Mix Förlag, 2012.
Reviewed by Agnes Broome in SBR 2014:2
Review Section: Lost Treasure
Amatka starts with a journey through a featureless, desolate landscape aboard a train with no one on it except Brilars Vanja Essre Two. She is an administrator from the main colony Essre, on her way to the far-flung satellite colony Amatka, where she is to survey the use of, and need for, hygiene supplies. But where are we? The frayed state of the once-grand train seems conspicuously ‘Ozymandian’ and Vanja’s threadbare belongings and meagre rations suggest that this is a country that has for some reason fallen on exceedingly hard times. The grey monotony of the steppe outside gives little away.
The plot thickens once Vanja has arrived. We learn that Amatka is one of five colonies, all built from the same collectivist blueprint in which residential housing, factories, shops and communal buildings form concentric rings around the central plaza, at the heart of which sits the all-seeing, all-knowing Commune Office. But even though Amatka is so similar to Essre, something immediately strikes Vanja as not right. There is too much space, too few citizens; she is even given her own room to stay in. The people are not unfriendly but there seems to be something no one dares speak of. And the few who do speak, or rather, whisper, are soon taken away, never to return. Vanja is not a rebel by nature, but as events unfold in Amatka, she starts looking for the truth, hesitantly at first, then ever more doggedly. She learns that the secrets buried in Amatka, literally and figuratively, are the foundation upon which the five colonies were built, the cause of the oppression of its citizens and potentially the undoing of their entire civilisation.
The collectivist dystopia described in Amatka recalls many a classic literary vision, in which individuals have surrendered all their freedom in the name of security and survival within the collective. The milieu is inspired by the kolkhozes of the Soviet Union, which gives the novel an unusual flavour. Behind the traditional dystopia and the East European references, however, there also lurks something potentially more subversive, a polemic take on Sweden. Amatka is Sweden taken to the extreme, Sweden to the nth degree, a place where the state has usurped the functions of human relationships (parents do not even raise their own children), where the authorities have unlimited powers and conformity is highest law. The lobotomies Amatka’s rulers use to neutralise dissenters are a disturbing echo of Sweden’s programme of forced sterilisation of undesirables, which was only discontinued in 1975.
Apart from a provocative contribution to the discussion about Swedishness, Amatka offers us beautiful and arresting prose. Language is the foundation of everything in Amatka, it is literally what maintains the shape of its reality: if the citizens of Amatka forget to continuously tell their belongings what they are supposed to be, or use the words that describe them metaphorically, they simply dissolve into puddles of goo. The signifier defines the signified in the most direct sense. The language of Amatka is therefore, by necessity, plain to the point of being inhuman, stripped of metaphors and morphological ornament of any kind. The central role language plays in the narrative is beautifully paralleled in Tidbeck’s own language, as she cleverly allows form to mirror content. Heretofore a writer of short stories, Tidbeck uses her spare prose to economically sketch a bleak, washedout world, virtually humming with suppressed secrets and on the brink of collapse. Tidbeck’s unique voice and the compelling strangeness of the world she creates will surely make every reader determined to follow Brilars Vanja Essre Two wherever the truth may lead.