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Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, trans. Karin Tidbeck

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Vanja, an information assistant, is sent from her home city of Essre to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka with an assignment to collect intelligence for the government. Immediately she feels that something strange is going on: people act oddly in Amatka, and citizens are monitored for signs of subversion.

Intending to stay just a short while, Vanja falls in love with her housemate, Nina, and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony, and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.

In Karin Tidbeck’s world, everyone is suspect, no one is safe, and nothing—not even language, nor the very fabric of reality—can be taken for granted. Amatka is a beguiling and wholly original novel about freedom, love, and artistic creation by a captivating new voice.
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Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention through Cheeky Frawg’s publication of Jagganath a few years back; it feels like even then we were all waiting for a novel by this multitalented multilinguist who translates her own fiction from Swedish into English, including this novel. So perhaps it is no surprise that Amatka is such a linguistically involved novel…

Amatka is on the surface of it a novel in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin mixed with a good dash of George Orwell; The Dispossessed meets 1984. At the start, it seems like a fictionalised version of the Soviet Union with a dash of the Weird, with its intrusive government presence, communist and communal system, dismal dreariness, spartan tendencies, and general bureaucratic and depersonalising approach. Tidbeck sets us up to expect one kind of novel, very much in the mode of 1984, where love as resistance leads to a more generalised resistance against an unjust authority; but Amatka goes in a different direction, with its weirder elements.

Those weirder elements are also present almost from the very start, with the labelling of everything; it’s implied that in the world of Amatka, naming things helps them or forces them to keep their form. It’s an interesting concept on the face of it, and that’s before Tidbeck goes further with the idea, playing with it and pushing it to weird and strange places. Tidbeck uses Amatka to play with, and literalise, the ideas of form and function as defined by language, and reality being what we describe it as; there are fantastic unspoken parts of the book about the way poetry versus prose describe things, and fiction versus fact, that are really interesting and could have been almost a whole novel in themselves.

Amatka is an entry in a long discussion in fiction about dystopia and the way strictures are enforced on society. Tidbeck builds her Soviet-reminiscent setting before explaining at all why it is necessary or how it came about; we see everything from the perspective of Vanja, and her status in society, which influences our reactions to everything, for reasons which only become clear as the book continues. Amatka plays with the necessity of the strictures of oppression, requiring the reader to ask whether freedom is worth the price, in this context, of that freedom, or whether order is worth the cost of order; there aren’t easy answers here.

The characters of Amatka are the weak link here. While Vanja’s outsider status and feeling of being a universal outsider is well written, and her doubts and anguish at the oppression of the communes well conveyed, the rest of the cast have a tendency to feel a bit flat, like ciphers or game-pieces moved into place for the sake of the plot and the sake of Vanja rather than people in their own right. Nina comes closest to breaking this pattern, and Tidbeck conveys her various conflicts between ideology and personal relationships very well, although at times, especially when they’re most strongly opposed, it can feel a little forced.

In the end, despite the weakness of characterisation, Amatka is an absolute masterpiece of a novel, and Tidbeck’s writing and ideas spark off the page and engage the reader wholly. An intellectual, literary piece of brilliance.

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Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera trans. Lisa Dillman

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In the court of the King, everyone knows their place. But as the Artist wins hearts and egos with his ballads, uncomfortable truths emerge that shake the Kingdom to its core. Part surreal fable and part crime romance, this prize-winning novel from Yuri Herrera questions the price of keeping your integrity in a world ruled by patronage and power.
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Kingdom Cons is Yuri Herrera’s third novella with And Other Stories, and his third in the peculiarly Mexican genre known as narcoliterature; whereas Transmigration of Bodies is a postapocalyptic plague-ridden story, and Signs Preceding the End of the World a more traditional people-smuggling story, Kingdom Cons is a story itself about narcoliterature, and taking the form of a more mythic story, with Arthurian resonances.

Kingdom Cons doesn’t have characters, it has roles; it has members of the Court of the King(pin). The only character whose name we ever learn, the Artist, Lobo, is our viewpoint character, and we only see his name before he’s drawn into the orbit of the King; after that, he becomes the Artist, to join the Jeweller, the King, the Traitor, the Gringo, the Journalist, and so on. Each person has a kind of nebulous property; they are defined by their role, but also exist beyond it to some extent, such that the Artist especially has both a life revolving around the King, and a life in defiance of that life. Indeed, Herrera recalls Arthurian legend with the role of the Artist especially, as he echoes Lancelot, right through to the end of the novella’s story.

If the characters aren’t exactly fleshed out, and defined largely by their roles, those roles are incredibly vivid. Kingdom Cons doesn’t go into a detailed discussion of the King’s cross-border drugs empire, but it does give a vague picture of the kind of grime of that criminal enterprise, of the compromises made with other criminals, of the complicity of the authorities on both sides of the border, of the way that it impacts the lives of those in the orbit of the King and manipulates their lives into strange, near-mythic things utterly unlike those on the outside. Herrera doesn’t glamourise this life, but doesn’t pretend it doesn’t have upsides either; it’s an interesting balance to strike, and one done with great skill.

A theme throughout the novel, largely drawn from Herrera’s focus on the Artist as protagonist, is about the way stories about the drugs trade mythologise it. Kingdom Cons is a story about narcoliterature as well as being a piece of narcoliterature; the importance of face, the importance of image, are central to the story, and Herrera is very aware of what stories can do, in terms of giving or stealing away power from someone. The way Kingdom Cons engages with those questions, and the concommitant responsibilities or lack thereof, of artists is a fascinating discussion that is held by playing out different options for the Artist, and by following through the various possible consequences of different kinds of choice.

If Kingdom Cons has a drawback, it’s the treatment of women. In part influenced by the macho culture of Mexico, women are valued only for their sex appeal; every woman we meet, with the exception of the Witch, is a sexual partner or a potential sexual partner, and they are judged by their worth as such. Herrera doesn’t really give any of them any characterisation; he comes closest with the Commoner, but even she barely has a character or motivation, and her actions with regards to the Artist seem peculiarly undirected and motiveless.

It’s impossible to discuss Kingdom Cons without discussing the language. Between Herrera and Dillman, this is a really interesting novel; the whole thing is told in one breath, essentially, with a couple of seeming asides which move outside the immediate orbit of the Artist into a wider view or a more purely philosophical approach, and these are beautifully rendered in prose that Dillman translates with a crystal clarity. Similarly, Dillman translates the poetry and lyrics of Herrera’s novella into English with a deft hand, and presumably retains their original feel; even when Herrera is using onomatopoeia or phonetic renderings of words, Dillman conveys both their meaning and that they are translated rather than the direct words, an incredible balancing act.

Kingdom Cons may be a slim volume, but it’s a fascinating, thoughtful one. Be prepared to fall into Herrera’s myth and not fall out.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, And Other Stories.

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A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, trans. Jessica Cohen

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The setting is a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a shocking and breathtaking read. Betrayals between lovers, the treachery of friends, guilt demanding redress. Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dovaleh G provokes both revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he’s been summoned to this performance.
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I picked this book up the day after it won the Man Booker International Prize for David Grossman (and of course, Jessica Cohen, the translator); A Horse Walks Into A Bar suggested something dark and comic, and fantastically well written, given the acclaim of the prize.

That’s not what this is. A Horse Walks Into A Bar has a seemingly simple plot: we’re being narrated to by a member of the audience about a stand-up gig. He’s not comfortable at this gig, it isn’t his crowd, and he’s dogged by the tragedy of losing his wife a few years back and his job a little more recently than that. That undercurrent of grief is rendered stronger and more poignant by the subject of the stand-up’s set, and the fact that said stand-up is a friend of the narrator. The big problem with all this, though, is that this isn’t the novel we’re told to expect by Grossman’s opening.

A stand-up set has to be funny above all else; however it achieves that, it has to be funny and engaging. In retelling a stand-up set, A Horse Walks Into A Bar needed to grab the audience’s attention from the start, like the comic bounding onto the stage at the end of the introduction and telling a great joke. Instead, in something that will become a motif of the book, it’s a slightly shambolic opening, completely missing the chance at humour. Grossman’s book isn’t really about a comedy set: it’s about a man standing on stage and, interspersed with jokes, telling his tragedy. The opening very much embraces the unfunny failing, the shambolic element of this, but it doesn’t situate it as anything; it reads as Grossman attempting to write a good set and failing, rather than successfully writing a bad one.

Once the reader gets passed the opening and into the real meat of the novel, though, A Horse Walks Into A Bar improves – as, indeed, does its humour. Grossman slowly peels back the layers of artifice of both his narrator, a childhood friend of the comic, and of Dovaleh G., the comic himself; each reveals themself to the audience, whether of the set or of the book, and shows their vulnerability. The tragic presence of our narrator, and the tragic past of Dovaleh, are slowly exposed, and the links between them made clear; it’s a fascinating and deep, thoughtful, and empathetic piece of writing that really does cut to the heart of grief and loss and self-blame.

It’s also as the novel goes on that the humour of it improves; not so much of Dovaleh’s set, but of A Horse Walks Into A Bar itself. The way the narrator interjects into Dovaleh’s set, his commentary on the audience and the audience’s reaction to the comic, and even some of the jokes Dovaleh tells (without telling them necessarily as jokes) all lighten the mood expertly: this is a deeply dark novel, and a bleak one, but with a strain of black humour to leaven it.

I’m not sure I agree with the judges of the Man Booker International that A Horse Walks Into A Bar was the best book on their shortlist, but will admit that Grossman’s novel does reward a persistent reader: if you get past the faltering, clumsy start, there’s something deeply human to behold.

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The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry (trans Sian Reynolds)

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One morning a librarian finds a reader who has been locked in overnight.

She starts to talk to him, a one-way conversation that soon gathers pace as an outpouring of frustrations, observations and anguishes. Two things shine through: her shy, unrequited passion for a quiet researcher named Martin, and an ardent and absolute love of books.

A delightful flight of fancy for the lonely bookworm in all of us…
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Divry’s novella is a first-person monologue addressed directly to the reader, about two different loves; the love of the (anonymous) narrator-librarian for the library, and for a patron of the library. It is at once a paean to and a scathing attack on libraries and their flaws; their systematic classification of everything – specifically, under the Dewey Decimal System, whose Anglocentrism and antiquatedness is taken on rather harshly; their history of cultural elitism, hoarding knowledge in the hands of the powerful; their problematic democratisation, as they bring in more multimedia elements. The Library of Unrequited Love discusses each of these and all of these, sometimes together, sometimes separately, alongside the way libraries democratise knowledge, bring people together, unite people across class, culture and other social boundaries. It’s a fascinating text on that level, as it ranges from love to hate.

It’s also wonderful as a psychological study, of both narrator and the object of their infatuation (there are implications that the narrator is female, but I don’t believe it is ever spelled out). The Library of Unrequited Love moves from friendly interest and admiration of Martin from afar, through love, to a sort of disdainful jealous hatred, as the librarian talks more and around her infatuation. It’s interesting to watch as her emotions towards Martin change and come into and out of focus, as she tells us more; the way that we can sympathise with her attraction and then feel repulsed by it moment to moment.

Divry is a very adept writer, and this stream-of-conciousness monologue is a fantastic piece of work; 90 pages of thought, rawly poured out onto the page, with a mixture of humour, sadness and seriousness; historical, cultural and political commentary; and the vagaries of the human heart. The Library of Unrequited Love really is the library of the human experience…