Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded down)
I was hoping for something original, for something unapologetically bizarre, something à la Yorgos Lanthimos…sadly Amatka delivers its predictable peculiarities in such a flat and listless way that I find little to praise about this novel.
Amatka features a Soviet-inspired world that is far from the ideal utopia. Children are raised away from their parents (emotional bonds are considered to be stunting) and each individual has a ‘function’ in the community (in Amatka most people work in a mushroom factory). A society free of spontaneity and individuality, where citizens are constantly under scrutiny and monitor one another (ringing any bells?), where they become alienated from their work *ahem*Marx*ahem*, where there are strict rules and a Kafkaesque vision of bureaucracy..and where, surprisingly enough, things are not quite as functional as they seem.
Vanya is sent to Amatka in order to collect information on the hygiene habits of its citizens. She is a housed with three other people, which to her seems weird given the amount of space in their building. Apparently a large number of citizens has disappeared from Amatka and many have fallen ill due the harsh work conditions, their depressing environment (the quality of light is poor, the weather is cold), and poor diets (mushrooms in every single dish).
An aspect which I initially found interesting was that in the new objects can maintain their form only through the repeated utterance of the object’s name (most of the objects have labels…I guess in case people forget what a certain thing is called). However, I found the ‘gloop’ aspect…underwhelming. It matched my general feelings for this novel: ‘gloopy’.
The story’s characters have been bred and raised in a rigid and stark world and readily believe that they merely function as cogs in a machine, that they have to work together (meaning: do not ask questions) to make things run smoothly. Suspicious behaviour of any sort will be reported…so, yes, they are all somewhat apathetic given the circumstances they are in.
However, you would think that once Vanya begins to question the system that has raised her her character would reveal some more depth, some sort of conflict, some emotion, some…anything! But no. She just does things automatically, we never hear her inner thoughts and we are just meant to buy that she is ready to go against the grain. Sure.
Even in her subversion, in her great ‘rebellion’, she manages to be pathetic. She has no backbone, no wit or will, she is pretty ‘gloopy’ (which might not make sense but I think the word suits her barely-there-personality). The blurb makes it sound like she falls in love but I didn’t see any such thing. She notices the heat radiating from Nina’s back and that’s…love? Apparently, yes.
The other characters were as interesting as Vanya (meaning, not one bit). The were merely a backdrop to Vanya’s ‘investigation’ (a term that does not really describe what Vanya gets up to).
Some parts of the city were well-rendered (they are described in vivid details) but for the most part Amatka never comes together. Especially once Vanya starts ‘exploring’ it.
The story isn’t concerned with the events that led to this grey reality which allowed for more time on Vanya’s own circumstances…which were incredibly boring. The story occasionally broaches some interesting topics but its execution is far too formulaic (one can easily predict within the first few chapters what will happen next). It presented us with a bleak view of humanity where an excessive need for ‘order’ and ‘control’ should bring about the absurd, the fantastical, but sadly, all of this was buried beneath layers of blandness.
I think some dark/black/any humour would have given this novel a better edge (I love Richard Ayoade’s film adaption of The Double, the one with Jesse Eisenberg, which share a few similarities with Amatka). Perhaps this story would have worked better on film…but on paper it fails to do anything new, and what it does is less than competent.
The prose just describes Vanya’s actions and if she is sweating or not. Tidbeck’s style is simple, which I guess you could say that it is done purposefully—as to match Vanya’s world—but it didn’t keep engaged. A shopping list would have more vitality, an IKEA manual would show more flair.