August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), so I’m only reviewing books by women in translation.
In Jagannath‘s title story, Karin Tidbeck imagines a postapocalyptic future where humans have forged a symbiotic alliance with gigantic caterpillars. The caterpillars constantly roam the earth in search of sustenance, and the humans live inside them: men–who have become smaller and squishier–are tasked with fertilising their caterpillar’s eggs and are small enough to sit in its skull and aid its constant roaming; women–who have become larger and musclier–power most of the rest of the caterpillar’s body, helping it move its legs, digest, and so on. It may seem like humans get very little out of this, but in fact they get a sense of belonging, as well as a sense of purpose. They even call the caterpillar Mother. In fact–our marriage is pretty solid, but Jagannath did make me wonder whether my wife and I would be more fulfilled if we lived inside a gigantic caterpillar, too.
Whether it’s aliens or djinn, dolphins or faeries, humans have long been obsessed with the idea that there might be other intelligent species out there to share the world or universe with. It just seems so inconceivable that we could be alone. Indeed, for those 5,000 or so years when we overlapped with Neanderthals and possibly a few other hominin groups, we weren’t alone. Maybe it’s the memory of this coexistence that makes us long for something similar, that makes our minds and stomachs bubble with equal parts dread and excitement at the thought of Contact, regardless of the exact nature of the creatures on the other side. And perhaps the creatures on the other side, too, feel the same about us.
This, I think, is the overarching theme of Tidbeck’s short story collection Jagannath (as well another book I reviewed a while ago, The Djinn Falls in Love). Tidbeck is Swedish, and many of the encounters in her stories feature beings that originate or are at least inspired by Scandinavian folklore. In Reindeer Mountain, two young girls discover that they may have descended from the beautiful vittra who live in the eponymous mountain, and, as we know from the story’s first line, one of them ends up joining them. Pyret, written like a scientific journal article, describes a magical creature that, like a benevolent cuckoo, joins livestock herds and pretends it belongs among them; eerily, the reader discovers, a number of Pyret have been known to make the jump from livestock to humans. And then there are stories where the non-human creatures humans bond with don’t seem to have anything to do with Scandinavian folklore, but simply sprang from some particularly twisted recess of Tidbeck’s own brain–like the massive “Mother” caterpillar in Jagannath, or the airship Franz Hiller falls in love with in Beatrice, or the homunculus Cloudberry Jam’s unnamed narrator brings to life by soaking an anthropomorphic carrot in a mixture of water, salt, spit, and menstrual blood.
Jagannath is just over 100 pages long, and, according to my Kindle, the longest story took about 20 minutes to read, but most stories fall under the 10 minute mark. After Beatrice, the first few stories are good but not particularly memorable; from Who Is Arvo Pekon? onward, it’s a string of small classics. Tidbeck’s prose is smooth and straightforward, mixing humour and melancholy, and she is as comfortable painting cute little vignettes as she is describing blood and guts spilling out of mosntrous bodies. The translation is her own: in the afterword, which I read midway through the book, she says she may have used a mixture of American English and British English, with the occasional creative distortions of the non-native speaker, but I didn’t notice anything distractingly strange about her English, either before I read the afterword or after. And, having just been through a week-long translation workshop, I would have been particularly attuned to anything that didn’t sound or look right.
If you like your fiction short and strange, this is the book for you.