he found new employment and rented a warehouse on Stahlwerkstrasse. Then he placed an order.
Two months later, a transport arrived at the warehouse on Stahlwerkstrasse. Four burly men who didn’t speak a word of German unloaded four enormous boxes, and proceeded to unpack the various parts of a small airship. When they left, an exact copy of Beatrice was moored in the warehouse.
The realization dawned on Franz, as he stood alone in the warehouse studying his airship. This new Beatrice was disinterested. She hovered quietly in the space without a trace of warmth. Franz walked along her length. He stroked her skin with a hand. It was cool. He traced the smooth, polished mahogany of her gondola with his fingers, breathing in the aroma of fresh wood and varnish. Then he opened the little door and gingerly seated himself inside, where a musky undertone mingled with the smells of copper and fresh rubber. He imagined that it was Beatrice. He summoned the sensation of warm cushions receiving him, how she dipped under his weight. But this Beatrice, Beatrice II, had a seat with firm stuffing that didn’t give.
“We’ll manage,” said Franz to the console. “We’ll manage. You can be my Beatrice. We’ll get used to each other.”
Anna Goldberg, a printer’s assistant, fell in love with a steam engine. She was the youngest and ugliest daughter in a well-to-do family in Hamburg; her father owned one of the largest printing works in the country. Since Anna showed intellectual talent, she was allowed schooling and worked for her father as his secretary. In that way she would at least earn her keep. Anna was happy with her employment, but not because she loved the art of printing or the art of being a secretary. It was the printing presses. When other girls her age mooned over boys, she had a violent crush on a Koenig & Bauer. However, it wouldn’t do to start a romance openly in front of her father. She saved every pfennig of her income, so that when the day came she could afford to follow her love. At twenty-eight, she was still waiting for the right opportunity.
It finally came the day she met Hercules at the Berlin fair. He was a semi-portable steam engine: a round-bellied oven coupled to an upright, broad-shouldered engine. He exuded a heavy aroma of hot iron with a tart overtone of coal smoke that made her thighs tingle. And he was for sale. Although Anna came to the fair every day for a week to get to know him properly, she had really made up her mind on the first day. She could just about afford him. Anna announced to her parents that she intended to visit a friend and her husband in Berlin, and possibly find a suitor there. Her parents made no resistance, and Anna didn’t tell them her stay would be indefinite. She rented a warehouse on Stahlwerkstrasse and moved her possessions there.
Arriving at the warehouse with Hercules, Anna was greeted by a confused gentleman and a miniature airship who already occupied the space. The gentleman introduced himself as Dr. Hiller, and wouldn’t meet her gaze, but showed her a document. They seemed to have identical leases for the warehouse on Stahlwerkstrasse. Anna and Franz visited the landlord’s office, where a small seborrhoeic woman regretted the mix-up. Sadly, it was too late to save the situation as all warehouses were now occupied. She was, however, convinced that Dr. Hiller and Fräulein Goldberg could solve the situation between them. As long as the rent was paid every month, it wasn’t very important how. They would even get a discount for their troubles. With that, she thanked them for their visit and asked them to leave.
“I can’t have people burning things in the warehouse,” said Franz once they exited onto the street. “The airship is very flammable.”
“What does Dr. Hiller do with it?” said Anna.
“I don’t think that is of Fräulein Goldberg’s concern,” said Franz. “What is Fräulein Goldberg going to power with her steam engine?”
Anna stared at him with a blush that started at her neck and crept up her cheeks. “His name is Hercules,” she said quietly.
Franz stopped and looked at her. “Oh,” he said after a moment, and his eyes softened. “I apologise. I think we share the same fate.”
Returning to the warehouse, Franz led Anna to the airship moored in the far end of the room. “This is Beatrice,” he said, and laid a possessive hand on Beatrice’s gondola.
Anna greeted Beatrice with a nod. “My congratulations,” she told Franz. “She is very beautiful.”
They agreed on sharing the warehouse, with a partition in the middle. Anna brought a simple wood stove. After she pointed out that he, too, would need to cook for himself, Franz allowed her to install it in an alcove in the middle of the far wall of the warehouse, as far away from Beatrice as possible. The alcove became a shared kitchen and sitting room. It even took on a cosy air.
Anna was constantly at work shovelling coal into Hercules’ gaping maw and topping up water for the steam. At night, she would get up every other hour to feed him. Franz, who left for the clinic each morning, imagined she would do the same in the daytime as well, as she was often busy shovelling coal no matter what time of day he came home. Other than that, she mostly seemed to be busy reading technical manuals and papers. She had brought an entire bookcase full of them.
Beatrice remained cold and distant, no matter how Franz tried to warm their relationship. He was meticulous in his care for her. He read newspapers to her daily; he made love to her with great care. Nothing seemed to get her attention. Should he have tried harder to win the first Beatrice? Should he have pursued her more? Why hadn’t he? And the question that plagued him the most—had Beatrice loved him as violently as he loved her? One night, he told Anna the whole story over a shared supper.
“I’ll never find out,” he said. “Did she really love me? Would I have loved her at all, once I got to know her? Perhaps it was just a dream. She might be nothing like I thought she was.”
Anna shook her head, smoothing the pages of the journal she was reading. “I learned something from falling in love with that Koenig & Bauer. Infatuation is worth nothing. It has nothing to do with the real world.” She nodded at the steam engine looming in the corner by her bed. “Me and Hercules, we have an understanding. We take care of each other. It’s a better kind of love, I think.”
“This Beatrice might come to love me, don’t you think?” Franz said.
“She might,” said Anna. “And you have her right here. That’s more than you can say about the other.”
Anna’s relationship to Hercules did seem much happier in comparison, especially when her belly started to swell. The pregnancy was uncomplicated, even though Anna sometimes complained of strange sensations in her stomach. When Franz laid an ear to her belly, he could hear clicking and whirring sounds in there.
“What will you do when it’s time?” he asked.