The Fantastical World of Mervyn Peake: Islands and Seas

[This is the text of the talk I gave at the British Library on 24 February 2024. The talk was designed to accompany a mini-exhibition of the same title, itself designed to supplement the major exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination which came to a close that same weekend.

This explains why the post is so image-rich; I couldn’t make my case without the use of multiple pictures. Some of the images aren’t too good, since the recent cyber-assault on the British Library website meant they couldn’t send me files containing the images I needed. As a result I had to use photos from books I owned, and in two embarrassing cases, photos taken in the mini-exhibition itself. Please forgive the results!]

Cover of first edition of Treasure Island illustrated by Peake.

The writer-artist Mervyn Peake had a lifelong obsession with islands; G. Peter Winnington’s seminal monograph on Peake, The Voice of the Heart, includes a whole chapter about them.[1] Peake’s favourite book as a boy was Treasure Island (1883), and the place he kept returning to throughout his life was the Island of Sark, a one-time nest of pirates off the coast of Normandy. He first lived on Sark as a member of an artists’ commune in the 1930s, went back to live there with his family between 1946 and 1949, and visited several times in the 1950s.[2] Mervyn Peake’s most famous literary creation, Gormenghast Castle, is a building so vast that nobody can ever know it in its entirety; it’s landlocked, but Peake keeps comparing it to an island, cut off from history by its resistance to change, cut off from the outside world by its steadfast refusal to recognize that world’s existence. In the second of his three great Titus novels, Gormenghast (1950), it even becomes an actual island after a flood. His other works are filled with islands of one sort or another: from the pink island to which the pirate Captain Slaughterboard retreats with the love of his life, the Yellow Creature, in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939), to a floating lump of ice the size of Kent on which a nameless explorer and his companion, a ‘turtle-dog’ named Jackson, find themselves stranded in Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948); from the many strange and colourful islands Peake painted in the illustrations to his book of nonsense poetry, Rhymes Without Reason (1944), to the boat fraught with all the animals and people in the world in his play of the 1950s, Noah’s Ark. In this talk I’d like to suggest that his love of islands, and of the strange seas in which his islands are located, tells us something important about his love affair with Fantasy. In a number of ways, I think, both Mervyn Peake and many other people of his time were islanded – a word Peake used in his poetry; and their islanding found its most potent expression in the impossible worlds they conjured up, many of which feature in the Peake mini-Exhibition in this building.

Kuling, early 20th century

Peake was born in 1911, in a resort for missionaries called Kuling (now Guling) in Jiangxi Province, eastern China. He lived the first eleven years of his life in Tientsin, now Tianjin, in northern China, where his father, a missionary doctor, ran the MacKenzie Memorial Hospital.[3] In this port city the Treaty of Tientsin was signed in 1858, at the end of the Second Opium War, a conflict started by the British and French; the treaty opened several new Chinese ports to foreign trade, permitted Christian missionary work in China – of the kind Peake’s parents practised – and legalized the importing of Opium, which gave the British a crucial advantage in the Chinese market by literally addicting Chinese people to the products of the British Empire. The Peake family was effectively islanded in Tientsin, since they lived inside the hospital complex, a rectangular chunk of late Victorian Britain segregated from China by a protective wall. Peake’s Tientsin childhood was islanded from the rest of his life by what he calls a ‘misty sea of time’, so that he later felt ‘severed’ from it, since ‘the pictures in my mind seem not to be part of me, but are like some half-forgotten story in a book’, containing adventures that happened to an entirely different child.[4] Having spent several years of my childhood in Singapore I know what he means; the images I have of that part of my life are remarkably vivid and resonant, but stand out from the rest of my memories precisely because they have so little in common with anything that happened after I came to live in Britain. Peake coming to Britain from China at the age of eleven, in 1922, may have felt profoundly islanded from the bulk of the British population who had not been through these experiences – though he went to a boarding school full of similarly islanded children, Eltham College, which catered for the sons of missionaries like himself.

Peake, The Ancient Mariner

The book-like quality of Mervyn’s memories of China helps explain, I think, his willingness to turn to illustrating books in the Second World War – something that happened, he claimed, because he couldn’t get hold of paint after he had been drafted into the army. Many of the books he illustrated feature protagonists severed from the world they know: from the Baker, the Banker and the Billiard-player in Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark (1941) to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (1943), adrift in a ship full of corpses; from Carroll’s Alice books (1946) to Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1949), where an entire middle-class family finds itself stranded on an impossible island crammed full of beasts from all five continents.[5] Immersion in books like these tends to isolate the reader, especially the child who is capable of cutting themselves off from the world for as long as a story lasts. Peake describes this childhood reading experience with amazing intensity in a poem he wrote in 1942, when a nervous breakdown led to him being hospitalized in Southport. Patients at the hospital were distinguished from the general population by the distinctive sky-blue suits in which they were dressed. Here’s how he sums up his state of mind at this difficult time of personal isolation in the middle of the Second World War:

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.[6]

I love Peake’s comparison of the boy’s mind while reading to the mind of a swimmer caught in tropical breakers, his eyes squeezed shut against the salt water but still able to see the sun shining through the ‘naked jelly’ of the waves as a ‘vermilion ember’, reddened by the veins in his eyelids. The eyelids themselves are rendered ‘transparent’ by sunlight, and move or ‘rove’ in response to the movements of the eyeballs behind them. That’s a glorious image for the sensation of reading or remembering particularly vivid picture books, which spark an inner light that makes ordinary daylight into ‘an un-focused twilight’. That inner light, Peake tells us, is ‘fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’; fiercer, perhaps, because the images in illustrated stories are more focused than those conjured up by the unaided imagination. Peake’s retreat from the humiliating experience of being in Southport Hospital, and of leaving the hospital building to be paraded along the esplanade in a bright blue suit with an orange tie, was to retreat to this realm of exploding islands where his imagination could have free play, like the swimmer no longer constrained by the law of gravity. In fact he retreated to his own picture book quite literally in Southport. As therapy for his breakdown, the staff there encouraged him to write the later chapters of his first novel about Gormenghast Castle, Titus Groan (1946). Part of the process of composition involved drawing pictures of the major characters, some of which you can see in the Fantasy Exhibition next door.

Peake, illustration from The Swiss Family Robinson (c. 1949)

The final picture in the Peake mini-Exhibition, showing a boy from the Swiss Family Robinson lassoing a turtle from a raft amidst the foaming tropical seas (c. 1949), perfectly complements this account of the boy whose mind is shaped for the life of an island castaway by vivid pictures in books. It bursts with youthful energy, straining to escape the page’s rectangle. Notice how the curves of the turtle’s head and shell are echoed by the curves of the barrels and sail on the raft, how the raft and its users have been tilted to one side by the waves and the straining turtle, how the waves themselves are exploding into lacy shawls of foam while the boy who holds the rope hauls with all his might against the turtle’s direction of travel. The picture is dominated by the diagonal line of the taut rope that slashes across the middle and the two tilted right angles it strains between, the hard right angle of the mast and the soft right angle formed by the turtle’s neck; the hardness on the one side and the softness on the other show clearly who is going to win this tug of war. The brilliance of the tropical sunshine is conveyed by the shadows that conceal the boy’s eyes, the shadows on the upper rims of the barrels on the raft, the shadows on the underside of the turtle’s neck and flipper. Peake’s art was shaped by the work of an artist who specialised in illustrating action scenes like these in books for boys, Stanley L. Wood, and in early days he signed his pictures Mervyn L. Peake as if in homage to his idol.[7] Another favourite book of his, Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3) by J. Claverdon Wood – about pirates on the island of New Guinea – was illustrated by Stanley Wood, and Peake pays homage to Wood’s strenuously energetic pictures for the novel in a talk he gave on book illustration in the 1940s. This picture strikes me as one of Peake’s most Wood-like images.

Stanley L. Wood, Frontispiece to Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3)

Peake’s islanding, as I’ve described it, was not exclusive to himself. Throughout his life he gravitated to other people who had been islanded in one way or another. The Irish nationalist writer James Stephens, author of the Fantasy classic The Crock of Gold (1916), who emigrated to England after Irish independence because he was disappointed by the kind of country Ireland had become. Gordon Smith, Peake’s best friend, whose childhood had also been spent in northern China. The avant garde sculptor Jacob Epstein, an American Jew who suffered from British conservatism and antisemitism and whose work Peake defended in a poem.[8] The Eltham schoolmaster Eric Drake who founded the Sark Group of Artists in the 1930s, and who was another child of Chinese missionaries. The writer Maurice Collis, another Irishman, who found himself at odds with the British imperial project he was expected to uphold as a civil servant in Burma, and whose version of the Ramayana, The Quest for Sita, Peake illustrated in 1949;[9] and many more. Maeve Gilmore, Peake’s artist wife, was herself islanded, first by her strict Catholic upbringing, then by the many pressures on her as a woman artist and a mother of two in wartime, whose husband was first drafted into the army then invalided out of it. Peake describes Gilmore’s particular kind of islanding in one of his poems:

Always you are remote and islanded
In silences that so belie the ardent
Torrents that course beneath your gentle clay[.][10]

Only recently have the ‘ardent / Torrents’ of Gilmore’s creativity been heard and seen as they deserve to be, thanks to a major exhibition of her work at the Voltaire Gallery in 2022.

Peake, ‘Floating Islands on the Waves’ (c. 1928)

Countries, too, were in some sense islanded in Peake’s lifetime by seismic events that severed them from the past. China was severed from its long imperial history by the revolution of 1911, the year of Peake’s birth, which established the Chinese Republic. Britain was severed from its own imperial past by the trauma of the First World War, which lent urgency to the radical questioning of imperialist values that found expression in artistic movements between the wars, Surrealism, Vorticism, Cubism and the rest. Starting with Ireland, Maeve Gilmore’s father’s birthplace, the British dominions were breaking away like floes breaking off a Polar ice cap. The sense of having been cut off by these seismic breakages from the colonial past – like Arctic explorers stranded on one of those ice floes – is what gave rise, I think, to the genre of fantasy as it developed between the wars. The first picture in the mini-exhibition (c. 1928), which shows floating islands precariously balanced on heaving waves, encapsulates the experience of having been uprooted and come adrift which many people shared in the 20s and 30s. It invokes, as the notes suggest, Hokusai’s famous print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831);[11] but Hokusai’s picture is stabilized by the presence of Mount Fuji in the background. Peake’s seascape is all upheaval and turbulence, with no stable land in view; though its cartoonishness, the pastoral calmness of the floating islands and the single drop dripping off the crest of the biggest wave suggest that the young artist was untroubled, as yet, by the turbulent world he had inherited. There’s no indication that his islands have been colonised or subjected to missionary activity, and this may explain their pastoral appearance. The imagination could invent countries where the toxic inheritance of imperialism could be offloaded onto goblins or dragons, as it is in Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), which takes place in a world that’s fallen to pieces after some bygone quasi-mythical age of unity and prosperity, leaving a trail of islanded settlements in its wake.

Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831)

Peake’s own imagination inclined to piracy. Pirates can be seen as enemies of imperialism, though they can of course also serve as its parasites and stooges. They have a contempt for human laws, national and international, and a well-earned reputation for random acts of violence; but they’ve also been linked to anarchism, the political movement that rejects authority of all kinds. The seventeenth-century pirate Roberts drew up a celebrated set of egalitarian laws to be observed on the ships he commanded, while the most famous example of pirate anarchism on land is Libertalia, a democratic pirate republic set up on the Island of Madagascar by a Frenchman, Captain James Misson, in defiance of the Empires that were carving up the world between them at the time. The story of Captain Roberts is told in The General History of the Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe; Johnson’s account of Libertalia comes in the second volume (1725). Peake may well have known the General History, which is a source for his favourite novel, Treasure Island, and his interest in Madagascar may also have been piqued by the fact that his grandparents and uncle were missionaries there – that it was in some sense the ‘family island’.[12] In fact Peake uses Madagascar as a metaphor for the process of making a family, in a poem he wrote after the birth of his first child, Sebastian, in January 1940. Addressed to Maeve, the poem represents birth as a process of islanding for everyone who experiences it:

Grottoed beneath your ribs no longer, he,
Like madagascar broken from its mother,
Must feel the tides divide an africa
Of love from his clay island, that the sighs
Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry;
And though your ruthful breast allays his cries,
How vulnerable
He is when you release him, and how terrible
Is that wild strait which separates your bodies.[13]

By this point in Peake’s life, after the outbreak of the Second World War and having been called up for military service – he was awaiting mobilization as he wrote – the sea surrounding each human island has mutated into something much more ‘terrible’ than the comic-book waves of the first picture we looked at. And the island metaphor he chooses for his son – that of Madagascar – is associated with the precariousness of piracy as well as its anti-authoritarian credentials. Captain Misson’s pirate republic, Libertalia, is said to have been destroyed in an attack by Malagasy warriors; Misson himself drowned at sea a short time after. Captain Roberts was killed in a skirmish when struck in the throat by grapeshot. Piracy for Peake, as for many others, always had two aspects, the spirit of freedom, adventure, egalitarianism and loyalty on the one hand, the spirit of violence, random cruelty, treachery and imminent sudden death on the other. The strain between these two aspects of piracy is key to the power of Peake’s fantastic imagination, which rejects simplistic dualisms of good and evil while retaining a deep consciousness (as the son of a missionary must) that these dualisms govern many understandings of the way things work – including, at times, his own. Peake repeatedly represents himself as an uneasy double figure, made up of a ‘rebeller’ and a ‘conceder’, as he puts it in his wartime poem ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’ (1941) – a conceder being someone who concedes to or is complicit with the horrors being perpetrated in Europe.[14] He embodies these two aspects of himself in the figures of a cold angel and a fiery, sensuous centaur or devil – though these figures don’t neatly align with the notions of rebelling and conceding, or bad and good. He locates this ‘double cargo’, as he puts it, in a ship,

[…] half love,
And half, that rides
The self-same sea-groove with wild laugh
Across these fickle, these infested tides.[15]

That the ship is a pirate ship seems likely enough, given that it’s invoked by a writer-artist who dressed as a buccaneer in the 1930s (complete with earring) and whose obsession with pirates is still startlingly present in his late novels Mr Pye (1953), about an eccentric missionary on Sark who takes to wearing a piratical bandanna to conceal a pair of growing horns,[16] and Titus Alone (1959), in which the self-exiled Earl of Gormenghast becomes the unofficial leader of a loosely-knit anarchist rising against the authorities of a nameless state, seconded by a man called Muzzlehatch with a rudder nose and a one-time sailor called Anchor, both of whom have a pirate’s hatred for the law and its instruments.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Treasure Island (1949)

The dual nature of pirates, as deeply attractive emblems of adventure and resistance and as murderous salt-water thieves, was visible everywhere in the pirate books being published in the first half of the twentieth century, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates (1909) to John Masefield’s Lost Endeavour (1910), J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (2011), Under the Serpent’s Fang (1923), Gerald Bullett’s The Spanish Caravel (1927), Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck and Missee Lee (1932 and 1941), Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Eric Linklater’s The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949). These divide themselves broadly into texts that favour the pleasures and perils of piracy and texts that celebrate the victories of agents of the imperial law against piratical opponents. Often the same book does both. Treasure Island, for instance – the granddaddy of them all, along with R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857) – adopts the point of view of the order-loving upper and middle classes, embodied by the shipowner Squire Trelawney, the physician Dr Livesey, and the cabin-boy Jim Hawkins, a family friend of the Doctor’s. Trelawney and Livesey regard their quest for buried treasure as wholly legitimate, since any profits will go to themselves, members of the ruling elite. But Stevenson also represents their class enemy and rival in the treasure hunt, the sea-cook and pirate Long John Silver, as a deeply charming man, capable of drawing middle-class medics and upper-class shipowners into the web of his geniality as easily as he seduces his working-class shipmates into mutiny against them. To the Squire and the Doctor, Silver poses as a loyal member of the servant classes, well content with his station; to his fellow pirates he is a cunning, ruthless killer; but to everyone he is admirable, including the reader, who delights in his capacity to switch sides and personalities whenever it suits him. Even his willingness to murder people who resist his advances offers evidence of his astonishing energy, versatility and poise. When Silver kills the sailor Tom for refusing to join his mutiny he first seeks to sweet-talk him with honeyed words, then suddenly leaps away ‘with the speed and security of a trained gymnast’ and hurls his crutch to knock Tom down, charging after it ‘agile as a monkey, even without leg or crutch’ to bury his knife ‘up to the hilt in that defenceless body’.[17] Peake’s full-length picture of him in the mini-Exhibition (from 1947-1949) wonderfully invokes his seductiveness. He’s got a beautiful face, with heavy lids, prominent eyelashes and a fine head of curly hair, and he peers sideways out of the picture with a smile, suggesting his capacity to extend his influence well beyond his physical proximity. His powerful body is visible through his clothes, and there’s a general sense that he’s disorienting, conveyed both by the way his body tilts in two directions as he leans on his crutch (his leg, left arm and head tilt in one direction, his torso and right arm tilt in another), and by the shading in the background, whose lines begin to curve sideways as they rise from ground level, passing from the horizontal through an area of cross-hatching until they’re diagonal to the rectangular frame of the picture at the level of Silver’s head, so that everything seems in motion and off-balance.

Silver’s politics are interesting, too; it would be easy to see them as rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of rational democracy, as against the feudalism of the Squire. Silver abides by the Roberts code of piracy, being elected captain by his messmates, giving them the vote on key decisions, and assuring them that all will have an equal share in the buried treasure. The name he and his pirates give themselves – gentlemen of fortune – makes them equals, unlike the Squire and Doctor, who embrace the class distinction between themselves as gentry and the commoners who work for them. No wonder the hero of the book, Jim Hawkins, seems to fall in love with Silver, like Peake in his boyhood. Every picture of Jim in the exhibition has him tilted at all angles like Long John Silver: tossed on the waves in Ben Gunn’s coracle…

clinging to the bowsprit of the Hispaniola…

aiming his pistols at Israel Hands as he leans from the Hispaniola’s crow’s nest:

In each picture he comes closer to being a pirate, culminating in the moment when he runs his fingers through the treasure of Captain Flint in Ben Gunn’s cave:

The pirate Silver coveted that treasure, the former pirate Ben Gunn dug it up, the half pirate Jim Hawkins got a share of it; what really divides them? In Peake’s pictures, as in Stevenson’s book, Jim is tainted with Silver’s anarchism. John Silver is the embodiment of resistance to the authorities that frown on exploratory teenagers like Jim – though the pirate also claims to have plans to become a conventional gentleman, and even a member of parliament. Not too conventional, however. In an age when slavery was legal in the British Empire, Silver’s lover – who we never meet in the book – is Black. The sea-cook roves far more freely beyond the imperial frame, it’s implied, than most of his white British male contemporaries.

Map of the Three Principalities, as featured in The Dusky Birron (1929-31)

There’s a queer element to piracy, as anyone knows who’s followed the HBO series Our Flag Means Death. Peake seems well aware of this fact, and the two pirate books he wrote and illustrated – The Dusky Birron and Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor – attest to his awareness, whether or not he acknowledged it openly. The unpublished Dusky Birron (1929-31) was a project he developed with his friend Gordon Smith, and it has a distinctly Chinese quality, as the two authors drew imaginatively on their shared experiences of China. Smith wrote the words, Peake drew the pictures, and the book begins with a sailor man being marooned by pirates on a group of islands, whose monosyllabic names – Soz, Ho, Foon, Chee – bear a faint resemblance to Mandarin, which both Smith and Peake could speak. The first picture from the book in the exhibition shows a European ship sailing through a giant flooded forest, possibly the pirate ship that marooned the sailor…

while the second shows the pirates themselves, looking thoroughly European…

Apologies for the quality of this photo!

But the next two pictures show some very Chinese-looking rocks and mountains…

Lawrence Bristow-Smith, a former British diplomat in China, compares the rock where the Maranesa sits to the rock formations in traditional Chinese gardens, ‘slabs and blocks of stone assembled to form a fantastic, exaggerated landscape with water, paths, steps, bridges and carefully-planted shrubs and trees’.[18] The mountain scene, meanwhile…

Apologies for this photo too!

recalls the Chinese practice of shan shui hua, ‘mountain water art’, as exemplified by Huang Gongwang’s ‘The Remaining Mountain’:

…so that the place where the sailor man finds himself contains a variety of aesthetic elements assembled, like those Chinese gardens, into a ‘fantastic, exaggerated landscape’. In Gordon Smith’s account of the book, the sailor-man’s guide through this fantastic landscape is the Dusky Birron, a naked man with flowing hair and the beard of a prophet:

and the two companions spend most of the book looking for the ideal place to set up house together. They find it at last in Chee, the most laid-back island in the archipelago….

This is not, then, a story of colonisation but of companionship between people of different cultures, in a land full of exiles; the Maranesa, for example, comes from Borneo, but seems happy living in Soz alone on his ‘pointed stone’, as Smith’s words put it. The sailor, by contrast, finds a friend to share his life with, as his mentor and fellow adventurer. There’s a Chinese connection here, too, I think. Peake’s surviving notes for an unwritten book about China – sometimes conceived as an autobiography, sometimes a work of fiction – are full of such cross-cultural friendships, from the Chinese boy who lures a red-haired British boy from his bed into the world beyond the hospital compound, to the one-eyed Russian boy with no shoes whom Peake calls his ‘God’; from Peake’s friend Tony Liang, who ‘did drawings which were copies of Lawson… dogs and parrots and monkeys’ – probably Lawson Wood, who drew animals for The Boy’s Own Paper – to the Chinese boy befriended by a British girl called Laura on a winter’s journey across the mountains.[19] These relationships are full of the seduction of the unfamiliar, something that works both ways in the case of the boy with red hair, whose appearance marks him out as exotic to his Chinese guide.

That seduction turns boldly queer in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). The Captain sails his ship, the Black Tiger, between ‘little green islands’ on the ‘bright blue ocean’, accompanied by a crew of bizarre eccentrics clearly inspired by the crew who sailed with Captain Hook in Peter and Wendy.[20] Billy Bottle the bosun, for example, has arms so long that he can knock ashes out of his pipe without bending down; Hook’s shipmate Noodles has equally unusual arms, since his ‘hands were fixed on backwards’. Timothy Twitch is ‘the most elegant in battle, his left hand especially’, just as Hook’s shipmate Gentleman Starkey was ‘once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing’…

Slaughterboard’s shipmate whose portrait we see in the exhibition, Charlie Choke, ‘covered all over with dreadful drawings in blue ink’, is closely related to Hook’s shipmate Bill Jukes, ‘every inch of him tattooed’…

Slaughterboard seems immune to the charms of these men, even the elegant Timothy Twitch, but when he spots a Yellow Creature through his telescope he can’t resist its beauty…

That his attraction is erotic as well as aesthetic (he spends hours, we’re told, admiring the butter-yellow colour of the creature against the blue of the ocean) is implied by the fact that many commentators think Peake modelled its face on the face of his wife, Maeve Gilmore, who posed for him hundreds of times throughout their marriage; Maeve also features, if you look closely, among the tattoos on Charlie Choke’s left arm.[21] The creature’s gender is indeterminate – Peake sometimes gives it the pronoun ‘it’ and sometimes ‘he’ – as is its species, since its ears and bristly horns are not quite human. Slaughterboard’s first reaction to it is that of the colonial slave-trader or collector; he sends his men to catch it, then carries it off for his own amusement. On board his ship, too, he at first treats the Creature as an exotic object to be displayed to his fellow sailors, who quickly grow tired of being urged to admire it…

But as time goes by, the power dynamic begins to shift. One by one the crew is killed off until only the Captain and the Yellow Creature are left, and by this time they behave as equals: they dance and eat together…

…and the Captain begins to show an interest in the Yellow Creature’s home environment, the island where he found it, and eventually turns the ship in that direction. The book ends with the Captain and the Creature living together in married bliss; the Creature does the cooking, and they both enjoy the company of the other islanders, or lazily fishing for wonderfully strange fish from the island’s ornamental-looking piles of stones. As Peake’s son Fabian points out in his introduction to the 70th Anniversary edition, the pair of them seem to have found utopia. More specifically, they have found their Libertalia, complete with its stock of unprecedented fauna. The anthropologist David Graeber has recently argued, in his book Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia, that the roots of Libertalia lie in the fusion of pirate culture with the indigenous people of north-east Madagascar; just one of the many cultural fusions that have shaped the island’s history.[22] Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature duplicate this fusion, their gleeful rejection of apartheid or segregation placing them a million miles from the British imperial project. Or the German one, of course; the book was published in 1939, and the first edition was mostly destroyed in a German bombing raid.

The magic of Captain Slaughterboard is its refusal to embrace the sort of conventional moralising that dominated contemporary children’s narratives. The Captain exists outside the imperatives of Empire all the way; his initially colonial actions are a personal choice, and he seems free to dispense with colonialism whenever he feels like it. In J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Captain Hook is tormented by social anxieties, brought on both by his public-school education and by Peter Pan’s self-evident superiority as a pirate and an anarchist to himself. Stevenson’s Long John Silver is intensely conscious of the forces of the social hierarchy ranged against him – of the power of the ruling classes and the disastrous lack of discipline among his fellow pirates – which means he suspects from the start that things can’t possibly go his way. By contrast, Captain Slaughterboard rules his narrative ‘every inch’, as he rules his ship. There are no naval officers, squires or missionaries in his story, just the strangest of sea-wolves and the weirdest of creatures. Instead of moral trajectories, Peake’s book is full of limbs and torsos getting out of control, clothes flying in all directions, bursts of sea-spray, spurts of cannon-smoke or pipe-smoke, and a ship that expands and contracts like a living organ, its decks covered in writhing bodies, flapping swathes of canvas and unbalanced bottles of rum…

The Captain’s resistance to moral imperatives makes him wholly indifferent to the slaughter of his men – we never hear how they died, and he never mentions them again after their deaths. He only pays attention to the fascinating details of the Yellow Creature’s appearance – its delicate body, arms and legs, its enormous eyes, its long, drooping nose, which offer the perfect foil to his own massive body and hands, his button nose, his tiny eyes….

The Captain’s eyes look at everything with cunning; even when introduced by the Yellow Creature to its friends on the island he watches them slyly as if measuring their market value…

But his cunning consists in the recognition that the only treasure he needs is what gives him pleasure: his brightly-coloured lover and the seemingly infinite variety of creatures on the island and around its shores.

Peake: poster for the movie Black Magic, with Sidney Toler playing the detective Charlie Chan in ‘Yellowface’ (see the novel by R F Kuang)

Peake was familiar, of course, with the racist caricatures of Chinese culture that circulated between the wars, from the fictions of the so-called Yellow Peril – such as Sax Rohmer’s tales of Dr Fu Manchu – to the crude pastiches of China that featured in British pantomimes like Aladdin, or Albert Arlen’s play The Son of the Grand Eunuch (1937), for which Peake designed the costumes.[23] He also had friends like Maurice Collis who had a serious interest in South and East Asian art and history, and a father with similar interests who brought him brushes from Hong Kong after the war, giving him a chance to experiment seriously with Chinese painting techniques. Captain Slaughterboard embraces Peake’s childhood in China by representing a kind of queer marriage between formerly hostile cultures, as well as between Chinese and European schools of art. As a statement about its particular moment in British history – on the cusp of the Second World War, when the earth itself was tilting off balance – this picture book seems to me well worth revisiting in our own unbalanced times.

[For an account of pirate references in the Titus/Gormenghast books see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy’.]

NOTES

[1] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.

[2] For more on Peake and Sark see my blogposts ‘Mervyn Peake on Sark’ and ‘Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark’.

[3] The best account of Peake’s life is Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen Publishers, 2009).

[4] For Peake’s ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’ see Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 469-487.

[5] The dates given here are those of the first editions of Peake’s illustrated versions.

[6] For the full poem see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 120. For more on Peake’s Southport experience see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake at Southport’.

[7] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 56.

[8] See my blog post ‘Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake and Jacob Epstein’.

[9] See my two blog posts, ‘Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946)’, Part 1: Text and Part 2: Drawings.

[10] ‘Tides’, in Peake, Collected Poems, p. 129.

[11] See Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 36, which cites Peake’s friend Gordon Smith describing the Puy de Dôme near Clermont-Ferrand in France as ‘a most charming hummock, like a miniature Fujiyama’. Smith and Peake saw this ‘charming hummock on a French holiday together in 1930, two years after the date assigned to the picture, ‘Floating islands on the waves’. For a full account of the holiday see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), pp. 14-20.

[12] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart, p. 57, footnote 1: ‘it was the family island, so to speak’.

[13] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 78.

[14] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 93.

[15] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 94.

[16] See Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 205.

[17] Robert Louise Stevenson, Treasure Island, illustrated by Mervyn Peake (London: Methuen, 1976), pp. 96-97.

[18] Lawrence Bristow-Smith, ‘The Chinese Puzzle of Mervyn Peake’, Peake Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Winter 1993), pp. 37-39.

[19] Peake, ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’, Peake’s Progress, pp. 471, 474, 477-478, 483.

[20] All quotations are taken from Mervyn Peake, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 70th Anniversary Edition (London: Walker Books, 2009). This edition is not paginated.

[21] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 130.

[22] David Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (Dublin: Allen Lane, 2023).

[23] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 107.

The Ambiguities of Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (2017)

[In the week when Loreen of Sweden won the Eurovision Song Contest, I’m putting up a post – quite coincidentally, of course – about one of the great Swedish writers of speculative fiction, Karin Tidbeck. This post marks the return to functionality of The City of Lost Books after a period offline caused by a bug in one of the University of Glasgow’s servers. The episode taught me about the precariousness of one’s online existence. Tidbeck taught me about the precariousness of human existence itself, as mediated by language. My thanks to Helen Marshall and Kim Wilkins, organisers of the What If Consortium sponsored by the University of Queensland, for introducing me to Tidbeck’s work.

The post contains many spoilers, so only read on if you’ve read Amatka or if you don’t mind spoilers too much!]


In an interview for BOMB Magazine, Karin Tidbeck mentions a familiar distinction between two kinds of writers: ‘There’s this concept of writers being either “plotters” or “pantsers”: plotting a story out before they start, or flying by the seat of their pants. I’m definitely a pantser’.[1] Both of Tidbeck’s novels emerged from a long period of gestation, taking the author by surprise as they underwent a slow transition from pupa stage (a collection of poems that became Amatka [2017], a set of linked short stories that became The Memory Theater [2021]) to full-blown novelistic butterflies.[2] Improvisation is clearly integral to Tidbeck’s writing process; and while this is true of many writers, in Tidbeck’s case it’s improvisation that has been honed by long practice in a highly specialised field of performance.

The prizewinning novelist and short story writer is also a participant in Nordic LARP – Live Action Role Play – for which they have been writing scenarios for most of their life. It’s no coincidence that their latest novel has a theatrical title, or that Amatka acknowledges an entire supporting cast of co-enablers in its composition: as Tidbeck puts it, for them ‘It truly takes a village; so many people have been helpful in the creation of this story’ (p. 217).[3] LARP performance, too, involves input from many equals who combine to generate a work of collective improvisation, as a cast of players act out roles based on a pre-agreed scenario, without an audience apart from the actors themselves. Its topics can be as lighthearted as a fantasy adventure set in another world or as serious as imagining yourself into the position of queer people in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, of Palestinians under occupation, or of a planet where your gender is determined by the time of day when you were born. LARP discloses the intellectual, emotional and psychological value of play, the politics of improvised performance, the performativity of social interaction, the possibility – indeed, the necessity – of cultivating mutual trust and mental flexibility no matter what your age, as a means of collectively reinventing the forgotten past and imagining a better future. To me, Nordic LARP sounds frightening as well as fascinating, and I’d love to try it. For Tidbeck, it may well be fundamental to the way they think. And this may in turn be key to understanding the unique experience offered by their extraordinary novel Amatka, and what it has to say to a world in Climate Catastrophe, led by leaders hellbent on preserving the status quo.

In 2021 I took part in an online workshop at which Tidbeck spoke with passion about Nordic LARP – one of a series of workshops organised by the What If Consortium, about which I’ve written elsewhere. In the same interview Tidbeck spoke about their fascination with learning languages – they speak six in all, and have translated their own work from Swedish to English and from English to Swedish in an exercise that clearly fascinates them as much as any other creative process.[4] Translation can resemble a live action roleplaying game, in that the restrictions it places upon you highlight the different possibilities available in different situations, the different available styles encourage you to see the world through different lenses, the different grammatical structures suggest different underlying philosophies for different linguistic communities. Tidbeck describes their own variety of written English as an invented composite dialect, made up in equal parts of the British English they learned at school and the American English which is ‘the language of MTV and the movies, and, later, science fiction paperbacks’.[5] As a speaker of British English, I notice the Americanisms in Tidbeck’s style, as I read, more than the British dialectical usages which are my native tongue. And for me these Americanisms work an unusual kind of magic. They superimpose a New World grammar on what seems an Old World story – its Old World-ness suggested both by the Slavic and Nordic names of its characters and by the echoes of European history in the society they inhabit. This effect is perfect for Amatka, which takes as its setting a colony or cluster of colonies established by people from the world we know (mostly Russians and Swedes, to judge by their names) in a nameless place whose location is never identified. The colonists fled to that world with the aim of establishing the ‘ideal society’ (p. 44); but the new place – the planned utopia – has an air of being worn out from the opening sentence of the narrative. Its social structure recalls that of other experiments in collective living such as Soviet Communism or the Marxist-Leninist communes of the 1960s and ’70s, and the story that unfolds there seems familiar from countless literary dystopias from We to A Clockwork Orange, 1984 or Kafka’s The Castle. For me, its New World language suggests a veneer of up-to-date modernity thinly applied to a system that unimaginatively echoes long-outmoded efforts to refashion the world along egalitarian lines through the imposition of increasingly authoritarian and inflexible rules, driven by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality. This mentality even extends to the clothing the colonists wear; none of the characters in Amatka wears garments that fit, and everything is designed for function rather than style: ‘She looked a little peculiar with the hat on; her hair stuck out from under the rim and the earflaps stood straight out. She pushed the hat back a little, tucked her hair in, and tied the flaps. That made it look a little better’ (p. 25). Clothing, in fact, plays a central role in the novel, just as costumes do when pooled and exchanged in a theatrical game among friends.[6]

If the names in the book are often Slavic, Tidbeck themself has suggested that their work has a loosely Nordic character, associating it through certain cultural markers with a cluster of countries in Northern Europe: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In an Afterword to their dazzling story collection Jagannath [2012] Tidbeck lists a few of these markers – a love of festive rituals, the idealization of the working class by the ‘intellectual left’, the soft Swedish dad, all of which find echoes in Amatka – while describing Nordic culture as at once profoundly susceptible to fantastic ways of thinking and unaccommodating when it comes to providing space for fantastic narratives in print. ‘One sensation peculiar to the Nordic culture of my upbringing,’ Tidbeck writes,

is that we really do live on the edge of fairy country. With a small population that’s mostly gathered in towns, vast stretches of countryside could contain any number of critters. Many folktales, and other stories I grew up with, such as the ones by Finno-Swedish author Tove Jansson, show reality as a thin veneer behind which strange creatures move.[7]

This is the North that’s familiar to me, a British reader who lived in Stockholm as a small child and inherited books, comics, pictures and objects from that epoch of my family’s history. It’s the North of the Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, whose The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (mentioned briefly in The Memory Theater) presents its readers with a folkloric map of Sweden packed with diminutive tomten, underwater cities, statues that come to life at night, giant butterflies, and articulate beasts and birds; of Astrid Lindgren, whose The Brothers Lionheart imagines a succession of Nordic worlds opening out from one another at the point of death, making each new world a link in a never-ending bracelet or chain; of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, set in a world where the dead watch the antics of the living as if in a paper theatre, while children with strange abilities watch the antics of both the living and the dead; or of Ali Abbasi’s movie Border, where customs officers on Sweden’s national borders themselves exist on a border between mortals and the hidden world of the trolls.[8] For Tidbeck, the borders between the human world and fairy country are rendered permeable by the metamorphic possibilities of language, which in turn react to and have a direct impact on the metamorphoses undergone by our bodies in response to emotion, diet, maturation, thought, curiosity, desire and fear. The thin veneer that exists in Nordic countries between the known and the unknown for her consists (among other things) of words, clothes and skin, all of them infinitely permeable surfaces hiding strangenesses unacknowledged by biologists or the compilers of dictionaries.

Amatka is set in a location on the other side of the veneer that separates our world from the strange, the unsettling, the potentially lethal. It’s a place where things are made with words in a very literal way, changing shape if the word that defines them is not regularly repeated aloud by their users, and preferably marked on them too with writing or a printed label. But this nameless place is hardly a conventional fairyland, Nordic or otherwise. It’s a colony committed to conformity, set in a landscape whose uniformity echoes the values of the colonists, with miles of uninhabited tundra interrupted by featureless bodies of water utterly bereft of the inventive fauna of the folktales. In this place improvisation is deemed to be highly dangerous, and childhood games that imaginatively transform one thing to another pose a very real risk of materially transforming the renamed objects into something new – or of reducing them instead to a semi-liquid, quasi-organic ‘gloop’, the primordial substance mined from the soil of this alien world to construct – well – more or less everything the colonists think they need. Metaphors are dangerous, too, since they can reshape the things they describe into something different, or else more gloop. In deference to this constraint on the inhabitants of their invented world, Tidbeck tells their narrative without recourse to metaphor, unfolding the adventures of the protagonist in pellucid prose whose refusal of ornament – once one notices it – takes on the virtuosic quality of an exercise in Oulipo, the French literary game that imposes apparently arbitrary restrictions on its practitioners such as writing an entire novel without the use of the verb ‘to be’. Tidbeck has explained that metaphors are barely used in Swedish, but their absence from Tidbeck’s English makes the language seem pared-down, reduced to essentials, a suitable instrument for a strictly regulated life lived on a frontier on the brink of the unknown – and on the brink of dissolution through the unregulated use of words.[9]

The plot of Amatka is simple. Vanja has been sent to the colony Amatka by the newly-founded private company she works for, which has asked her to assess demand among the colonists for new hygienic products to replace the mostly state-made hygienic resources they have used till now. Her work, then, is concerned with the treatment of human skin, that organic barrier between the colonists and their alien environment. Her researches find that the Amatkans are subject to many skin diseases and conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, symptomatic of their difficult relationship with the world they inhabit – or perhaps with the society they are part of, whose every waking moment is marked by the stress of maintaining the shape of the objects around them, from toothbrushes, suitcases and bedclothes to the contents of the factories or desks they work at (if they don’t keep naming them they turn to gloop). In the course of her work she falls in love with a citizen of Amatka, a medic called Nina, and decides to stay. At around the same time she unearths evidence of a resistance movement against the Central Committee of the colonies, the governing body based in her home colony of Essre to which all the Committees of the other colonies are finally answerable. Despite her love of the conformist Nina, Vanja finds herself steadily drawn into the resistance movement, largely through her friendship with Amatka’s librarian, a man called Evgen, and the poetry he invites her to read, the work of a colonist called Berols’ Anna. The novel closes with a revolution which involves the breakdown of the verbal tyranny that has governed the colonists’ lives, and a similar breakdown in the composition of their bodies, above all their skins, rendering them impossible to focus on, unbarricaded, unshielded, naked to the world. Something similar happens to language in the revolution, as it ceases to be policed and instead becomes creative and infinitely malleable, the verbal equivalent of the gloop that can be reshaped into anything you choose by those who dare to commit themselves to the idea of revolutionary reshaping.

The trajectory of the novel, then, is from rigidly rules-based organization to improvisation, from strict linguistic and social limitations to unrestricted verbal and social fecundity, from fear of the place in which the colonies are located to a passionate embrace of it, a quest to know it, to merge with and reinvent it, and in doing so to enter a new phase of evolution. The experience described may be not so very different from the experience of learning to improvise in a Nordic LARP community, starting out tentative and awkward, growing in confidence as the performance unfolds within the limitations of the pre-agreed plot. Alternatively, it resembles the philosophical shift that will be necessary to live in harmony with the environment – to discover, in fact, that we are the environment, and cannot segregate ourselves from it with an artificial barrier constructed from the languages of otherness, authority, human self-interest, mental discipline, technological control. In this novel, opening up to other people (falling in love, for instance, as Vanja does with Nina) is no different from opening up to our reliance on the intimidatingly strange material world of which we are part.

If Amatka is a narrative of social revolution, it is also a tale of (partial) psychological healing. The book opens with Vanja in a state of unacknowledged depression, having recently recovered from a medical problem that involved treatment, we later learn, in a fertility clinic. The roots of her depression are deep ones. Her father was arrested as a dangerous dissident when she was a child, having first made her his confidante when he indulged in whispered, alcohol-fueled rants against the system late at night, when the rest of the family were asleep in bed. Unhappy with her job, negligent in her verbal naming or ‘marking’ of her possessions – as a result of which she soon finds her toothbrush and her suitcase reduced to gloop – without a partner or close friend in her home town of Essre, dominated by her more conformist older sister, her ‘general disinterest’ can be measured by the amount of savings she has available to spend on warm clothes when she first arrives in Amatka (p. 25); up till now she has had nothing and nobody to spend her credits on. Her depressed state of mind reflects, for the reader, the depressed state of the colonies, cut off from the world they came from and equally cut off from the world they now inhabit.

This state of isolation and exile is brilliantly evoked in the novel’s opening chapter. Here we find Vanja taking the train journey from Essre to Amatka on board a train which embodies the colonists’ collective material and psychological condition. The passenger car in which she travels is full of bunks, having been ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’; but its generous capacity is pointless in a world where exploration has given way to a daily struggle for survival within the perimeters of established settlements (p. 3). Everything in it is strictly functional, from the ‘rigid and uncomfortable’ seats to the bland food provided in the pantry: ‘stew with a base of mycoprotein’, to be eaten cold from a can, root vegetables to be cut into chunks and eaten raw (pp. 3-4).  It has no windows, cutting the passengers off from the drab but somehow terrifying landscape through which it travels – partly to suppress their fear of it, partly because there is nothing to be seen outside in any case ‘except the empty steppe: billowing grass, some hillocks, and combes’ (p. 5). Most disturbingly of all, everyday objects in the carriage have their names written on them in ‘large and comforting letters: WASHBASIN, PANTRY, TABLE’, the labels loudly proclaiming the possibility, even the likelihood of their imminent disintegration (p. 4). Everything is utterly familiar and undifferentiated, yet the continuing existence of these familiar things cannot be taken for granted; the fear felt by the colonists is that the things they need will be taken away from them by irresponsible acts, or merely by forgetfulness, by neglect. One is reminded of the way that the presence of imagined objects needs to be constantly reaffirmed in a mime show or improvised scenario, the way they can disappear or lose shape if the performers fail to reinforce their presence by naming them repeatedly or shaping them often with their hands and bodily movements.

The colonists’ identities, too, are always on the verge of dissolution – Vanja’s more so, perhaps, than the rest, since she has little self-confidence, little certainty about where the system ends and her personality begins. The standardization of their names identifies them as little more than objects or functions in space and time. Vanja’s full name, for instance, ‘Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two’, starts with a fusion of her parents’ names (Britta and Lars), followed by a Slavic personal name, and ending with the name of her home colony and where she stands in the chronology of her parents’ offspring (she is their second child, hence ‘Two’).[10] Their bodies, too, are both grimly functional and neglected. When Vanja looks at herself in a mirror on the train she sees that she has lost weight since the last time she noticed her appearance, that ‘her belly no longer sagged from fat but from loose skin and flaccid musculature’ and that ‘her legs were no longer firm’; she has been reshaped, in fact, by the demands of her dull and sedentary job, so that her clothes no longer fit her (p. 5). Her skin no longer fits her either, with the result that to her own eyes she looks much older than she is, accelerating towards an annihilation as complete as that of an object reduced to the gloop of which it is made. We later learn that the records of individual citizens kept in the annals of the colonies are reduced to the minimum after their deaths in order to save paper: name, date of birth and death, profession, cause of death (p. 121). The functionality of the records surrounds the dead inhabitants of the colonies with a featureless waste of unrecorded time, as drably grey and uniform as the landscape surrounding the colonies.

Gradually, however, as the book goes on, we learn that Amatka and the other colonies can be seen as a form of Utopia. That, at least, is how the ruling Committee of each colony describes them and how their more conformist citizens understand them: a perfectly egalitarian community set up in opposition to unspecified but clearly inferior alternative ways of living, now lost in the wasteland of the unrecorded past. But it is a deeply ambiguous Utopia. Indeed, all utopias can be seen as ambiguous, since utopianism itself combines two contradictory impulses: towards radical change (from the material conditions under which the writer and their readers live) and towards total stasis (most Utopias are strictly policed to prevent transition to a less desirable state). Anyone with a preference for change will find themselves stifled by inertia, anyone rendered anxious by transitions will be maddened by the inevitable tendency of societies to mutate and slide into new shapes. All Utopias, then, are Dystopias for some, and Amatka’s Utopia is no exception, since any dissent is savagely punished and any form of eccentric behaviour can be interpreted as dissent. Like the original Utopia of Thomas More, each colony is organised on geometrical principles, with an administrative tower-block in the centre – the all-seeing watchtower of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon – and rings of residences, factories, plant houses and recreational facilities arranged around it, under its eye. The worst of punishments fits the crime for which it is most often exacted, loose or disruptive talk: it involves the surgical destruction of the speech centre in the brain, rendering the citizen inarticulate and hence incapable of participating in the life of the commune. One might call this poetic justice – irresponsible speech being rewarded with enforced silence – if it were not for the fact that enforced silence implies an incapacity for poetry of any kind, just or unjust.

So far so familiar; but Tidbeck is unusually dextrous at making her Utopia seem homely as well as intolerable. Its most loyal citizens can be affectionate, funny, compassionate, mutually supportive; its rebels are not motivated by hatred or anger so much as affection, compassion, mutual supportiveness, even a sense of humour, recognising as they do the sheer absurdity of trying to keep things stable in a world predicated on the need for metamorphosis (birth, growth, death, eating, drinking, successive sleep states, etc. etc.). Both sides, too – loyalists and rebels – are intensely conscious that they themselves have conspired to construct the oppressive Utopia from which some seek to be liberated, and that consensus or complicity is essential both for maintaining the commune as it is and for overthrowing it and installing a new order. The alternative Utopia of the rebels is closely related to the Utopia of the loyalists, being compounded of the same elements, the same desires and dreams and needs. The personalities involved in both sides are not crudely distinguished as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Some of the revolutionaries, like the sarcastic retired doctor Ulla who cohabits with Nina and Vanja in their communal dwelling, can be infuriating, while Nina’s commitment to the colonies is based in a sense of responsibility to other people’s welfare which has also (presumably) driven her to become a nurse, and which makes her deeply sympathetic to Vanja’s loneliness and depression, despite the opposite points on the political spectrum each of them occupies. Even at the point where Nina betrays Vanja to the ruling Committee near the end of the book, she does so in the conviction that the committee will do what’s best for Vanja as well as for the commune; it’s their merciless treatment of Vanja that finally pushes Nina into joining the revolution. For Nina, Vanja’s body is a utopian space; the visitor from Essre is in her eyes a ‘beauty’, despite Vanja’s own conviction of her ugliness and premature ageing, and despite Vanja’s attraction to the dissidence Nina fears (p. 96). By this means – by seeing her as beautiful – Nina instils fresh confidence in Vanja, a confidence that ironically helps to propel her into the arms of the revolution (to which Nina later follows her).

Other Amatkans, meanwhile, have little interest in either conformity or rebellion. Nina’s children by her housemate Ivar, for instance, have been separated from their parents since birth, raised like the rest of the commune’s children in the so-called ‘Children’s House’. They find it hard to get used to being with their parents each weekend, and spend much of their time staring at adults and clinging to one another as representatives of the sole community they really recognise. Ivar, meanwhile, who works in the commune’s subterranean mushroom farms despite his dislike of being underground, and who is unable to obtain a transfer to more congenial work in the Plant Houses, conforms even while he succumbs to acute depression. This isolates him from his fellow colonists, precisely thanks to the damage caused him by his willingness to conform. Ivar, then, is neither a heroic revolutionary – since he never rebels – nor a loyal colonist – since his eventual suicide is treated by the Committee as the ultimate betrayal, a permanent withdrawal of necessary labour from the struggling collective he was expected to preserve. For both Nina and Vanja, on the other hand, he is a beloved friend. Each of them recognises in him an aspect of themselves, despite their seemingly contradictory positions, and each appreciates him for what makes him himself: his love of strong coffee, his delight in making things grow, his tenderness toward the children he shares with Nina. There are no absolutes in Tidbeck’s commune, since there are no absolutes in the words, sentences and personalities from which it is constructed.

It is no surprise, then, that both colonists and revolutionaries share a love of poetry. The ‘wholesome fun’ enjoyed by the Amatkans at gatherings every Sevenday includes regular readings of poetry written by Berols’ Anna, who is revealed in the course of the narrative as the de facto leader of the revolution (p. 61, p. 159). Poems, of course, can be descriptive, and Anna’s poems meticulously describe the various Plant Houses or agricultural conservatories that form the outer circle of Amatka. When Vanja first reads them she finds they stabilize the mundane objects and actions they invoke, as all language should when responsibly uttered: ‘In Berols’ Anna’s poetry, all things became completely and self-evidently solid. The world gained consistency in the life cycle of plants, the sound of a rake in the soil. Breathing became easier’ (pp. 44-5). As Vanja grows in sympathy with the revolution, however, the same poems offer evidence of change as well as of stability – of becoming as well as of being: the plants are always growing and dying, the rake moves the soil, sound and breath dissolve in air. And some poems harbour double meanings thanks to the possibility of reading them ironically, like Berols’ Anna’s hymn in praise of the Central Committee (‘We thank them / for telling us/ What to do / what to do’), which Vanya assumes at once to be ‘sarcastic’ (p. 78). The novel’s readers, meanwhile, might understand the poems as doing both, making and unmaking as they are read or spoken. In them, revolution and reactionary conservatism are shown to spring from the same soil, the same impulses towards shaping a community and a home.

Colonists and revolutionaries also share a love of music. The wholesome fun of a Sevenday gathering involves singing and dancing as well as poetry recitals. Some of the singing is dedicated to preserving the shapes of things against the danger of change; this includes the ‘Marking Song’ taught to young children so that they can name the necessary objects they make use of every day, protecting those objects from disintegration into gloop. When the revolution finally breaks out, the revolutionaries sing a version of the same song, though with a different intent: an opening out of the song’s meaning rather than a closing down and consolidation of that meaning. What the revolutionaries sing is ‘something like “The Marking Song,” but the words were different; it was a song of making and unmaking, a song not of things that were, but that could be’ (p. 216). Indeed, music plays a key role in the revolutionary transformation of Amatka. At one point in the novel, after a minor falling-out with Nina, Vanja makes her way to the lake outside the commune – a lake that has already begun to manifest signs of the coming change, since it freezes each night at sunset and unfreezes with a sound of thunder at the break of dawn, in defiance of the laws of physics. As she sits on the shore of the lake, Vanja sees an old woman standing nearby, holding a long pipe half submerged in the water. When the water freezes, the woman lifts the end of the pipe to her lips and begins to play it like an alp-horn, effectively turning the frozen water into a musical instrument, a tuneful communication system summoning fellow revolutionaries to her aid. Later, pipes begin to manifest themselves in the ground beneath Amatka, in the form of a mysterious network of tunnels that extend into the tundra beyond the city limits. Noises are heard in the tunnels – voices, buzzing, thunder – and later from the vertical pipes that give access to those tunnels, and which sprout from the ground beyond the city in increasing numbers. The pipes wail and groan like the pipes of a church organ, as if the ground itself were singing, or as if an improvised musical instrument were finding voice for the very first time. In their interview with BOMB Magazine Tidbeck speaks of their legendary great-grandfather who had only five fingers but who nevertheless built ‘an organ out of a sofa’; an interest in improvisation was clearly an integral part of their family saga long before they discovered LARP. The elderly revolutionary Ulla, meanwhile, reminds us that pipes or tunnels may be used for ‘travel’ as well as for making sound (p. 132). Music may be a repetition and affirmation of what’s known and loved, or it may transport us to strange new territories, like the train that carried Vanja to Amatka. In Tidbeck’s world it does exactly both, and revolution arrives like a remembered experimental tune, heavy both with nostalgia and with the joy of the unexpected, the innovatory, the yet-to-be.

The family likeness between reaction and revolution is embodied in the spaces where both are fostered. When Vanja finally learns (of course from the conservative Nina) how the revolutionaries left the city under the leadership of the poet, Berols’ Anna, to set up a rival commune on the featureless tundra, she discovers that the habitation they made for themselves differed little from the design of the colonies they had abandoned: ‘It looked sort of like a colony – a ring of little houses and a commune office’ (p. 169, my emphasis). But the sky above this new commune is alive and full of lights, unlike the grey unchanging skies above the old one, while the walls are painted not with the appropriate noun (‘wall’, ‘window’, ‘door’, and so on, lending solidity to the objects they embellish) but with representations of things ‘not there’, transforming them into narratives rather than nouns (tales of utopia, the no-place, perhaps) (p. 170). Apartments, too, can be spaces of revolution or reaction. When Berols’ Anna fulfils her promise to free Amatka – that is, to fulfil its potential to remake itself along radical lines – she is accompanied on her march to the colony by the old woman Ulla, who formerly shared an apartment with a group of friends from across the political divide. Living together in that apartment were the idealist conformist Nina, the unhappy conformist Ivar, the would-be revolutionary Vanja, and Ulla herself, the fully-fledged insurrectionist. Within that apartment were hatched both plans for liberation and plans to betray the liberators to the Committee. Each physical space in the novel, then, is a theatre, full of possibilities, yet constrained by a set of rules. Each performance in each of those spaces depends on an interaction between the performers, as a sentence depends for its sense on the interaction between its grammatical parts. Rebels need conformists to define themselves against; conformists are equally dependent on rebels to understand for themselves what needs to be suppressed, expelled or resisted. And individuals mutate from conformist to rebel, as Vanja mutates in the course of the novel, emerging from her isolation, depression and atrophy into the catalyst and herald of a new era.

Organs themselves in Tidbeck’s work are, so to speak, organic, mutating from one function to another, militating against the laws of biology. The skin is a fine example. Berols’ Anna writes poems about the Plant Houses that form the outer ring of the concentric circles of buildings that comprise Amatka. Her interest, then, is in what could be called the ‘skin’ of the colony, the protective architectural membrane that protects its interior organs from the perceived threat of what lies beyond. Yet the Plant Houses are already mixed with the Other, since the plants they contain spring from the soil of an alien world. So it’s no surprise, when the revolution breaks out, to see one of the Houses bursting apart to release a ‘stream of furiously flapping greenery’, while another sprouts ‘six unsynchronized, rickety legs’ and trundles off across the steppes in a bid for freedom (p. 212). Meanwhile the mysterious tunnels under the colony – the arterial conduits that convey the bacterium of revolution from one part of the communal body to another – spontaneously mutate into Plant Houses full of semi-sentient ‘fruiting bodies’, which were once the colonists who maintained the underground mushroom farms (p. 214). And skin itself often ceases to be a membrane, announcing its identity with the earth and its products, or with the abject inner organs, even as its owners struggle to keep it contained and in good condition, moisturized, blemish-free and snugly clothed. The eczema suffered by the mushroom farmers turns their skin into fertile ground for fruiting bodies, like the caves where they tend their fungi. When the people imagine or speak the malleable earth of this new world into new bodies – such as imitation cats or fish, sketchy copies of the nonhuman creatures they left behind in the world they fled – the bodies in question differentiate themselves from their lost originals by failing to distinguish between skin and  flesh: their outer membrane envelops no bones, no veins, no organs, no brains, just undifferentiated gloop from head to toe, like living plasticine or clay (pp. 198-9). The earth of the colonies itself resembles either a membrane or an unprotected inner organ, instinct with life. When a neglected everyday object turns to gloop, the gloop feels somehow warm, alive and potent, capable of evolving into something – anything – under the right conditions (p. 175). Towards the end of the novel, Vanja even adopts a blob of gloop as a kind of pet, mutating it at will into useful everyday tools designed to further the revolution.

Yet the capacity for metamorphosis can be exploited for reactionary purposes as well as revolutionary ones. The past can be moulded by the Committee to erase narratives that threaten the integrity of the colonies; Berols’ Anna’s commune, which drew about a hundred colonists out of Amatka into the tundra, is reimagined by the Committee into a disaster which killed the colonists and their leader – thereby shutting down the narrative instead of opening it out, and putting an end to the possibilities of improvisation. The complexity of individual experience is retrospectively reinvented, thanks to the crudeness of the colonies’ records, into simple descriptors of life, job, death, and a set of dates. When the sensitive colonist Ivar discovers the hidden tunnels under the mushroom farm where he works, he is told that he is suffering from delusions; by erasing his account of the tunnels, reducing him to silence, the Committee hopes to wipe them out of existence – and will wipe him out of existence, too, if he persists in asserting the truth of his narrative. In the end, the contradiction between the Committee’s version and his own drives Ivar to wipe himself out of existence; and he accomplishes this by removing his outer membrane – his coat and shoes – and exposing his skin to the murderous cold of the freezing lake. Ivar’s suicide, in fact, represents his most radical act. He kills himself using a feature of the landscape which is impossible according to the laws of conventional physics, a lake that freezes and unfreezes nightly regardless of the prevailing air temperature or weather conditions. Ivar gives himself up to the new world, in other words, embracing it as the Committee will not. In response, the Committee erases even the barest record of Ivar’s life from its archives. But it cannot erase Ivar himself without erasing the community he was part of: his friend Nina, with whom he had children; the children themselves; his co-workers; the roommates who reacted to his story of the tunnels in different ways. In giving himself up to the world, Ivar shows the way to the revolutionaries, who eventually learn to become the place they find themselves in, as he did, giving themselves ‘to the world’ in a daring gesture of making and unmaking, hope and despair (p. 214).

Tidbeck’s dystopic Utopia, then, defines itself by its dangerous capacity to be two or more things at once, and in this it is closely related to the so-called ‘fairy country’ of European literature and folklore, despite its differences from familiar representations of that space. Tidbeck’s story collection Jagannath contains two stories set in that country, both of which were later incorporated or absorbed into The Memory Theatre. Both stories concern themselves with the human relationship with time, and in particular with our simultaneous desire to inhabit a world impervious to change and a world that is always changing. Time also, of course, has a central role in Amatka, not least as something that happens to one’s body (think of Vanja looking in the mirror, contemplating the way her own body has been altered by time and suffering, or her later contemplation of Ivar’s body, changed for ever by its period of suspension in the ‘frigid water’ of the lake [p. 154]). Bodies mark time, too, in both of the fairy stories in Jagannath. The first of them, ‘Augusta Prima’, tells us what happens to the body of an immortal being when she finds a watch.[11] Once the watch is set in motion it changes its formerly changeless finder, who starts to age, while at the same time she becomes aware of the wearisome changelessness of the garden where she lives, which has preserved her in an immutable state up to the point when the clock began to tick. The discovery, too, makes something clear about the politics of fairy land: that the disconnected shreds of time it does contain affect the working classes – the unfortunate changelings who are stolen, enslaved and tortured by their fairy masters – very differently from the masters themselves, who remain unchanged from one generation of servants to another. Fairy land, in other words, like many other places, is a utopia for its rulers and a dystopia for its workers, though here the distinction between them is not merely confirmed but reinforced by their different experiences of chronology. The stolen children are ritually slaughtered when they reach maturity, in a bid to expel even the memory of time and change from the paradisal garden; while the immortals wake each morning at the beginning of what is effectively the same day. The children live in a state of nervous anticipation, perpetually fearful of a sudden change that will wipe them out of existence; the masters live in endless ennui, driven insane by the knowledge that everything everywhere will always be the same, and that there is nothing more to existence than what they have. And a somewhat similar temporal structure rules in Amatka, though the elements of it are slightly different.

At the beginning of Amatka, when Vanja boards the train to the colony where the rest of the novel is set, we learn that something strange has happened to time in the course of her journey. Long journeys in this new world can sometimes cause machines to malfunction, and her wristwatch gets ‘stuck at one o’clock’ because ‘mechanical things sometimes didn’t behave like they should between the colonies’ (p. 5). We might think of the tricks performed by time on long-haul journeys, or in SF stories that feature Faster-than-light-speed travel, or of the warpings of mortal time experienced by voyagers to fairy land such as Oisín, or by fantasy adventurers like the Pevensies in the Narnian chronicles. At the same time, Vanja notes in the mirror the signs of passing time inscribed in her own body; movement goes on, despite the lack of precision instruments with which to measure it, and this is also true of Oisín, who finds that he has aged when he gets back from Faerie. Augusta Prima’s fairy garden has a similar effect on mechanisms: ‘Mechanical things usually fell apart as soon as they came into the gardens’ domain’ (p. 116), dismantled by the will to immortality embodied in the garden by its creators, just as time has been rendered meaningless in the colonies by the ruling Committee’s systematic erasure of the past. In both train and garden, however, chronometers are rendered unfamiliar by Tidbeck’s descriptions of them: Vanja’s watch is ‘the clock on her wrist’ or ‘the little clock’ (p. 5), which gives it an unusual weight and mass for its size and function, while Augusta Prima’s watch is a ‘little machine’ with ‘Three thin rods […] attached to the centre’, moving round the disc ‘in twitching movements’ and making a noise like the beat of a mouse’s heart (115). The mouse analogy, in a realm that has by this stage in the story shown a propensity for casual cruelty to small, powerless beings such as the changelings, makes the watch sound vulnerable; but the strangeness of these two watches gives them an imaginative power beyond the timepieces we know from our own experience. As a result, Augusta Prima proves more vulnerable still, becoming seized by a desire to ‘know’ about the mystery of time as embodied in the watch, and gradually succumbing to physical change as her knowledge grows.

Vanja too, on arriving at Amatka, becomes afflicted with the desire to know, in this case about the mystery of Amatka’s past – a past embodied in the train which caused her watch to stop (the train is ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’, but its ‘capacity was pointless’ in a world where such frontiers no longer exist [p. 3]). Vanja’s quest for knowledge leads her to another apparently damaged machine, a giant subterranean contraption whose intended function – as an agent or symptom of change – is as mysterious to her as the watch’s was to Augusta Prima (p. 149). Like the watch, Vanja’s underground machine changes its discoverer, and with her the colony whose past she has been investigating; her interest in it sets it in motion and its motion restores the tunnels to their role as agents of travel, transformation and trauma. A similar extension of Augusta Prima’s experience of time to the rest of the fairy country is implied in the short story ‘Aunts’, where the inhabitants of a fairy glasshouse or orangery find themselves changed by a fleeting visit from Augusta Prima, who clutches a round, metal, ticking object: clearly the watch.[12] Before this moment, the titular Aunts have existed as part of a perpetual cycle of birth, growth and death, sealed into the ecosphere of the glasshouse in perpetuity, self-fed and self-consumed. With the arrival of Augusta Prima and her watch the cycle is broken, and nobody knows what will happen next, either in the glasshouse or in the garden of which it seems to be the beating heart. Knowledge and time, then, are both creative and destructive, breaking down the composition of the objects and people caught up in their transactions, creating new possibilities from the breakdown, and triggering in the people who witness it either terror, delight, or both. And eternity too has a dual nature, locking its denizens into a happy circular dream, entrapping its victims in a recurring nightmare.

Knowledge, and the impulse to knowledge called curiosity, is a threat to the philosophy of stasis that governs both the fairy garden and the colonies. In the garden it is ‘common knowledge’ that time stands still, and that ‘Whenever one woke up, it was the same day as the day before’, a Groundhog Day of pleasure for the masters and torment for the children they have enslaved (p. 118). Augusta Prima’s sudden awareness that there may be other times and other ways of living gives her access to new knowledge which is far from ‘common’. Amatka too, as we’ve seen, is committed to repetition, since this is the only means of preserving its shape: ‘As morning comes,’ declares a poster in Nina’s bedroom, ‘we see and say: today’s the same as yesterday’ (p. 97). Vanja’s quest for knowledge about the past of the colony challenges this mantra repeatedly, as she discovers (for instance) that enormous chunks of the colony’s history have been strategically fabricated by its historians. If fairy country is a beautiful but dangerous illusion, kept in check by rule-based games such as parties and games of croquet, so too is Utopia, a collectively imagined space whose shape and extent is strenuously maintained by the policing of the inhabitants’ words and actions. It is kept in check by parties too, ‘games and organised play’ (p. 158) at each colony’s leisure centres, which ensure that even the citizen’s spare time is policed, observed and linguistically restricted. The key item of knowledge in both books is the recognition that the worlds in which they are set are no more than games, and that a player may choose to change the rules or leave the game altogether, although deciding to do so will put that player in mortal danger, according to the rules of the game they are choosing to leave.

The location of fairy country is notoriously uncertain; and the same is true of Utopia, whose name means ‘no-place’ or ‘placeless’. In Vanja’s world, the fact that the location of the colonies is unknown is one of the pieces of knowledge kept strictly hidden from the people by the Central Committee. Vanja’s father reveals it to her in her childhood in a whispered confession which gives the imparted knowledge both the delightful air of a bedtime story and disturbing connotations of child abuse, which is so often represented by the abuser as a shameful secret to be concealed from other members of the community. Lars’s whisperings to his daughter, in other words, are another of the ambiguous spaces with which this Utopia is filled. As Lars bends towards her in the dark, his beard tickling her cheek and his ‘whispered words’ smelling of alcohol, he imparts to her the explosive fact that ‘No one knows where we are. But we’re not allowed to say that’ (p. 39). At this point the reader finds themselves torn between the notion that he is imparting to her his inmost knowledge in a gesture of supreme parental trust, and the competing notion that such knowledge is too heavy a burden to be shared with a child; that this is, in fact, an irresponsible act on the part of a parent. Lars goes on to restate the fact of their placelessness as a bedtime story, like the most famous tale of that famously ambiguous tale-teller Lewis Carroll: ‘then he seemed to sober up and began to tell her a story about how people had found a hole in the world, and passed through, and ended up in this place. But where “this place” was, no one knew, not even the committee’ (p. 40). At this point Tidbeck seems to be reminding us that fairy stories, children’s stories, can serve as holes in the world through which we can glimpse the shapes of forbidden topics, though they withhold judgement as to whether or not a child might be harmed by such glimpses.

The link between Lars’s ‘hole in the world’ and Carroll’s famous rabbit hole forges another link to ‘Augusta Prima’, whose games of croquet on the lawns of the fairy garden – their chief aim being to break the heads of players and the enslaved children known as ‘pages’ – recalls the violent game of croquet in Alice in Wonderland, set in a garden which is metaphorically or potentially littered with severed heads. The tunnels that riddle the ground beneath Amatka recall the dream-maze threaded by Alice’s White Rabbit; the wayward workings of watches in Amatka and the fairy garden invoke the Mad Hatter’s squabble with time itself (since when, the Hatter tells us, Time ‘won’t do a thing I ask!’);[13] while the curiosity of both Vanja and Augusta Prima recalls the unflagging curiosity of Alice herself, who finds Wonderland and Looking-Class Country ‘curiouser and curiouser’ as she plunges deeper and deeper into their interiors. Amatka, in fact, is more Looking-Glass country than Wonderland. In the second Alice book it’s Humpty Dumpty who declares that any word can mean exactly what he wants it to mean (or in Amatkan terms, make exactly what he wants it to make), while the loss of Alice’s name in the Looking-Glass wood is invoked by the identikit names bestowed on the colonists, or the permanent loss of speech imposed on dissidents as punishment by the regime. Key to both Amatka and the Looking-Glass country is the question of who is dreaming the whole shebang: in Alice’s case, whether it’s the Red King, Alice herself, Lewis Carroll, or the reader, while in Amatka the choices are Vanja (who dreams often, and often cannot tell whether she is dreaming), or the Central Committee, or the colonists, or Tidbeck and the reader, or a strange fusion of all these. After all, the colonists’ ruling committees are elected by the colonists, while Tidbeck (like a good LARP player) allows themself to be ruled by both colonists and committees for as long as they are writing, as does the reader, for as long as they are turning the pages of Tidbeck’s book. So the novel can be read as a commentary on the acts of reading and writing (both of which ‘take a village’, according to the acknowledgments), which can in turn be used as analogies for the workings of power in any given society or culture. The clear allusions to Carroll’s Alice books underscore the centrality of reading and writing to the narrative, as do the many acts of reading and writing performed by Vanja herself, whether she is borrowing the works of Berols’ Anna from the colony’s library or reading and storing away the records of Amatka’s citizens in the archives.

The Alice books have often been described as nightmares rather than dreams, with Alice under constant threat of being beheaded, driven mad, or having her personality denied or eroded. But Lars’s story of the ‘hole in the world’ also gestures towards another great work of literature: Ursula le Guin’s utopian masterpiece Always Coming Home (1985). In this book – published just one year after the date of the most famous of dystopias, 1984 – Le Guin imagines a future version of California in which humans live in harmony with the land, in a manner that consciously recalls the lives of the native Californian peoples whose cultures were the lifetime preoccupation of the author’s anthropologist parents, Theodora and Alfred Kroeber. In one story in Always Coming Home, a member of this future utopian community, the Kesh, finds his way through a ‘hole in the air’ into the urban California of the 1980s, when the book was written.[14] He is horrified by the pollution, the absence of natural beauty, the noise and the bustle; but before he leaves, he spots one modern woman in the city crowd who is not like the place’s other inhabitants. Recognisably one of his own people – a woman of the Kesh long before the Kesh came into existence – she is conscious of her context as the others are not, stranded and isolated (it would seem) by having been born with an environmental outlook far in advance of her time. Many of Tidbeck’s short stories speak of similarly isolated individuals who find it hard to connect to their fellow humans; individuals who seem to have wandered through some hole in the world from some other place into our own. ‘Mom’ in ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ is one example; the titular ‘Rebecka’ is another; so are the two sisters in ‘Reindeer Mountain’ and the dead human stranger from whose waistcoat pocket Augusta Prima purloins the watch. ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ even contains an anticipatory echo of Vanja’s father: there are certain conditions, the narrator observes, that invoke for her the idea that there is something strange that exists very close to everyday reality, some location analogous to what Tidbeck calls the fairy country. ‘When I was little,’ the narrator observes,

I could sit for hours looking out the window. It could be because of a certain kind of music, or because it was dusk, or a certain slant of the light. There was a sensation in my chest, a churning. I couldn’t put words to it then. But it was a knowledge that there was something out there. That there was a hole in the world. And a longing to go there. (p. 24)

The passage is packed with experiences that get echoed in other Tidbeck stories: the weird ‘churning’ in the protagonist’s chest, which for Vanja in Amatka can represent the grinding of the gears of the machinery of desire, curiosity, or fear – all sensations closely related to one another in the effect they have on her body, and all of them invoked by her discovery of the mysterious machine in the tunnels beneath the colony. The word ‘knowledge’ is used in this passage as it is in Amatka, to signify the consciousness that there are things unknown, lacunae worth locating and confronting, not glossing over; things, in fact, that may never get taxonomized in the official historical or scientific records. There is ‘longing’, here, too, for things unknown, as there is in the novel; and this word is worth pausing over. At the end of the English edition of Jagannath Tidbeck lists a number of words they could not translate from Swedish, and one of these is ‘vemod’ (related, I guess, to the German Wehmut, and akin to the Japanese concept of natsukashii as Erika Hobart describes it here [https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200119-a-uniquely-japanese-take-on-nostalgia]). Of ‘vemod’ Tidbeck writes as follows: ‘think of it as a wistful sorrow about something that is over or a quiet longing for something else. As a friend of mine put it, “smiling through tears”’ (p. 155). I don’t know if vemod is the word used in the Swedish version of the passage from ‘Ove Lindström’ I just quoted, but the sensation Tidbeck describes here certainly ‘shines through’ her work in general, just as they claim it ‘shines through in much of our culture’. The woman in Le Guin’s story presumably feels it, that longing for ‘something else’ which has not yet come into being, but which is held in mind as wistfully and sorrowfully as something long past and irrecoverable.

Amatka also echoes another of Le Guin’s Utopias, her classic representation of anarchism The Dispossessed. The subtitle of that novel is ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’, and as we’ve seen, the title perfectly describes the colonies of Amatka.[15] Like Tidbeck’s novel, The Dispossessed is concerned with time that’s out of joint, and with a quest for knowledge, its protagonist being a physicist who wishes to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable principles of simultaneity and sequentiality – or to put it another way, of stasis and change. The anarchy of Anarres in The Dispossessed is both deeply attractive, in its commitment to absolute equality among its citizens, and riddled with corruption, like Amatka’s Central Committee. Words in The Dispossessed are always political: the colony speaks a tongue that was invented by its founders, intended to jettison possessive pronouns and hierarchical concepts, though certain words in it, such as the word for ‘egoizing’, can be used as tools of oppression by the more conservative colonists against those who seek knowledge they deem unnecessary, and therefore luxurious, wasteful, capitalistic.[16] In Amatka words are even more political, of course, shaping the world as they are spoken or inscribed. Its colonies are more communistic than anarchistic, reflecting Sweden’s long love-affair with socialism; several stories in Jagannath take place in ex-communes, such as ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, which is full of vemod for an ‘old schoolhouse’ rented out to a ‘bunch of hairy communists from the city’ (p. 17), or ‘Reindeer Mountain’, which revolves around a family home inhabited by six identical reclusive uncles, or ‘Brita’s Holiday Village’, about a tourist destination that never took off which becomes home to a bizarre egalitarian community – most unnervingly egalitarian, perhaps, in its attitude to incestuous inter-generational sex. As in Anarres, Amatka’s children are raised collectively, while love between parents and children is tolerated but discouraged as a distraction from the most responsible form of love, which is for the community. Love between adults, too, comes under pressure in Amatka, as it does in Anarres, where couples must accept postings to separate workplaces in response to the needs of the collective or risk being branded ‘egoists’. Vanja finds love with the woman who puts her up when she first comes to Amatka; but unlike Vanja, Nina is wholly committed to the idea that the colonies represent the best of all possible worlds, and this leads her to betray her lover for what she considers the best of motives. Ambiguity, for Tidbeck as for Le Guin, is where we live, and any political ideology struggles to accommodate this fact as it seeks to form a habitat for its principles. Poetry, music, drama and the visual arts offer spaces where ambiguity can be embraced, but these spaces are always being policed by ideologues with no tolerance of or interest in its ubiquitous presence in human experience. Ambiguity may be everywhere, but acknowledgement of it is rare and vulnerable, always on the verge of being snuffed out, though capable of reasserting itself through, for instance, double meanings, dreams or inexplicable events.

The most moving form of ambiguity in Tidbeck’s work is that of the committed radical who finds it difficult to accommodate their personal needs to their political convictions. The socialist loner; the anarchist who requires a consistent daily schedule for their mental wellbeing; the lover more committed to their chosen partner than to the collective they love – or vice versa; the innovator with a passion for the past; a number of Tidbeck’s protagonists fall into one or more of these categories, and in consequence fail to find a place for themselves in any human community. Or rather, they drift in and out of human communities, always gravitating towards the peripheries of group activities or discussions, afflicted by their ability to see things from a radically different perspective to the one on which the group agrees. In ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, ‘Mom’ spends a few years in a household of ‘starving activists’ but eventually wanders away, her reasons for staying and leaving equally opaque to friends and family. It is hinted that she may have ‘been through something difficult’ in the past – perhaps suffering at the hands of an abusive husband (Jagannath, p. 23) – but this doesn’t explain her disappearance from the place where she was welcomed and cherished. Similar rumours abound about great-grandmother Märet in ‘Reindeer Mountain’. On the one hand she may be one of the vittra, beings who look like humans ‘but taller and more handsome’, and who live inside mountains like the Irish Sidhe (Jagannath, p. 81); on the other she may have ‘had a hard life’ in some isolated human community, given her decision to ‘run away and never speak to her family again’ (p. 82). The protagonist of The Memory Theatre, a young girl called Dora, suffers from the after-effects of the abusive environment of the fairy gardens, where children are enslaved, abused and used as targets in violent games; yet she is not the same as the other children, both because of her parentage – part fairy, part vittra, which means she is taller and stronger than most – and because of her inclinations: she needs solitude as much as or more than company, and becomes distressed by excessive noise or action. Again, her needs may be ascribed either to her psychological make-up – it would be easy to place her somewhere on the autistic spectrum – or her supernatural origins, her literal roots in the stones and solitude of the Nordic mountains by way of her vittra ancestry. Tracing her needs to the supernatural liberates them from the discourse of (dis)ability, instead inviting attention to their specific attributes and their association with the nonhuman environment, the neglected wild spaces. At the end of her story, Dora chooses to return to those wild spaces despite her deep attachment to her adopted brother, Albin – a fellow victim of the gardens – and the eccentric company of supernatural players he elects to join, and of which she has briefly been a part. The dramatic cooperative known as the Memory Theatre is a true utopia for Albin, but for Dora its bustling, convivial atmosphere is in the end unbearable for more than a few months at a time. Becoming a stone among stones, a vittra among the calm and isolated vittras, is much more conducive to her true identity, the identity she was forced to jettison when she lived among the violent lords and ladies of fairy land.

Like Dora and perhaps Mom and Märet, Brilars’ Vanja is the victim of trauma: the trauma of her father’s arrest and murder for so-called crimes in which he implicated her as a child, and the trauma of having been forced to try to conceive children of her own which she did not want. Both forms of trauma set her apart from the community norm. Well-adjusted female colonists are expected to bear children – and to want to bear children – for the sake of the colony’s survival, while the crime for which her father was punished was that of privileging a quest for knowledge above the need to erase any knowledge that might harm the community – a crime Vanja too commits through her quest for Amatka’s past. Thanks to this double trauma she finds herself both inside and outside two social groups: that of the old colonies she was born into, and that of the revolutionary new colony established by Berols’ Anna on the mysterious steppes beyond the limits of the colonies. Vanja begins by behaving like a committed colonist, but becomes increasingly conscious of the damage sustained by individual colonists – such as her flatmate Ivar – thanks to the community’s unyielding stress on the needs of the collective over those of the individual. Like Le Guin’s maverick physicist Shevek in The Dispossessed, Vanja is a loner, unable to commit herself fully even to the tiny community of an apartment, or of a pair of lovers such as herself and Nina. She is always gravitating towards the outside of any given space in which she finds herself, aching for alternatives she doesn’t herself fully understand.

At the same time, Vanja is not wholly at one with the revolution she seeks to bring about.  Once Vanja has become conscious of the revolutionary movement in Amatka, she works tirelessly to bring it about; but the language of the revolutionaries, as spoken by Berols’ Anna when she finally meets her, confuses her. As Anna herself puts it, ‘The word… the language. Is too small’ (p. 195), unable to encompass the experience of absolute freedom, of being ‘everything’ in the new world beyond the colonies. Anna’s appearance as a revolutionary leader, too, makes her seem alien to Vanja – dazzling, more-than-human – while even her lover Nina, once she has joined the revolution, seems physically too much for her, as if ‘her body had become too small to contain her’ (p. 214). Instead of melding with one another, as some of the colonists do (a father, for instance, melds with the daughter he slapped, as if in homage to Vanja’s complex relationship with her own father), the lovers scorch each others’ lips when they kiss for the last time in the novel: ‘They burned. Blisters formed where their tongues met’ (p. 214). Even before this, the women’s relationship has often been painful, fraught with misunderstandings, punctuated by hurtful exchanges; the kiss may be taken as a metaphor for the nature of their love up until this moment. And at the point when the kiss takes place, Vanja’s tongue has already been disenfranchised from the post-revolutionary world. In punishment for her revolutionary activities, Amatka’s surgeons destroyed her speech centre, which means she will never make herself perfectly understood again, either to her lover or to the organic, sentient gloop out of which the new world will be sculpted. The blisters on her tongue, then, also represent her painful relationship with speech itself, with participatory communication, with membership of the community she has revolutionised. She has been stranded in the past, infantilized, condemned always to be the uncomprehending child who listens to her father’s urgent whispers in the dark. Even the expression of the revolutionaries’ love for her confirms this infantilization: ‘you will remain […] as you are, separate. But we will carry you. […] We will always carry you, little herald’ (p. 216). Few novels have an emotional high point as intense or multivalenced as this.

For me this is the great achievement of Tidbeck’s ambiguous Utopia: that it finds a way to comprehend, to celebrate and to mourn those revolutionaries who are constitutionally ill-fitted for participation in revolution. I suspect there are many such revolutionaries in the world: the fellow travellers who never joined the body of the revolutionary caravan, the non-party members who worked to further the party’s cause, while always uneasy about certain aspects of the doctrine it upheld; the communists who disliked communal living, the anarchists who yearned for order, the many, many partisans who only ever wanted peace and quiet. The actors in experimental theatre companies or LARP workshops whose passion for acting competes with their preference for self-effacement. Ambiguity can characterize one’s attitude to what one passionately believes in. Perhaps it always should. And there is no genre in which that idea could be better articulated than the weird hybrid of science fiction, fantasy, nonsense, fairy tale, surrealism and Live Action Role Play that comprises Amatka.

NOTES

[1] The interview can be found here.

[2] Tidbeck describes the process of writing Amatka in an interview for The Beat Blog, here. The process of writing The Memory Theatre is detailed in the BOMB magazine interview (see footnote 1).

[3] All quotations from Amatka are taken from the Vintage Books edition of 2017.

[4] ‘As for language, I have always been enamored with different languages and the musical sound of words. Language is what makes the world, it changes how we see the world; in the novel, language and sound are pure magic. I’ve studied six languages all in all, so the love for languages will always be threaded through my writing.’ https://bombmagazine.org/articles/karin-tidbeck-interviewed/

[5] Jagannath (New York: Vintage, 2018), ‘Afterword: Transposing Worlds’, p. 152. All quotes from Jagannath refer to this edition.

[6] Other clothes that don’t fit include the outsized medical overalls Vanja borrows from the hospital supplies (as her friend Nina comments, ‘The important thing is they’re not tight across your bottom. That could make lifting patients embarrassing’ [p. 48]). The dissident librarian Evgen meets Vanja at one point ‘buttoned into an enormous overcoat with a thick collar’ (p. 106), as if to hide his radical tendencies from hostile eyes, while surgically damaged political prisoners wear ‘torn and dirty overalls’, as if to reinforce their outcast status (p. 115). Ivar expresses his sense of having been betrayed by his community by removing his outer clothes and setting himself adrift in a freezing lake. Proximity to your friends, meanwhile, gets expressed in Amatka through intimacy with their clothing. After Ivar’s suicide his best friend Nina wears one of his sweaters and sleeps in his bed, face buried in his pillow (p. 162), thereby prolonging his presence in her life beyond his death; and before this Vanja finds solace when she is separated from her lover by ‘resting her nose on the sleeve of her sleep shirt’ and breathing in ‘the scent it had absorbed from Nina’ (p. 103). Clothes conceal and protect, in other words, but they also reinforce deep connections between their wearers.

[7] Jagannath, Afterword, p. 154.

[8] The mention of Lagerlöf’s novel can be found in The Memory Theater (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021) at p. 135.

[9] ‘The Swedish [version of Amatka] has no metaphors, or synonyms, or homonyms, because it’s not part of the Swedish language. Since they were “forbidden” in the book, I had to write them out of the [English] prose as well.’ (I may have misunderstood this statement of Tidbeck’s!) https://www.comicsbeat.com/sdcc-17-interview-author-karin-tidbeck-uncovers-the-dreamlike-storyline-of-amatka/.

[10] See the ‘Edict: Name Usage’, Amatka, p. 199.

[11] Jagannath, pp. 113-124.

[12] Jagannath, pp. 125-133.

[13] The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll (London: Chancellor Press, 1986), p. 69.

[14] Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home (London etc.: Grafton Books, 1988), p. 154.

[15] Ursula K. Le Guin, Hainish Novels and Stories, ed. Brian Attebery, The Library of America, 2 vols. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2017), vol. 1, p. 613.

[16] See Le Guin, Hainish Novels, vol 1, pp. 640-641.