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Jagannath
by Karin Tidbeck
Vintage, $16.00, 176pp
Published: February 2018

'Jagannath' is a short but effective collection of short stories by the Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, who clearly sees the world through a pair of very strange binoculars.

It would be far too easy to describe this volume as a delicious baker's dozen slices of surreality, but that's a fair place to start. Tidbeck doesn't start with, 'Today was weird'. Instead she starts with, 'Today was utterly routine,' but routine for the character in play would be completely weird for us. She does this by introducing completely banal ideas and then letting the weirdness seep in through the edges. These stories begin with people answering the phone, writing a story, selling a house, even playing croquet. However, there's a lot more to it than that. She points out in her afterword that 'reality still has a bit of a wobble' after she devoured H. P. Lovecraft's entire oeuvre in only two weeks at the age of fifteen. That seems right.

She also writes a lot of her stories at a remove. For instance, 'Beatrice', which opens up the book, really tells the story of a man and a woman who love others but find themselves together anyway. It tells of unrequited love, of how that can be abuse even if such was never intended. It tells of a child and the insight that it can bring. And it tells of letting go. Saying all that might suggest that Tidbeck is writing general fiction and, in a way, she is, but I could also add that Franz Hiller is madly in love with an airship, the Beatrice of the title, while Anna Goldberg has fallen head over heels for a steam engine. Now we're in the world of the fantastic and, even when we think we've left it, we haven't.

Most of these stories are short for a reason and fill only the amount of pages that they need to fill to do their job properly. In most cases, they're told by a single person and often through introspection. Maybe they're writing a diary or a set of letters or detailing research. For instance, 'Some Letters for Ove Lindström' is exactly that, but they're written by a daughter to her recently deceased father over a number of days spent in his house and they lead up to a magnificent suggestion.

I only wanted one story to be longer and that's 'Pyret', as the vast majority of it is presented as research done by the lead character, which is fascinating and inviting and it leads up to a fair enough conclusion, but I felt that so much groundwork deserved more exploration. Tidbeck has written a novel, 'Amatka', and, having devoured this collection, I do wonder how that will play. She seems very comfortable indeed at short length, often very short length. 'Miss Nyberg and I' and 'Cloudberry Jam' do their jobs in merely five pages, which is astounding, given how much they do in those brief moments. 'Herr Cederberg' only needs four.

Because these stories often end with possibility, beginnings as much as endings, they become little worlds and it's difficult to pick a favourite. I have to throw out 'Who is Arvid Pekon?' because it takes a prosaic profession and extrapolates it into Franz Kafka territory but still leaves time for a particularly brutal twist that shakes up everything. It's a fantastic story in both meanings of that word. So are 'Augusta Prima', which is gloriously decadent; 'Cloudberry Jam', which looks at attachment in a way I've never seen before; and the title story, 'Jagannath', which explores an entire eco-system from the inside through a sheer flight of imagination. My other favourite, though, would be 'Rebecka', which is the most brutal piece in the book.

A number of these stories look at cycles, suggesting that what we know may not be all that there is, and I'm not talking about eons here but much shorter cycles, individual generations or less. Part of that is because Tidbeck is from Scandinavia, where the big cities give way to countryside that empties out rapidly as you travel north to villages on the edges of forests, where superstitions live long because maybe they have validity. The epitome of this is 'Reindeer Mountain', which begins with a fantastic line: 'Cilla was twelve years old the summer Sara put on her great-grandmother's wedding dress and disappeared up the mountain.' It's easily the longest story in this collection and it patiently works up to the why that we asked after that opening line.

Tidbeck's prose is very clean and austere, apparently whichever language she's working in. She's Swedish and a number of these stories were originally published in that language, but she translated them for publication here or for English language magazines, from which they were collected here. Others were written in English from the outset and have yet to see a Swedish publication. Most people can't write this well in their own tongue, but Tidbeck, as young as she is, is up to the task in two languages.

She does add in her afterword though that not all things are easy to translate. Much of what she poured into this collection is what the Swedes would call 'vemod', which doesn't have a simple English equivalent. She suggests 'a wistful sorrow for something that is over' or 'a quiet longing for something else'. I can see that, because these are subtle, polite, contained stories that become doorways into worlds that look like ours because they are ours, but they don't quite function in the way we expect.

I enjoyed that journey like a fine wine. I sipped and I relished and eventually the bottle was empty, but I calmly and patiently await the next. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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