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I'm perhaps not the best cicerone for Latvian literature. I can't read the language, and all I've read has tended to be in anthologies of short prose and poetry, translated into French, German or Swedish. But I know a few names.
I shall expand on some of them in due course, but suffice it to say that contemporary Latvian authors (and modern classics) exist. I can't do the all the accents on my computer, but here are some of the names of serious Latvian literary authors:
Vizma Bel?evica, Imants Ziedonis, Regina Ezera, Nora Ikstena, Uldis Berzins, Juris Kronbergs, Arvis Kolmanis, Gundega Rep?e, Amanda Aizpuriete, Mara Zalite, Knuts Skujenieks, Klavs Elsbergs, Andra Neiburga, Maris Caklais, Janis Einfelds, Leons Briedis, Alberts Bels, Aleksandrs Caks, Zenta Maurina.
Googling can reveal more. The last of these was a Dostoevsky expert and wrote in German. This has tended to mask her own writings.
The Estonians and Lithuanians have, since the post-Soviet era starting in 1991, been much better at promoting their respective national literatures than the Latvians. But this does not mean that the books written in Latvian are any less interesting, just that the national will is lacking to promote them with vigour.
Here are some helpful web sources on Latvian literature:
History of Latvian Literature
Latvian Literature and Authors
Latvian Literature Centre
Latvian Academic Library
Latvian Literature in Exile
(Money quote: "Latvian bibliophily, or perhaps bibliomania, evidenced by the fact that we have the highest per capita rate of books published, must have some relation to our cyclopean literary productivity.")
Literature (Ministry of Culture of Latvia)
(Money quote: "Yet a typical Latvian is like a radish ― red on the outside and white inside.")
Thanks Patrick; Leons Briedis and others have done a good job - in making lists.
I just wonder if anyone that knows something about contemporary Latvian literature has supplemented the URLs you list with a complete list of which specific contemporary Latvian novels and poetry collections have appeared in Britain and the States over, roughgly the past 15-20 years.
I think that Lituanus may be more knowledgeable about Lithuanian literature, given its name. The two countries don't necessarily know much about one another's literature, although the exile communities in the USA and Canada are perhaps closer than writers within the countries themselves.
My problem with Latvian literature is as follows: they are good at listing who, in their opinion, are the "greats" of Latvian literature, but don't give those of us who can't read Latvian much of a clue as to what to read in, say, English translation. The magazine "Latvian Literature" doesn't appear to have been published for a year or two.
I read my first Latvian poetry and short prose, by Vizma Bel?evica and Imants Ziedonis, thanks to Juris Kronbergs' Swedish translations back in the late 1970s. But I can't name one Latvian novel that has appeared in English since then. And I mean one written by someone living in Latvia itself, not an exile Latvian who has lived in the USA, Sweden or Australia for half a century.
I'm hoping that some of the genuinely serious Latvian novelists such as Ezera, Ikstena and Rep?e have been translated into English, a language we can all read. But up to now I have no proof of this.
We have enough scholars and librarians that make lists and more lists of "minor" literatures. Now what we need is six of seven novels, published in translation by mainstream publishers, in order to show the English-speaking world that there is more to Latvian literature than lists of lists of untranslated books.
Even the Latvian Literature Centre, although willing and serious, has not yet successfully solved that problem.
I'm again investigating Latvian literature, just down the road from Estonia, about whose literature I know a good deal more. But there are several interesting Latvian authors, most of whom are listed in the various issues of the periodical "Latvian Literature", which you can find on the following website in the left-hand column:
There, you can find various excerpts, too.
One important author, in my opinion, is Regīna Ezera (1930-2002). I shall start a separate thread for her. As usual, you can find her works in German and one or two other languages, but English is conspicuous by its absence. So, at present, I'm reading a series of her short-stories involving animals in German translation: "Der Mann mit der Hundenase". Most of these stories were written in 1974:
Source: Author (http://www.literature.lv/en/dbase/autors.php?id=127)
A second woman author from Latvia that I've been investigating is Laima Muktupāvela (born 1962). This author has written a novel about being a migrant worker and mushroom picker in Ireland. I've just obtained the German version, as once again, an English version of "Mushroom Covenant", beyond a couple of excerpts on the internet, does not appear to exist:
As I also read Swedish, I have access to the works of various poets translated into that language: Knuts Skujenieks, Uldis Berzins, Vizma Belsevica and Imants Ziedonis. This is mainly thanks to the Swedish Latvian, Juris Kronbergs, himself the son of Latvian exiles, who has built up a reputation over the past 30 years as the most important literary translator from Latvian into Swedish. He is also a poet in his own right.
I have picked up a book in one of the sale here. Written by Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov ; Headcrusher ( haven't read this book yet).
The author details given in the book says, they both work as journalists in Riga, Latvia. Not sure if they are of Latvian or Russian origin.
I found this out recently from the Latvian Literature Centre publication, Latvian Literature (partly reproduced from another thread):
I read, last night, a biographical note about of a Latvian author who really did suffer under Stalin. On the Latvian Literature Centre website, the story I read was not that spectacular, but his biography alone speaks volumes:
Jākobsons was born in 1922, went to the French Lyceum in Riga from which he matriculated in 1941. Alas, during that same year, the one in which the Soviet Union had annexed all three Baltic countries, he and his family were sent to Siberia. In 1947 he was given, on top of this, the standard GULag prison sentence in those late-Stalinist years - 25+5 - which meant 25 years of labour camp, plus a further five years of exile outside of your homeland. The intention was, of course, to work such people to death. So the last five years would be rendered unnecessary.
Luckily for him, he was freed and rehabilitated in 1955 and was allowed to return to Latvia the following year. It doesn't say why he got this sentence, but it will have been for one of the most heinous crimes you could commit in the Stalinist Soviet Union - being a "cosmopolitan". This was coded language for "educated Jew". Anyone of Jewish background that knew a Western language was already damned dodgy in the eyes of the KGB and Russian overlords. He must have been a spy, as the paranoids of the day would have concluded.
Anyway, Jākobsons then worked in a puppet theatre and in film and starting writing stories about Siberia and his sojourn there when he was 64 years old.
I still can't get over the fact that you can read in the newspapers these last few days (i.e. late December 2008) that Mr Cattle Trucks, i.e. Joseph Stalin, is the third most popular Russian ever. The same pathological figure that caused this Latvian author, and millions like him from throughout the Soviet Union, including occupied countres, to be shipped off to do slave labour in Siberia. It is time that the Russians woke up from their illusions of having great leaders. As I have said elsewhere, imagine if the Germans had Adolf Hitler as their third most popular German ever! Why is Stalin cuddly and hero?c, whilst Hitler is the Devil Incarnate? Why are people so blinkered?
Kpjayan, this is what I found on the internet, a review by a Latvian:
Violent cyberthriller takes social protest to extremes
Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov
London: Chatto & Windus, 2005
September 22, 2007
Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov, two Russian journalists working in Latvia, wrote a ?cyberthriller? that in 2003 won the Russian Literary National Bestseller Prize. Headcrusher, now translated into English, provides an unsettling and at times absurd entrance into Rīga?s underbelly and leaves me wondering what I dislike most: the human garbage depicted in the book, the book itself and its authors, or myself for at times sympathizing with the book?s anti-hero, Vadim Apletaev.
The premise of the book is simple. Twenty-six-year-old Apletaev works in the public relations department of REX International Commercial Bank, billed as the largest financial institution in Latvia. A former columnist for the Russian-language SM newspaper, Apletaev has gone over to the dark side?as journalists sometimes say of PR practitioners?and it?s about to get darker fast. Apletaev appears to suffer from the particular Eastern European ennui, which he nurses with emotionless sex and by playing a first-person-shooter computer game called Headcrusher.
And then one evening in the office, after his boss Andrei Vladlenovich Voronin (a.k.a. Four-Eyes) has discovered a violent anti-bourgeois diatribe on Apletaev?s computer, Apletaev smacks him on the head with a dinosaur statue.
That first murder leads to a series of other killings, as Apletaev sinks further and further into a private hell where the real world and its human filth comes to resemble the fantasy world of Headcrusher.
Other reviews have compared Headcrusher to a Quentin Tarantino film. It certainly has its similarities, what with the linguistic and physical violence. That may be enough to turn off some readers who have little stomach for such fare. And I cannot promise those who choose to engage the novel will come away any better.
Headcrusher has also been described as a work of social protest. In the context of a post-Soviet Latvia where dirty money, dirty politics and dirty crime were (and in some cases continue to be) an accepted condition, Vadim Apletaev takes things into his own hands, not unlike Danila Bagrov, the lead character in Russian director Aleksei Balabanov?s vigilante film Brat. Both are fed up with the way things are in the place they call home. However, Apletaev is so much more twisted.
Apletaev?s solution to what he sees around him is to kill. His killing at times may seem justified, but if you find yourself sympathizing with him, be sure to do a reality check and ask if killing another human being is ever justified. More unsettling is the abandon with which he kills, as if he were playing a computer game the perpetual goal of which is to make it to the next level, rather than encountering a real world in which there is no ?restart? button.
When Headcrusher first appeared, it was hailed by some critics as the next big thing in Russian literature. That may say more about the state of contemporary Russian literature than about this book. It is strong stuff, but I?m still not convinced its over-the-top nature makes it worthy of the accolades. Is make-believe violence appropriate social protest, even if it is cathartic?
If you make it through Headcrusher, be prepared to ask yourself the same questions.
Source: Latvians Online | Reviews (http://latviansonline.com/reviews/article/3294/)
An American (?) review (aka Random House propaganda):
A Russian cyberthriller that has been a huge hit in Russia and now looks set to be an international cult novel.
26-year-old Vadim hates his job in the PR department of Latvia?s biggest bank. He spends his time playing his favourite shoot-em-up computer game, "Headcrusher," and composing insulting emails about his bosses. When his manager catches him writing one such email, Vadim is so overcome with rage that he kills him. Then he kills the bank?s security guard too, because he has seen him disposing of the body. Bumping people off comes to seem as easy as playing a computer game (or moving money between bank accounts) and Vadim embarks on a killing spree, putting paid to anyone who annoys him. But, as he becomes embroiled in the murky activities of the corrupt bank, which is laundering money for Mafia criminals, he starts to lose touch with reality. Where does truth end and fantasy begin ? and is life just one big computer game?
This high-octane debut novel has the energy of a Tarantino film, the game-playing of The Matrix and the philosophical quirkiness of Fight Club. Nothing quite like it has come out of Russia before. It has been a major bestseller there and has been picked up by publishers around the world.
Source: BookLounge.ca | Books | Headcrusher by Alexander Garros Aleksei Evdokimov (http://www.booklounge.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780701177577)
Just another bloody Russian thriller written by two journos, dressed up as super-exotic because it's written by Russians living in the former Russian colony, Latvia.
Thanks Eric.. It's Russian writers on Latvia..
Moving these books to the bottom of the stack...
We have to be clear here about the ethnic mix of Latvia. There is a website that covers this source. Notice the relative proportions of Latvians, Russians, Jews and others, and why these changed. It's a complicated history, but it should not be over-simplified:
Source: Latvia - Population (http://countrystudies.us/latvia/9.htm)
Latvia's population has been multiethnic for centuries. In 1897 the first official census in this area indicated that Latvians formed 68.3 percent of the total population of 1.93 million; Russians accounted for 12.0 percent, Jews for 7.4 percent, Germans for 6.2 percent, and Poles for 3.4 percent. The remainder were Lithuanians, Estonians, Gypsies, and various other nationalities.
World War I and the emergence of an independent Latvia led to shifts in ethnic composition. By 1935, when the total population was about 1.9 million, the proportion of Latvians had increased to 77.0 percent of the population, and the percentages for all other groups had decreased. In spite of heavy war casualties and the exodus of many Latvians to Russia, in absolute terms the number of Latvians had grown by 155,000 from 1897 to 1935, marking the highest historical level of Latvian presence in the republic. Other groups, however, declined, mostly as a result of emigration. The largest change occurred among Germans (from 121,000 to 62,100) and Jews (from 142,000 to 93,400). During World War II, most Germans in Latvia were forced by Adolf Hitler's government to leave for Germany as a result of the expected occupation of Latvia by Stalin's troops. The Jews suffered the greatest tragedy, however, when between 70,000 and 80,000 of them were executed by the Nazi occupation forces between 1941 and 1944. Latvians also suffered population losses during this period as a result of deportations, executions, and the flight of refugees to the West. By 1959 there were 169,100 fewer Latvians in absolute terms than in 1935, in spite of the accumulated natural increase of twenty-four years and the return of many Latvians from other parts of the Soviet Union after 1945.
The balance of ethnic groups in 1959 reflected the vagaries of war and the interests of the occupying power. The Latvian share of the population had decreased to 62.0 percent, but that of the Russians had jumped from 8.8 percent to 26.6 percent. The other Slavic groups--Belorussians, Ukrainians, and Poles--together accounted for 7.2 percent, and the Jews formed 1.7 percent. Indeed, one of the greatest concerns Latvians had during the almost half-century under Soviet rule was the immigration of hundreds of non-Latvians, which drastically changed the ethnic complexion of the republic. Even more, with each successive census Latvians saw their share of the population diminish, from 56.8 percent in 1970 to 54.0 percent in 1979 and to 52.0 percent in 1989. With each year, a net average of 11,000 to 15,000 non-Latvian settlers came to the republic, and such migration accounted for close to 60 percent of the annual population growth. The newcomers were generally younger, and hence their higher rates of natural increase helped to diminish the Latvian proportion even more.
The threat of becoming a minority in their own land was one of the most important elements animating the forces of political rebirth. There was a widespread feeling that once Latvians lost their majority status, they would be on the road to extinction. During the period of the national awakening in the late 1980s, this sentiment produced a pervasive mood of intense anxiety, perhaps best expressed by the popular slogan "Now or Never." It also came across very bluntly in "The Latvian Nation and the Genocide of Immigration," the title of a paper prepared by an official of the Popular Front of Latvia in 1990. By then, largely as a result of the great influx of new settlers encouraged by Soviet authorities, Latvians were a minority in six of the largest cities in Latvia. Even in the capital city of Riga, Latvians had shrunk to only about a third of the population. Thus, they were forced to adapt to a Russian-speaking majority, with all of its attendant cultural and social patterns. There was not a single city district in Riga where Latvians could hope to transact business using only Latvian. This predominantly Russian atmosphere has proved difficult to change, in spite of the formal declaration of Latvian independence and the passing of several Latvianization laws.
Even in the countryside of certain regions, Latvians are under cultural and linguistic stress from their unilingual neighbors. The most multinational area outside of cities can be found in the province of Latgale in the southeastern part of Latvia. There the Daugavpils district (excluding the city) in 1989 was 35.9 percent Latvian, Kraslava district 43.1 percent, Rezekne district (excluding the city) 53.3 percent, and Ludza district 53.4 percent. For several decades, Latvians in these districts were forced to attend Russian-language schools because of the dearth or absence of Latvian schools. Not surprisingly, during the Soviet period there was a process of assimilation to the Russian-language group. With the advent of independence, Latgale has become a focal point for official and unofficial programs of Latvianization, which include the opening of new Latvian schools, the printing of new Latvian local newspapers, and the opening of a Latvian television station for Latgalians. A major thrust in Latvianization is also provided by the resurgent Roman Catholic Church and its clergy.
Most Latvians themselves are not aware that by 1989 they had become a minority of the population in the usually most active age-group of twenty to forty-four. In the age category of thirty-five to thirty-nine, Latvians were down to 43.0 percent of the total. The period spanning the years from the late teens to middle age usually provides the most important pool of people for innovation and entrepreneurship. The relatively low Latvian demographic presence in this group could partly account for the much smaller visibility of Latvians in the privatization and business entrepreneurship process within the republic.
This may throw light on why labelling something as Russian or Latvian is so sensitive, and can have major implications.
A further problem is that if people write in Russian, they have the huge machinery of publicity and bookshops in Russia, as well as the Baltic countries, behind them. So, someone such as Veller or Dovlatov benefit doubly from being Russian and Baltic (Estonian, in this case) writers. They get translated into Estonian.
However, the Balts only have their small countries. There are no famous Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian authors living in Russia that continue to write in their mother-tongues. Add all three Baltic nations together and you get about 10 million people. Russia, population wise, is at least ten times as big.
The sad thing is that people that read thrillers usually want an exciting apolitical read, with a bit of dismemberment, sexual perversion and acid baths, but would rather not touch upon the vulgar realities of ethnicity and occupation.
After the Russian interlude, let's start 2009 with some real Latvian literature. I'm continuing to examine the work (one work, actually) of Laima Muktupāvela. Here's what someone in Northern Ireland has to say about her "Mushroom Covenant" novel, about migrant workers:
Slugger O'Toole (http://sluggerotoole.com/index.php/weblog/comments/baltic_blacks_among_celts/)
And in the Republic:
Blogh an seanchai: Exploited Workers: The Mushroom Covenant (http://bloganseanchai.blogspot.com/2006/02/exploited-workers-mushroom-covenant.html)
And the background:
?Beyond Bolkestein ? new threats to labour standards in a liberalized Europe? (http://126.96.36.199/search?q=cache:gUvlmCu77fAJ:www.ier.org.uk/system/files/Woolfson%2Bpaper.doc+Laima.Muktupavela+Irish+Times&hl=et&ct=clnk&cd=11&gl=nl)
This book definitely deserves an English translation with a major publisher, to counter such books about tractors written about Peterborough in Sheffield, which turn everything into slapstick, and don't take the plight of migrant workers seriously.
And the following Transcript excerpt says a great deal about the way people treat one another in stress situations. Also ethnic differences, fur coats, hungry husbands, an inability to speak English, and a host of other things, all have significance:
Transcript (English) (http://www.transcript-review.org/section.cfm?id=330&lan=en)
Those people who think of the Balts as a bunch of folklore-ridden peasants, only coming to Western Europe because they're too dumb or lazy to work elsewhere, have got another think coming. This is the reality facing perhaps millions of East Europeans. A little compassion for the New Year would not be out of place.
As English is Number One World Language, with no contenders, you would expect more to be translated into English.
However, even if that doesn't happen, world literature is not paralysed because cross-fertilisation occurs.
So when the Bulgarians decide to produce an anthology of Latvian poetry, the Brits & Yanks should ask themselves: is our lack of translations from smaller languages disproportionate.
That term is used frequently in other contexts. But it seems funny to me that British authors expect to be translated, but people will think "Latvian into Bulgarian" as peripheral:
Bulgaria Publishes Anthology of Contemporary Latvian Poetry
With the support of the Latvian Literature Center and the State Culture Capital Foundation, the Bulgarian publishing house Foundation for Bulgarian Literature has released an anthology of contemporary Latvian poetry.
The new anthology features Bulgarian translations of poems by the following authors: Rainis, Fricis Bārda, Aleksandrs Čaks, Arvīds Grigulis, Mirdza Ķempe, Eriks Ādamsons, Austra Skujiņa, Veronika Strēlerte, Anatols Imermanis, Monta Kroma, Velta Sniķere, Linards Tauns, Gunars Saliņ?, Astrīde Ivaska, Daina Avotiņa, Vizma Bel?evica, Velta Kaltiņa, Egīls Plaudis, Lija Brīdaka, Pēteris Jurciņ?, Ojārs Vācietis, Imants Ziedonis, Knuts Skujenieks, Uldis Leinerts, Imants Auziņ?, Vitauts Ļūdēns, Jānis Sirmbārdis, Nora Kalna, Jānis Peters, Māris Čaklais, Margita Gūtmane, Uldis Bērziņ?, Pēteris Zirnītis, Velga Krile, Jānis Rokpelnis, Juris Kronbergs, Juris Kunnoss, Leons Briedis, Dagnija Dreika, Māra Zālīte, Amanda Aizpuriete, Pēters Brūveris, Māris Melgalvs, Guntars Godiņ?, Inese Zandere, Klāvs Elsbergs, Anna Rancāne, Maira Asare, Liāna Langa, Edvīns Raups, Jānis Elsbergs, Māris Salējs, Jo, Kārlis Vērdiņ? and Marts Pujāts.
The poems were compiled and translated into Bulgarian by Aksinia Mihailova. The book also includes a survey of contemporary Latvian poetry, written by Viesturs Vecgrāvis, an associate professor in the philology department at the University of Latvia, and Andrejs Grāpis, a specialist at the Latvian Museum of Literature, Theater, and Music.
In 2008, the Foundation for Bulgarian Literature published a selection of works by Latvian poet Dagnija Dreika, entitled Заклинания (?Wordings?). Bulgarian translations of Zigmunds Skujiņ??s novel Gulta ar zelta kāju (?The Bed with the Golden Leg?), Nora Ikstena?s novel Dzīves svinē?ana (?A Celebration of Life?), and a selection of poetry by Aleksandrs Čaks are all forthcoming.
I read the following in the press, from a month ago:
Latvian literature on exhibit at Frankfurt fair
October 15, 2009
Latvian literature is getting exposure during the annual Frankfurt Book Fair(Frankfurt Buchmesse) in Germany, according to the Latvian Literature Centre (Latvijas Literatūras centrs).
The Latvian stand is highlighting the latest in translations of Latvian books into German and other languages, as well as telling the story of the Latvian book industry. Besides the literature center, Latvia is being represented by the Latvian Publishers Association, the Latvian Bibliophile Guild, the state Latvian Language Agency and the publishing house Jumava.
Also available at the Latvian stand is information about winners of several book competitions and about opportunities for learning Latvian abroad.
The fair, which this year marks its 60th anniversary, runs Oct. 14-18.
Andris Straumanis is editor of Latvians Online.
"German and other languages." I wonder whether any of these other languages include English?
"German and other languages." I wonder whether any of these other languages include English?
Stiffelio, you can fight to get more things translated into Spanish; I'll do English. English, apart from being the language of North America and Britain, is also a potential route through which books can be translated. Obviously, it is unlikely that there will be a literary translator into Greek, Catalan, Dutch, Czech, or umpteen other languages who can do it directly from the Latvian. But via English? That should be a possibility.
Stiffelio, you can fight to get more things translated into Spanish; I'll do English. English, apart from being the language of North America and Britain, is also a potential route through which books can be translated. Obviously, it is unlikely that there will be a literary translator into Greek, Catalan, Dutch, Czech, or umpteen other languages who can do it directly from the Latvian. But via English? That should be a possibility.
FOUND IN TRANSLATION
In this issue's 'Found in Translation', we offer a round-up of Latvian literature available in translation.
The Toronto-based print journal Descant devoted a special issue to Latvian literature in Spring 2004 (Vol. 35 / No. 1) entitled 'In Latvia, Observed / Abroad / In Memory'. Descant, established in 1970, is a quarterly print journal publishing new and established contemporary writers and visual artists from Canada and around the world.
The Review of Contemporary Fiction, affiliated with the Centre for Book Culture in the USA, had a special focus on New Latvian Fiction in Vol. XV111. No. 1, 1998. The Review is a tri-quarterly journal that has a special affinity for the works of foreign writers who may otherwise go unread in the United States.
The special focus of the recent Edinburgh Review No. 115 is 'Poetry and Prose from Latvia'. The issue was edited by Donal McLaughlin, who spent the summer of 2003 in Riga as Scottish PEN's writer-without-borders. The issue includes prose by Martins Zelmenis, Ieva Lesinska, Nora Ikstena, Inga Abele and Andre Neiburga; poetry by Knuts Skujenieks, Maris Salejs, Liana Langa, Edvins Raups, Amanda Aizpuriete, Janis Elsbergs, Karlis Verdins and Inga Gaile; and some Latvian folk songs in translation. Donal McLaughlin's introduction 'A Right Good Riga' includes a bibliography of Latvian writing in English, French and German translation. ER No. 115 (ISBN 1-85933223-4) can be ordered by sending an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Juris Kronbergs' Wolf One-Eye, translated into English by Mara Rozitis and with an introduction by Jaan Kaplinski, is forthcoming in a bilingual edition from Arc Publications in November 2006. Arc Publications is now in its fourth decade of publishing contemporary poetry from new and established writers in the UK and abroad, with special emphasis on the work of world poets in English, and the work of overseas poets in translation.
And don't forget the website of the Latvian Literature Centre for all the latest news on Latvian literature.
Thanks for that, Harry. As I'm in my Latvian mood, I'll order that issue of the Edinburgh Review. I've seen the Contemporary Fiction one and the Wolf's Eye on the internet, but not the Edinburgh Review one.
Here's a recent translation into Latvian:
There's something to be said for having a translation with the same cover as the original. A kind of brand label.
Eric, would you please recommend one novel by a Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian writer that I should read, and that is available in English? I only want one at this moment, sort of to dip my toes into this new world for me. I would love to include a few Baltic novels in my next Amazon order. I know it will be nearly impossible for you to narrow the choice down to just one novel per each nationality, but thanks in advance!
Eric, would you please recommend one novel by a Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian writer that I should read, and that is available in English?
Watch out now: he's going to recommend you something he translated himself.
Seriously, though: I read Eric's translation of Mati Unt's Things in the Night last year, and liked it a lot. You're in good hands.
Stiffelio, your question presents a problem that shouldn't exist. I personally am interested in what is being written in Latvia and cannot yet read Latvian, but happen to have a good reading knowledge of the Swedish language, so I have access to Juris Kronbergs' numerous translations of poetry and prose into that language. When I put my mind to it, I can read translations by Matthias Knoll and others into German.
But English? I only know of one modern novel available in that language (see below). There are a few stories and poems in anthologies, but no novel that I know of. However, I believe that the British translator Chris Moseley is working on translating a novel by the leading Latvian author Nora Ikstena; though I know no details of progress. See:
The one Latvian novel I do know of in English is a fictionalised autobiography called "With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows" by Sandra Kalniete, and the author describes her childhood as the daughter of Latvian deportees to Siberia. Kalniete later became a diplomat, served for a short while as Latvian Foreign Minister and was the first Latvian EU Commissioner. The cover:
You can find details in English about numerous authors of the LLC (Latvian Literature Centre) website, as Harry has already pointed out. The only problem is that there are so few English translations, and these are rarely, as I mentioned, of novels. And the website is a little difficult to navigate. Main website:
I'll do Estonia and Lithuania in separate postings.
It will take me a little while, though, to navigate the LLC site. I do read French and there seems to some things translated into that language.
Today (18th November 2009) is the 91st anniversary of Latvia's declaration of independence back in 1918. Those observant ones among you may note that from 1940-1991, the Republic of Latvia was "on holiday" so to speak, and it was left to other "friendly" nations to run the country. So rather a big chunk of this 91 years is a matter of de iure, rather than de facto independence.
But it hasn't stopped Latvians writing books. More about Latvian literature when I have something to say.
Harry pointed out the small Vagabond Voices initiative on the island of Lewis. I want to point out a small Latvian book festival, another initiative in these times of hunkering down during the Recession and discovering literary value instead of hyped "masterpieces".
From the 8th to 13th of December 2009, the small website-cum-bookshop called 1/4 Satori is holding a literary festival in Riga. I doubt if they have thousands of euros, lats, dollars, or pounds to splash around, but they are still inviting a few foreign authors:
Brigitte Allegre (France)
Lewan Beridze (Georgia)
Jaak Jőerüüt (Estonia)
Alexander Peer (Austria)
Plus lots of Latvian authors who people in the English-speaking world will never have heard of (e.g. Nora Ikstena, Inga Ābele, Dace Ruk?āne, Pauls Bankovskis) but who are household names locally. I praise the 1/4 Satori team for running this festivalette in the face of the Recession.
Maybe smaller initiatives are the thing of the future, instead of those overblown book festivals where celebrities and TV personalities dominate instead of novels, stories and poetry.
Despite the small initiatives that I praise and admire, as mentioned in #22, the sales of books at the one of the biggest Riga bookshops-cum-publishers in Riga show this result for 2009:
"Jāņa Rozes apgāda" Top 10
1. Krēsla - Stefanija Meiere
2. Jauns mēness - Stefanija Meiere
3. Aptumsums - Stefanija Meiere
4. Noslēpums - The Secret Ronda Bērna
5. Rītausma - Stefanija Meiere
6. Zudušais simbols - Dens Brauns
7. Mūks, kurš pārdeva savu Ferrari - Robins S. Šarma
8. Observators - Andris Grūtups
9. Kā aizplūstoša upe - Paulu Koelju
10. Uzvarētājs ir viens - Paulu Koelju
I'll leave it to you to decode the names of the bestselling authors. Only Number 8 appears to be a home-grown Latvian book, by a historian.
You might not see the connection between Monty Python and Latvian attitudes to the names of foreign authors.
If not, first watch the Kilimanjaro Expedition sketch, and then look at this list of foreign authors below, written in the Latvian manner:
YouTube - Monty Python - Kilimanjaro Expedition (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46btEgKmCTo)
Marsels Prusts, V. G. Zēbalds, Lorenss Darels, Valters Benjamins, Viktors Jerofejevs, Gistavs Flobērs, Ernests Hemingvejs, Pīters Akroids, Bērtrans Rasels, D?ord?s Steiners, Viljams Batlers Jeitss, Izaks Ba?eviss Zingers.
Here is a short article from the internet about the Latvian cultural canon and a list of names of literary authors:
THE LATVIAN CULTURAL CANON
Just like in other European countries, the Latvian Cultural Canon is compiled as a treasure trove that contains the most important cultural achievements of all times. The Canon will include the treasures from various branches of culture: ones that are characteristic of it; that are for us a source of pride, and that should form the basis of cultural experience of every Latvian resident, fostering his or her sense of belonging. The Canon discourse is related to the notion of cultural memory, which can be considered as knowledge shared by a group of people, representatives of a certain culture, at a particular time. Thus Canon can be said to represent a means for creating and disseminating such common cultural memory.
Work on forming the Latvian Cultural Canon was launched in late 2007. Working groups of experts were formed in seven areas (Architecture and Design, Cinema, Literature, Music, Stage Art, National Traditions, Visual Arts). That work is now complete and we have a Cultural Canon consisting of 99 cultural treasures.
Māra Lāce, patroness of the Latvian Cultural Canon, Director of the National Art Museum, puts it this way:
"The Canon and the process of compiling it have made me realize once again that we possess great if not vast cultural treasures whose significance, history, and value is unfortunately less than common knowledge. Of course, it is impossible to know absolutely everything in this dynamic time that is so imbued with new information. But if anyone wants to know more about the foundation on which Latvian culture rests, then the Canon will provide him or her with such an opportunity. Canon highlights what we can be proud of and explains why we should be proud. As more time passes since the process of forming the Canon, my feelings about the point and significance of this project change also. If in the beginning the experts in each area had rather ambivalent feelings about their task, for the professionals found dissecting the development of culture and the treasures created by many people of outstanding talent absurd, in the late going most of those involved considered the process interesting and fruitful. The compilation of lists was quite complicated. The experts had many discussions among themselves, sometimes having a difficult time achieving a consensus on common values. I think it is a good thing, because it seems that it was these discussions that pointed thoughts in the direction of assessment.
Now I have had many more positive experiences regarding the influence of the Canon on various processes. In informal conversations, teachers have told me that they use the list in the teaching process. A woman who heads a memorial museum dedicated to a personality included in the Canon told me that after he made the list it has become easier for her to have a dialogue with her local government and make sure that the museum is appreciated. The family of an outstanding artist are now ready to give a national museum a great number of his works ? only because he has been included in the list. It I difficult to say if that is much or little. But it is clear that the Cultural Canon is something living.
To me the Cultural Canon represents something akin to punctuation marks or road markers that identify and highlight certain treasures in the expanse of culture. That does not mean that people cannot come up with their own canons. Each and every one of us can have his or her understanding regarding priorities. The Cultural Canon inspired by the Ministry of Culture represents the vision of experts in each area of culture, pointing at certain qualities as they see them. The concept of quality to me is one of the most essential things in trying to understand the Canon, related to what is unique; the mentality of the nation and certain assumptions that have formed over a longer period of time.
The Cultural Canon should not be perceived as a petrified, unchangeable dogma. It is a process that should be subject to perpetual change and development. I think that the process of identifying the cultural treasures could captivate many people, inciting them to exchange opinions and come to certain conclusions.
The Cultural Canon should be a source for our pride. Yet we have to acknowledge that the treasures we celebrate are just small beacons in the vast field of Latvian culture, which deserves to be learnt, preserved and, most importantly, developed creatively, so that after a while we could look over the Canon again and name new treasures that have been created and should be preserved for future generations."
A short list of authors and works regarded as canonical is at:
Mirabell is not impressed with German translations. But at least German translations exist. I doubt if Mirabell could compare original with translation in these instances, but on the following page, there is a reasonable list of what has been translated from Latvian into German since the 1920s:
Literatur aus Lettland | Bibliographie (Titel?bersicht) (http://www.literatur.lv/publikat/alph.htm)
Even assuming that most published German translators are useless, as Mirabell seems to suggest, I would in turn suggest that it is rather more impressive to read the above list than an equivalent list of works of Latvian literature that have appeared in English translation over the same century.
I would in turn suggest that it is rather more impressive to read the above list than an equivalent list of works of Latvian literature that have appeared in English translation over the same century.
you are completely right. And I can also point to a few really incredible German translators, if you want. They're just the exception rather than the rule.
I just hope that Germany (Austria, Switzerland) has a few translators of genius, as you suggest. When a country translates a lot of things, like Germany, Sweden, or the Netherlands, there is always a risk that commercialism will begin to take over, and publishers will pressure translators into rushing things, so that the publishing house can have another big foreign name in the bookshops.
One of the few positive things about our British-American situation with very few translations indeed is that those who do translate some of the more worthwhile works of literature will be doing this as a labour of love. There are plenty of translators who do it for the money half the time, but now and again, they will do a book they really want to. Then they will try their best.
First of all, thanks for the thread and your enthusiasm, Eric!
As a Latvian translator (albeit mostly of non-fiction books) myself, I'll try to shed some light on the matter of English translations. According to the head of the Latvian Writers' Society, the main problem is simply a lack of interest from the US/British publishers. Laima Muktupāvela's "Mushroom Covenant" has already been translated to English, but none of the publishers they've contacted showed any interest in taking it aboard -- even with Latvian government offering the financial support.
As I learn more about the publishing industry (I'm currently living in the UK, doing internships and volunteer work at the publishing houses and looking for a permanent spot), I'm beginning to think that the main problem is the bad targeting from Latvian side. There are a few presses that actively seek and publish translated work outside of mainstream (Dalkey Archive and Portobello Books to mention just two), but I have my doubts whether they've actually been contacted. Other publishers probably won't pay any mind to unsolicited proposals, especially if they are written in a somewhat broken English. There is some movement with Dalkey Archive, who published "With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows", so there's that. Hopefully it will materialize in some more translated books.
For those looking for some Latvian literature, I can suggest checking out Ieva Melgalve. She published her first book at 18, after managing to raise a small storm with her "vulgar" poetry. A few years ago she switched to writing in English and already has a couple of published pieces in the American literary journals. You can read her story "The Siren's Song" here (http://www.acappellazoo.com/thesirenssong). She's not really representative of contemporary Latvian literary scene, as it veers more towards prose poems and experiments with the form/structure/language rather than clearly defined stories. Still, you can get a taste of what we consider to be the current counter-establishment movement in prose.
Although I live in Sweden, I am a Brit and note what you say:
According to the head of the Latvian Writers' Society, the main problem is simply a lack of interest from the US/British publishers.
This is probably quite true to a large extent. I translate from Estonian, so I have also looked around for publishers in both Britain and the USA that are genuinely interested in literature from Estonia, Sweden and elsewhere. So I know what the head of your writers' society means (who is it, nowadays?).
I have published two translations with Dalkey from Estonian, and they did a further novel from that language translated by another translator. So they are certainly aware of the Baltics. Another keen publishing house in the United States is Open Letter, attached to the Three Percent literary website, and housed at the University of Rochester in New York State. They translated the Lithuanian Ricardas Gavelis recently. A third U.S. publishing house is Northwestern, for whom I've just translated a novel by Jaan Kross. (I don't think Maima Grinberga has done that one yet.)
In Britain there is Dedalus, which tends to do more things to do with fantasy (so Ezera's Zemdegas or books by Margeris Zarinš may be interesting to them, plus more modern literature). But otherwise Britain, the land of my birth and language, is bloody useless.
But you are also right when you mention bad targeting from the Latvian side. Latvia has put too much effort into Soviet-style displays of books nobody but Latvians can read at book fairs. What you need is more (to use a Soviet phrase) agit-prop, aka publicity and promotion, at these same book fairs. I saw from the catalogue that at the Gothenburg (G?teborg) Book Fair a couple of weeks ago, Repša and Lešinska were there. But that will have been mainly thanks to Juris Kronbergs, who has spent the last 30 years or so translating Latvian literature into Swedish, and promoting it.
And it is not only bad targeting. There is also a problem from finding enough trimda translators. I keep saying to the Estonians that I find it amazing that not more of the children of exiles in Australia, the USA, Canada, etc., translate from that language. And the situation, mutatis mutandis, is the same with Latvia.
I tried Portobello with Estonian things, as I did Peter Owen and Serpent's Tail. But no luck. Arc Publications will take poetry, but I'm not sure whether they are taking on new things just now. Britain is in a very poor state at present regarding foreign languages. They are, for instance, going to sack half the language staff at Swansea University, from what I've read. There is still a post-colonial arrogance in Britain that as they've got the English language (the world's "Esperanto"), they don't need funny literature written in "foreign", unless it is for politically correct or feelgood reasons.
As for broken English, yes, in a monolingual country like the UK, broken English suggests broken brains to many publishers, publishers who are often narcissistic people who think they are a genius if they can read a little French, but are totally devoid of any knowledge of other languages. And what is worse, they know little about the complex history of Central & Eastern Europe. Now that Balts are not being sent to Siberia any more in cattle trucks, publishers think that the Baltics have become boring.
As my knowledge of Latvian is still very rudimentary, I am learning it slowly. And articles in Rigas Laiks and on the 1/4 Satori website are still far too difficult for me. At the moment, I am brushing up my Polish, a language I know a lot better than Latvian. But I will probably return to Latvian in late autumn. Although you can't learn languages at the same time; you get language interference.
But anyway, I shall have a look at what Ieva Melgalve is doing. I feel that things that reflect Latvian life and the Latvian mentality are more likely to be interesting than pale copies of what was done in the West thirty years ago.
Nevertheless, note what happened with Sofi Oksanen. The Estonians have written on similar subjects for decades. But this Finn with her bulimia, bisexuality, and Gothic make-up comes along and charms the world. That is principally because she had a good, albeit second-hand, knowledge of Estonian life in Soviet times. Under the theatrical surface is a serious person. Latvia needs a kind of Oksanen figure who, whether a trimda Latvian, a foreign enthusiast, or a Latvian from Latvia, has the power and devotion to promote not only themselves, but Latvian literature as a whole.
Two new UK publishers are Peirene Press (http://peirenepress.com/) (three titles a year) who do contemporary European novellas, and And Other Stories (http://www.andotherstories.org/), a very new outfit that look to do translations (proposing four a year, starting in 2011) and use reader groups and discussion to facilitate their choices (they're currently looking at untranslated Lithuanian novels, I believe.)
Both Peirene and And Other Stories are worthy efforts. But they are tiny set-ups. They cannot be a motor for change in Britain because they are simply too small and new. Even an Arts Council grant or two cannot change that. Though regular reviews of their books in the press can.
What has to be done is for the larger, more influential publishing houses to catch the "European literature" bug. As I said a few minutes ago in my previous posting, there is in Britain a shocking ignorance of all the different European literatures. The people who tend to set up presses that take any interest in Europe tend to be immigrants, (e.g. Rausing, Ziervogel) or have some foreign connection. British mainstream publishing is still living a dream of elegant history that excludes European literature as a whole, only taking things on board if they are linked to sensation, violence, sex, or discrimination. Or were written in the 19th century by "great authors".
That Muktupavela mushroom-picking book that Ruuh mentions was published in Germany in 2008. And Ruuh says that there is a manuscript available in English. Cannot some British publisher's reader read the book in German, given the fact it deals with Ireland as much as Latvia? This is exactly the sort of thing that Canongate should be publishing and promoting, not least given the fact that Jamie Byng has admitted a few blunders when choosing books to publish in the past.
Even that one small country Latvia has plenty of other things that are, for instance, available in German, partly due to a number of historical factors, not least the fact that in GDR days, Baltic literature was popular. And that the Baltic German presence in Estonia and Latvia was a big one up to about 1938.
Even though Latvia is now a member of the EU, awareness of its literature in the UK seems to be very limited indeed. This can change. But it takes individuals to change it. Publisher's readers must first access samples in German, French, Swedish, etc. But as Britain is so useless with foreign languages, such people are usually precious few, and are thus involved with literature from Germany, France and Sweden. And will have no time for Balts.
I can understand why Stewart mentioned Peirene today; they sent their newsletter out, which I also got. They would be worth trying, but as I say: they are small. Nevertheless, on the blog called Things Syntactical, Meike Ziervogel (as I presume to be writing) does mention something interesting, which I too have hinted at:
Foreigners are taking over the UK publishing world! Are you aware of it?! I?ve mentioned the secret plot to a couple of literary editors recently but none picked up on the story. They probably think the topic is too hot, too controversial. And rightly so, the very foundation of the English book market could be in peril.
Source: things syntactical (http://www.peirenepress.com/blog/)
Ziervogel mentions Alma, Bitter Lemon, Pinter&Martin, Pushkin and Haus. And she points out that these foreigners are mostly women. The links are on the blog link I've mentioned here.
It is a question of coordination. The Estonians and Lithuanians seem to be a little ahead of the Latvians when it comes to getting their literature visible abroad.
I would prefer to see translations of Baltic novels and poetry which are not only about Soviet times and the GULag. Nevertheless, the poems of Knuts Skujenieks, who spent several years in labour camps, could easily appear in English,if someone were to perhaps use Juris Kronbergs' Swedish translations of the poems that Skujenieks wrote in the GULag as a basis. The volume called Ett fr? i sn?n (published 1991) could be used, including, so that someone working with Kronbergs or the poet himself could soon have the 100-page book of poems available in English at one of the British or American poetry presses. Or he could be accessed by British and American publishers by a publisher's reader who knows Italian, because a book of Knuts Skujenieks' poems called Tornato da un altra mondo translated by Pietro Umberto Dini has appeared this year. See the LLC website:
Margita Gailitis has translated some of Knuts' poems which are available online at:
But as I say, this all requires coordination. The Latvian Literature Centre is important. But their printed publication seems to have stopped publication. It is not only financial support that foreign publishers and translators need, but someone to talk to, someone to give advice about Latvian literature. I mean a kind of adviser that publishers and translators can write to, to receive tips on new books, etc.
And younger authors, like indeed Muktupavela would benefit from more active promotion from the Latvian side. Her mushroom book may be something for Open Letter Books, mentioned in my previous posting:
Open Letter Books (http://openletterbooks.org/)
As well as Gavelis from Lithuania, they have done Ingrid Winterbach, who writes in Afrikaans, and Merc? Rodoreda, who wrote in Catalan. So not simply the usual French-German-Spanish-language authors.
So if you, Ruuh, have any influence back in Riga, please try to encourage the LLC to get active. The 1/4 Satori people are great in their enthusiasm. I was in their shop just before Christmas last year. But they don't seem to have anything to do with the LLC, even though they speak good English.
I note Ieva Melgalve's review called Pedeja postmoderna gramata about Inga Zolude's new book on their website. But as I've said, my Latvian is still too weak to even read the review. These sorts of books should be published in the LLC magazine for foreigners to read! 1/4 Satori has probably not got the money to get things translated into English or German. They get far smaller subsidies than the LLC. I spoke briefly to Ingmara Balode and Reinis Tuki?s.
Thanks for all the info, I'll relay some of that to the head of the Latvian Writers' Society, for whose publishing house I'm currently doing my translations. Currently there are works being translated to other European languages (most recently L'Archange Minotaure has published another short story anthology of one of the most celebrated contemporary Latvian writers Inga Ābele), but there's no news on the English front as far as I'm aware. I know that Dalkey Archive has shown some interest, but it's still quite a way off from anything tangible.
I think you might be right about the lack of coordination (a problem so common in Latvia that it has become the basis for many jokes we tell about our country), but there's also the Oksanen factor you mentioned earlier: the only author who's come close to topping the local best-seller list in recent years was Nora Ikstene with her romance novel, which was panned almost unanimously by critics. Then there's Inga Ābele and Jānis Einfelds who write many-layered stories in an intricate language, heavy with historical and folkloral allusions, and are much more popular among critics than readers (and it's hard to see them being anything but confusing to a foreign reader). I can recall only two books - "?ampinjonu derība" and Andra Neiburga's tales of Latvian everyday life "stum stum" - which have received considerable acclaim from both the critics and the general public in the last ten years. So there's some disparity there as well, which makes it even harder to coordinate and promote the Latvian literature. That might change if a super-popular book is published, but it's hard to count on that.
Basically, it looks like there is a strong need for a coordinated promotion of one or two books to increase their chances...
I met several Latvian translators on my only ever visit to Edinburgh in about 1998, and have more recently met a translator called Elsberga. Apart from that, I've met Uldis Berzin?; Knuts Skujenieks, Guntars Godin?, and the lady from the foreign rights organisation, Inese Paklone, all at various times in Holland. And also Mattias Knoll. So I do know something about Latvians and their literature.
Please do say something to the head of the LLC. There is no need to be too diplomatic, because various people have said over the years that the Latvian promotion of literature appears to be far too half-hearted and amateurish, compared with that of the Lithuanians and Estonians.
Inga Ābele and Jānis Einfelds are no doubt genuinely interesting authors. The former's Paisums exists in Swedish translation. I also read that Rep?e was at the G?teborg (Gothenburg) Book Fair, along with Le?inska, but I've not read a thing about this in the Swedish newspapers, presumably because the theme of the book fair was Africa (conveniently far away to be romantic) not Latvia (conveniently nearby to be boring).
You make a good point about critics not always liking what the general public like. So it is crucial for the LLC to coordinate with the trimda people and meet many foreign publishers, so that they know what to promote where. Because, for instance, what will be a success in Germany is not necessarily to British tastes. This is something I've found out when dealing with Estonia.
That is why a paper magazine is vital. All this quick-fire stuff on the internet, and the meetings over glasses of wine at book fairs, are soon forgotten. But a magazine in your hand is still real six months, or two years later. That is why I value the magazines from the Polish Book Institute in Krak?w. They've messed around with the format too much over the past few years, but what is inside them still sticks to the good old formula of biographical information and an excerpt. That is what the LLC should be producing, as well as revamping its website on the internet as a back-up that you can consult.
It's not all a question of government grants, but of willpower. You can joke as much as you like in Latvia itself about uncoordinated activities. But for us outsiders it gets tiring after a while to see that Latvian book promotion is still rather Soviet.
Let me be clear when I say that the promotion of Latvian literature is "half-hearted and amateurish". I mean the overall coordination, as we have mentioned, not, for instance, the magazine Latvian Literature while it lasted. That magazine, under Pauls Bankovskis and then Inara Cedrinš was fine. Ruuh mentioned Neiburga's Stum, stum (Push, Push) and I immediately found an excerpt, in English, in the 2004 issue of that magazine. Fine. The translations were mainly thanks to Ieva Lešinska and Rihards Kalninš, Astra Roze, Margita Gailitis, Ilza Klavina-Mueller, and Inara Cedrinš, all of whom, if I have understood rightly are the sons and the daughters of various exile Latvians. And some of the stories poems and essays are indeed still accessible on the internet at:
But after 2005 issue (number 6), that magazine seems to have packed up, in other words stopped publication. That is now five years ago. Now the LLC has no magazine, simply a website that does not have many new features except for boasts of all the things that have already appeared in translation. But there is no real database of all the works that have not yet been translated and their authors.
And since the G?teborg Book Fair in 2007, very little seems to have happened. Since then Karogs has packed up and the only dynamic online thing that seems to be happening in Latvian literature is the 1/4 Satori website which, if it got adequate funding, could also employ translators to translate all the worthwhile articles they produce into English (and maybe German and French).
I've got the 1/4 Satori website up on screen right now and it is doing all the things that the LLC should be doing. But because all those interesting-looking essays and reviews are in Latvian only, no foreign publisher is going to be able to read about the Latvian writers, such as Inga Žolude, Inga Abele, Janis Rokpelnis, and foreign authors such as Jaak J?er??t, Sigurbjorg Trastard?tir, and so on. The Satori people seem to have a lot of friends, but the LLC is conspicuous by its absence.
So, what is Janis Oga doing? Where is the coordination between the Ministry of Culture, the LLC, 1/4 Satori, the Latvian Institute, the Cultural Fund, the Ideas Forum & Association, the Ventspils Translators' House, the printed periodicals, the translators into English, the publishers?
All this cultural information exists, and there are all sorts of projects. But as I said before, to an outsider it all appears to be hopelessly fragmented and uncoordinated.
So please talk to Oga at the LLC, and the Minister of Culture (Ints Dalderis?), and the other people. Literature and translation are going through a crisis in various countries, but I insist: it is not just a matter of how much money is spent on culture as a whole, but the way it is used, and the way organisations can cooperate within the present budget.
On a recent visit to the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh I borrowed, among other things, the anthology 'small is my land': Poetry and Prose from Latvia which I mentioned in an earlier post on this thread. The editor is Donal McLaughlin and the book was published by the Edinburgh Review in 2005. Donal, a lecturer in German and freelance writer and translator, was sent to Riga in 2003 by ScottishPEN as their first écrivain sans frontičres/Writer without Borders. This project has now become the Baltic Writers' Exchange. His remit, basically, was to make friends and influence people, and this anthology was one of the first fruits of his six weeks there. On his last day in Riga, my wife and I took over his rented flat in the Old Town for a week's holiday, so I have my own memories of Latvia and its fascinating if impenetrable language.
The anthology begins with Seven Latvian Folk Songs, which I'll skip over, only pausing to give you the editor's footnote, which might amuse Eric:-
"It was planned, originally, to include the Latvian versions of these folk songs. It was not possible, however, to reproduce the diacritic marks so characteristic of Latvian. For the same reason, elsewhere in this issue, Latvian names and phrases appear without diacritics."
Ho hum! This iMac has a Special Characters menu with more of these things than I will ever need to use, and many I can't even identify. But in the interests of speediness I'm going to dispense with them here.
Knuts Skujenieks (b.1936) is one of Latvia's best-known writers. He spent seven years in a prison camp for "anti-Soviet activism", which obviously has been a major influence on his writing. Like a lot of writers from the former Soviet Union and its sphere of influence (cf. Joseph Brodsky), he has an almost ecstatic reverence for the power of words:
A WORD IS A WORD
I'm not conquerable I'm not destroyable in the open
field trampled cursed and spat on
don't look at my bones that ever slower
walk under my skin but if you wish to look perhaps
this is a lesson listen to my words listen
listen hear listen again but listen
because my words are my work and other work I don't have
I won't have
a battle in life in which I'll be the loser because
I don't have either a bayonet or war ruse only words
I place in the centre in the most open place to root after
a year or two hundred what does it matter? if right now or
after seven ounces of sweat what does it matter?
my bones aren't worth a penny because I have words and they're
not janis' peter's or knuts skujenieks words these WORDS are
if you want to look balance bones on elbows or
put your foot in front but a word is a word even forgotten
it leaves echoes in the forest circles in water and peoples'
discord with life and themselves
even the most vulgar word the most bitter word is human
not for me to know nor you where these words come from
or where they go to
and our lack of knowledge keeps us alive indebted to death
so listen hear beside me root
and you shall not be conquered
(I'm not sure about the accuracy of all of the translation here, but that's how it looks on the page. The last bit of translation I did myself recently was extracts from a book about Joseph Brodsky, and Skujenieks' line "(listen) because my words are my work and other work I don't have" could have been written by Brodsky. His insistence that writing poetry was his job led the Soviet authorities to label him a parasite and to persecute, jail and torture him).
A WORD WITHOUT A WORD
from the centre from silence
from the very core
may it reach you and sink
in the deepest sense
after which I'll start to say
before which I'll stop to say
the word I forever search for
and never shall say
AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Il n'y a plus rien de moi
Et ceux qui craignent les brulűres ...
This is the last barricade, firing line, red zone.
we no longer shall stand hand in hand
neither friend nor deputy or drinking pal.
This the last day, last sentence, last chance.
On the boundary the word we shall burn.
The word you won't make it through the fire.
Only they will remain.
Tonight let's sit on our baggage of reason,
on the backpacks of our sense of honour
let's count the small change of our life
needed to reach our destination - or return.
Let's sit together till the morning.
All three poems translated by Margita Gailitis
Inga Gaile was born in 1976, and writes in Russian as well as Latvian. I met her in 2004 when she came to Edinburgh as Donal McLaughlin's exchange partner, sent by Latvian PEN. I remember having an earnest discussion with her about how some aspects of Latvian remind me of Latin.
It is women's time -
They direct the traffic of winds and streetcars,
Their plastic bags, full of pelmeni
Turn into handbags embroidered by dew,
And every turn of their heads,
Like a knife sinking into meat,
Cuts some man's vector.
It is women's time -
Tresses fall slower than raindrops and eyes
Sing the night already at two post morn,
It is women's time -
Barge haulers sport anemones
And soften the rattling of chains
With gentle and sparkling laughter.
What will we be like when we are very ancient, dust in the grooves of our faces
and faded dewy hair,
what will we be like when our halls are empty of these
teachers swaying graceful like ballerinas, their sugar-pea nipples
what will we be like when we are waves in the river,
when our hands will not rise like masts,
when glass does not rattle with our laughter, what will we be like,
when neither the bullets of glances nor bicycles whine
and it's winter,
when the ringlets of hair are stone and words flaming neon.
what will we be like, my love, when the bread
you clutch in your hand is in birds and the birds are the heavenly dome,
what will we be like
when the fish are rain and the rain is fish,
and the pits of almond eyes
do not conceal death?
My girlfriends know love, but I know joy.
Joy over painfully melting blue snowflakes on my lips,
Over the dance sun paints on my face -
no matter, no matter,
My girlfriends know love, but I know joy,
Loud and sparkling in my cupped hands,
That blossoms in the roses of blush
and in shame before the first morning streetcar.
Joy over my tears reflected in streetlamps,
joy over the silence in temples and the loud beating heart
in the sad eyes of a dog, the momentary blooms in your breath,
My girlfriends know love, but I know joy
Joy as if learning to waltz with a child's timidness and abandon
water fire air
joy like breathing and shouting - children are not born of joy
My children will be born of joy
The bird died in mid-sentence,
the black tears of dot dot dot
flow in the morning shrieking like crows.
Remembering the last three strokes
before the deluge, someone will spend a lifetime
looking for the other half of the sentence.
You've seen the sky, so I'd been told, I found that
moving; rustling I looked at you to see if there was something that was
simply beaks of birds -
gaping skyward in their longing. The sea was rustling, there were
shrieks of seagulls
and of eyelids,
librarians and prophets - "The Sky-Seeing-Writings", I simply looked
a make-believe miracle, flowing and darkening, the sea was longing
Someone must have lied to you - you said and laughed, a clock hung
in the sky,
time was in love.
all poems translated by Ieva Lešinska
Thanks for that, Harry. It's nice to know that a little poetry from Latvia gets past the British censor of indifference. I've heard of Donal McLaughlin and remember hearing about his trip.
Of the two poets you mention, Harry, I've actually met Knuts Skujenieks. During the early 1990s he stayed with friends of mine in Holland where I met him maybe a couple of times. I also stayed two nights at his house, some years later, in Salaspils, a short train ride outside Riga. Salaspils is, alas, best known for the Nazi extermination camp there, so there is irony in the fact that a major Latvian poet who suffered under the Soviets is living in the same borough. He is the archytypal Latvian GULag poet, but despite his sufferings there, he seems to remain a cheerful man. I have a book containing about 200 of his poems called "Sekla sniega" (Seed in the Snow) most, if not all of which were written in the labour camp. The beige cover has a little motif of a twist of golden barbed wire and on the back a barbed wire fence.
But I still can't read Latvian without heavy dictionary work, so I have relied on the translations of Juris Kronbergs who has, more or less single-handedly, translated many of Skujenieks' poems into Swedish (as well as several novels by other authors). I'll read some again soon, as it always reminds you how lucky we people who have grown up in Western democracies are, so that we did not get sent to a labour camp for such an absurd reason, as in Knuts Skujenieks' case, as possessing a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Here's an interesting interview with Latvian-American writer and publisher Juris Jurjevics. I'll review his novel The Trudeau Factor when I've finished it.
Interesting. Interviewer Mara Gulens points out, and Juris Jurjevic answers:
MG: You’re not involved with the Latvian literary community?
JJ: Not at all. The thing that has surprised me over the years is that I don’t know a single Latvian novelist who has been published in the mainstream English press.
I always wonder what the Latvians have done wrong. I personally have translated eight books from Estonian into English, and there are a dozen or two novels and poetry collections from that language in English.
But the poor old Latvians have been unlucky with their exiles. One might indeed ask why Jurjevics himself hasn't translated a book or two from Latvian. Here in Sweden we have the almost one-man-show Juris Kronbergs, who has translated important literature (poetry and prose) from Latvian into Swedish. And Matthias Knoll and others have translated novels into German. But as far as I can see, only poems have appeared in English. As Jurjevics says, there doesn't seem to be one Latvian novel that has appeared in English and is published by a mainstream press (since maybe WWII).
So I hope that all those literary translators out there that do Latvian-English will one day do something by Repse, Ikstena, Abele, and other leading contemporary Latvian novelists. I'd even help out myself if I knew enough Latvian. But you can't learn a language to a high degree of proficiency overnight. (I've had several bouts of learning Latvian over the past few years, but have not yet crossed the proficiency threshold for literary translation.)
One might indeed ask why Jurjevics himself hasn't translated a book or two from Latvian.
He has been busy as editor-in-chief of Soho Press, which he co-founded with Alan Hruska in 1986.
Maybe Latvian literature from Latvia is a little too literary for him... Soho seems to publish mostly crime fiction and "how to..." books.
I'm not sure whether this review has been posted before. But I'm posting it again just in case:
It appears on the Three Percent website and is a Dalkey Archive book about a little Latvian girl (the author) deported to Siberia.
Uldis Berzins is quite a remarkable Latvian. He has learnt Turkish and a number of other Turkic languages, translated the Book of Job from the Hebrew, and now the Koran, from the Arabic, into Latvian. He is also significant Latvian poet in his own right. An interesting combination of poet and translator.
Eric should be interested: a new book (a memoir) by Ilmars Knagis is to be published by the University of Wisconsin Press later this year called There Was Such a Time: A Latvian Memoir of Deportation to Siberia (http://www.amazon.com/There-Was-Such-Time-Deportation/dp/9984397769/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310958657&sr=1-2).
From the editorial review:
On June 14, 1941, more than fifteen thousand Latvians—about 1 percent of Latvia’s population—were deported in a twenty-four-hour period to Siberia as “enemies of the state,” following the occupation of Latvia by the army of the Soviet Union. Of those deported, approximately 3,400 were children. One of them was fifteen-year-old Ilmars Knagis.
At the time of the 1941 deportation, the men were separated from their families and sent to the gulag. Some were sentenced to death, others to work in labor camps. Knagis’s father, Emils Knagis, a hardy former soldier, perished at a Russian camp in Vyatlag later in 1941. Women and children were sent to remote districts near the Polar Circle, where many died.
But here they also discovered others of Latvian heritage, deported to Siberia in earlier centuries by the Czars. Now in his eighth decade of life, Knagis recalls in this memoir his experiences as a child before the Soviet occupation, the frightful forced deportation to Siberia, the harsh lives and deaths of the deportees in the years that followed, his return to Latvia in 1947 and his re-deportation two years later, his homecoming to Latvia in 1962, and his later trips to Siberia to visit the places of his youth and to commemorate the Latvian dead.
Knagis provides a gripping testament of cruelty, bureaucracy, and great privation, but he also writes of the stark beauty of the taiga, the resilience of youth, and the strange cultural life in the collective farms and towns of Siberia, to which many intellectuals and artists of many ethnicities and nationalities had been deported.
As a memoir of life in Soviet Siberia as a “repressed person,” There Was Such a Time is indicative of the experiences of the many thousands of diverse people with similar but untold stories and provides a view into a history that few Westerners know.
The book is over 400 pages and looks promising.
Yes, certainly, Liam. When sorting books yesterday I found a small book on my shelves which was one of the first published in neighbouring Estonia, entitled "Stalinlik vägivalla masin" (The Stalinist Machinery of Violence). That was published in 1990, thus technically speaking still in the Soviet Union. It was translated from the Russian, but since then, Balts of all three nations have done their best to highlight what went on. The Stalinist crimes are always more galling for the Balts, because they thought they'd escaped the worst in the late 1930s, when Stalin was executing people right, left, and centre. But then, in 1940, when Stalin invaded all three countries, he shipped members of the government and lawmakers from all three countries to Siberia. As these countries were still de iure sovereign nations, this again was appalling.
The Latvian poet and translator Peters Bruveris (1957-2011) died suddenly a few days ago. Apart from being a poet in his own right, he also translated Turkish poetry (along with another accomplished poet and translator Uldis Berzins) including poems by Nazim Hikmet, and Lithuanian poetry, e.g. that of Tomas Venclova. He also translated poetry from Azerbaijani, Gagauz, Crimean Tatar, Mordvinian, Russian, German, and Prussian.
Practise your Latvian and read about Rovans Atkinsons:
Now, you can see the names, even if you can't read the quote. But these are the names of Latvian authors who will be going to Leipzig for the book fair there next time round:
Līdz šim Leipcigas grāmatu mesē ar literārajiem lasījumiem un grāmatu prezentācijām piedalījusies virkne Latvijas rakstnieku: Inga Ābele, Amanda Aizpuriete, Laima Muktupāvela, Nora Ikstena, Māra Zālīte, Sandra Kalniete, Andra Neiburga, Pauls Bankovskis, Dace Rukšāne u.c., kuru darbi tikuši izdoti Vācijas izdevniecībās un zināmi Vācijas lasošajai publikai.
They have all been translated into German, so when they give their talks they will mean something to a German audience.
Simple question: how many are available in English translation?
I'm glad that Liam is examining Lithuanian literature. I shall try to report on Latvian literature, where I can. Liam did a very thorough appraisal of Parulskis' novels and other prose, plus posting up that fog prose poem (which I didn't like so much, I'm afraid). I'll try to do the same for three Latvian authors I can read in Swedish translation: Inga Abele, Gundega Repse, and Nora Ikstena. A total of four novels by the three have appeared in Swedish translation over the past few years, one each, and two by Abele.
As you may have noticed from the names, the Latvian authors I'm examining, as mentioned in my previous posting, are all women. I've not become a sudden convert to feminism. It's just that women writers in Latvia are in the lead, and secondly that the three novels translated by (male) translator Juris Kronbergs into Swedish are by these three women. I also have a rather longer novel translated into German, written by Laima Muktupavela, about Latvian guest workers in Ireland when it was still the Celtic Tiger, but I read German a good deal slower and with less comprehension than I do Swedish.
The sample below is from Kaija Straumanis’s translation of Latvian author Inga Ābele’s Paisums (High Tide).
In the Beginning
God didn’t create words.
In the beginning there was a dream.
And at the end there was again nothing but a dream.
God appeared to a woman in a dream that was like death.
God found the woman within the dream and said to her:
“If you agree to live your life in reverse, you’ll have the power to give life back to your lover, who died young. Just don’t get your hopes up—your meeting at that crossroads will last about twenty minutes, no more. Then he’ll continue on toward old age, but you, back to childhood.”
The woman agreed immediately.
“How strange. Do you really value your own life and experiences so little that you’re willing to undo it all without a second thought?”
The woman said nothing.
She remembered this dream when she awoke.
Turns Out—We’ve Lived
She doesn’t need any more advice—patterns, examples. Maybe it’s just a whole new level, but right now she doesn’t need it. She doesn’t read books, newspapers or magazines, doesn’t use the Internet or watch TV, doesn’t go—God forbid—to the theater. It’s like being wrapped in a blanket up to your chin: you see and hear everything, but can’t move a muscle. Everything is right there around you, within arms’ reach. She wanders the house and now and then picks up something, grabs onto something, touches on something. A sentence from a newspaper, a phrase from a Mexican soap opera, an idea from Proust. They’re all always going to be right.
On her walks, Ieva goes around the forest in circles. Then on her birthday she asks herself a question—why do I walk in circles, like a dog chained to a post? Because of my fears? Only because of my harsh, bitter fears? I can walk in a straight line, she tells herself—and whenever I want. So when she does finally walk straight she only feels like she’s actually getting anywhere. Her surroundings change, but the content doesn’t. Big cities are all essentially the same, and every country has farmers wearing plaid, made-in-China shirts. Any new place that she ends up, she eventually has a close group of friends a lot like the last. The group will always have a mentor, a lover, someone she’ll betray, someone who’ll betray her, an enemy, and friends she can talk to and find spiritual healing with, saving money on therapy.
Once in a while she breaks from the campaigns, the marathons, the expeditions, and returns to the doghouse and sits next to her chain. Sits absolutely still, like a Bedouin gazing into the distance, and then writes. Script writing is usually complicated, but all of her scripts are about the same thing. All very clichéd, and when she tries to make excuses to the director he tells her: I need you precisely for the clichés. Because the ending needs to be something predictable.
Her scripts are about how nothing happens because nothing can ever happen. Not a single molecule is lost in the eternal cycle between the earth and the heavens. Only a pure soul can hope to break free from the carousel of life and death, into the cosmos through the tunnel of light and at a speed that makes everything down to the smallest particle feel simultaneously heavy and weightless. Everything shrinks until it disappears, until it’s erased from the memory of the world along with its time. But to live your life until your soul is pure—don’t laugh, it’s not that easy—you have to become a Buddha, a Christ or a Mohammed. You have to become light itself, a pure soul. Then you can be on your way. But it’s a long way and you’ll be scrubbed, doused, and wrung clean until then. Those few mistakes that will haunt you, jolt you awake at night, and force you to keep going on, these mistakes that you carry with you your entire life—in the end they’ll destroy you. But keep thinking about them, keep thinking. It’s gratifying to keep picking away at them. It will heal you.
Eventually she doesn’t even write the scripts herself anymore, just touches up those written by others and sends them in. She takes the finished product and objectively embellishes them. She’s done work like that before—adding details to bulletin posters in her school days, a pioneer in the last generation of an aggressive Soviet empire. Her homeroom teacher called it “giving life” to something. “Take it to Ieva,” the teacher often said, “she’ll give it some life.” And Ieva would take her black marker and give the dull pencil sketches some life, be it Lenin or the Easter Bunny. A wavering shadow in the distance, a gleam in Lenin’s eye, and the tense muscles in his jaw, something she’d seen in her father’s face when he shaved in the morning. And Lenin would come to life. The Easter Bunny would, too.
Everything is proof of it—this forced gift of existence—even the tired face of a small-town bus driver in the early morning; it speaks of longing, the endless patience you have when scrutinizing good fortune that has unexpectedly dropped into your lap. And what does life offer in return…the quiet hum inside the bus where you can warm up, a change from the frozen and bleak winter landscape… What does it offer in return? A kiss goodbye from your wife before you head out, and the mildly bitter taste of coffee with cream? The early morning fog and a dead moose on the side of a road? Like an Indian who gets glass beads in return for gold, you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread. The feel of a dog’s wet nose against your hand. The look in your children’s eyes. A bird feeder. May it all bring you joy, says this opposing, unwanted, huge opportunity—Life. Truth everywhere, like rows and rows of weeds that need only a bit of rain to grow: a handful of TV shows, a handful of philosophical essays, a handful of tight-lipped snobs, a handful of bartering vendors.
Her mother’s mother, Gran, used to say: you’ll never know where you’ll lose something or where you’ll find it, and, if you knew where you’d fall, you’d put a pillow down first. In many ways Gran hadn’t outgrown childhood, had never experienced passion, never been disillusioned. She remained an innocent; that was her destiny. Her cheerful daily greetings were proof she had never discovered herself, her own anger, or her deeply hidden doubts. Doing so would mean being sent into freedom, out of the Garden of Eden. She had stayed in Eden, playing in rows of sun ripened, wild strawberries. And among the bustle were all life’s sentences—her parents’ deaths, her husband and children, the people she loved. But she never said “love” because she didn’t know the word, hadn’t evolved to words. Gran had been her parents’ pride and joy, a helper at the dairy farm with her white apron and silky ash-blonde hair, someone who never grew to know hatred. More precisely, she was oblivious to any daggers of hatred aimed at her. Instead, they went through her like she was nothing because she didn’t believe in bad people—just people. Her only sins were her pride and self-reliance. She always had tickets for sugar and bread, but also always had more for extra things. A kind word and a helping hand, the sense to put others before herself; she believed it was her choice and responsibility. She didn’t need anything from the Lord God, just some nice Lutheran Christmas songs and spiritual peace. She hadn’t unlocked that little door in her heart that led to spite. She stayed in her bud; her entire life spent in it and as a child. God and humanity attack these kinds of people more than anyone else because there’s something obnoxious about them. But neither God, nor humanity can use their endless recipes for disaster on these people because these people lack any trace of hate—and God can take a vacation since there’s no one to peddle vices to. Having fulfilled her duty to everyone she loved, Gran quickly retreated to her inner child, back into that bud. A small, polite girl who always walked on the sunny side of the street. And that’s how she ended her journey. She was stuck in her bud, in her helpless innocence, and then all the world’s charges were piled on top of her. Stay helpless as a baby, an animal, a prisoner, a fool, an alcoholic, a one-legged bum in a tunnel—and the world will quickly chafe you until you bleed, and you’ll understand why you’ve always needed God. You put Heaven on a pedestal while you still have the strength. And when you grow weak you see the devil. Not the one with horns and a tail, but the devil in the hurried compassion of the fast-paced world, the one that will kill you with kindness. [. . .]
Mother tries to remember where she’s seen it before.
Faces peering at her from a glaring brightness.
Big eyes. Lips that are saying something, smiling, cooing, scolding. Faces that pull her from the comforting darkness and into the light.
For a moment she sees her father; he points out the leaves overhead. She is a child in her stroller, a child absorbing every single detail. She sees the leaves and becomes them, submerges herself in them and their silky movement.
The faces in this narrow room are like the leaves. They form a canopy high overhead, full of rustling movement and a teasing wind. The faces look at her as she lies there like a dried-up worm, wedged between the body pillow and the wall. A pair of hands throw open the curtains—a window fills with light.
“Good morning! Time to get up,” a light voice says.
The face leans in very close—it’s a woman’s face.
Mother opens an eye. The other is crusted over with pus. She looks at the faces and her toothless mouth whispers a few syllables in greeting. Mother is afraid of the daytime, afraid of the daily routine. She’ll be rolled over, picked up, moved, washed—it hurts and it makes her uneasy. Mother wants to tell them she doesn’t understand why she needs to get up anymore. She’s tired, but they won’t leave her alone.
“And the worst is she somehow gets in there with her left hand. She grabs and tears at the diaper and then smears shit all over the place. She’s out of her mind. I’ve got to change the bedding twice a day—all of it.”
Mother closes the one eye and pretends this talk isn’t about her. For several years now her good eye has been covered by a film, a rapidly swirling fog with tiny black spots.
“You have to figure something out. I’m sure you can do something like tie a shirt over her chest,” says a second voice that’s lower, infused with darkness.
Mother likes that voice better.
“She doesn’t get in from the top, but from the bottom along her thigh. The entire bed is flooded by morning. She pees so, so much. And if there’s shit I can’t even come in here without gagging. You wouldn’t believe the smell,” the first voice complains, white and clear as a ray of light.
You can’t hide from that voice, so Mother just shuts her eye tighter.
“Maybe like something for a baby. A onesie that buttons up the sides.”
“Won’t work. Since the last treatment she’s completely lost it. Look at how small she is—but she’s heavy, as heavy as a rock. She’s dead weight, ten times heavier than me.
I make her stand up so her legs won’t totally atrophy. A few minutes a day. When I come home from work I have her sit up. You can’t believe how hard it is. I’ve sprained my back—it hurts. No, no, no. No onesies, no pants. She can’t even lift her legs. It would just mean extra clothes for me to wash. No, no, no. I had an idea yesterday—I’ll secure the diaper with electrical tape. Or a wide strip of duct tape. What do you think?”
“You can’t do that, Mom. Her skin will get infected.”
“You think so? Well, then I don’t know.”
Mother pretends she is dead. Pretends this stupid conversation isn’t about her. People only talk like that about children who misbehave. She’s not a bad child, never has been. No, no, no. [. . .]
Andrejs very carefully took two fragile champagne flutes in his calloused hands and handed them to the woman. Then he took the card leaning against the wall behind the glasses and sat on a stool next to the small table. He studied the yellowed paper as intensely as a war refugee who’s been pulled from the water and given a passport, and who can’t believe this thing could save his life.
The card was drawn with lead pencil on regular notebook paper and then glued to cardboard. Its edges were decorated with barbed wire, which connected at the top in a knot around a red rose. The lettering For Ludmila—Ruslans was separated by a date, in which the number two looked like a swan with a proudly curving neck. The drawing also had the North Star and the aurora borealis. Small lettering at the bottom read: She dreamt that in the Caucasus steppe…
So she wasn’t an accountant! So that’s where he’d seen that handwriting and date before! How could he forget?
She sat on the opposite stool at the table and twirled a strand of hair around her finger. Like she was flustered, clueless. When she lifted her eyes to meet his, they were bright with tears.
“That’s the last card my husband sent me.”
She wanted to tell him more, but he silenced her with an impatient gesture. He still couldn’t decide if he should go home right away or later. If he started to talk now, it would mean he wouldn’t go home until later.
But he started to talk. He hadn’t become a heartless monster yet.
“You don’t need to tell me. I drew this.”
The expressions on the woman’s face changed as quick as the wind, chasing after one another like the shadows of falling leaves—while she sat very stiff and straight, her eyes searching his face to figure out what his words could mean.
“Ruslans and I met at the Central Prison Hospital. He was already admitted when I was brought in. We were together for a week, or less, I don’t remember. In any case no more than a week. I was there when he died.”
The woman let out a weak scream, and the tears finally overflowed. She wiped the wetness across her cheeks with the back of her hand. Andrejs handed her a towel, which she immediately bundled up into a kind of squirrel’s nest and hid her face in it. He waited patiently for her to look up again.
“You could say I was the prison artist. I framed photographs by sewing plastic wires around the edges, drew on materials using safety pins and colored thread, etched wood, sketched. Ruslans found out and showed me your handwriting. Asked me to draw a card and write the words like you did. He really liked your handwriting. I recognized it right away, but thought that you worked at the prison as an accountant.”
The woman nodded feebly. She rummaged in a drawer without looking away from him and placed a candle on the table. She burned her fingers with the first match.
“Tell me how he died,” she said, her voice somber.
“He died at night. I was writing a letter to my wife, he was lying down. I thought he’d fallen sleep. Then he suddenly started coughing, ran to the door and banged on it like crazy. All at once, about a bucket of blood spewed from his mouth. And then he fell over. I lifted him a bit and held him, but he had already started with the death shakes. The guards came and took him away.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Don’t worry, it happened quickly. He didn’t suffer. It was over the second he ran to the door. Later the nurses said one of his pulmonary veins had burst.”
“But he managed to send the card out. When’s your birthday? Sometime in May, right?”
“And what’s this about the Caucasus, if it’s not a secret?”
“He was a really good person,” she finally said.
“I know. So what about the Caucasus?”
The woman thought for a bit.
“She dreamt that in the Caucasus steppe—
He lay still, a bullet in his breast . . .
And yet, I am Ruslan’s now,
And will be faithful to my vow.”
Andrejs propped the card against the windowpane so its edges were surrounded by the reflection of the candlelight.
The woman said:
“We liked poetry, like Pushkin’s ‘Ruslan and Ludmila.’ I’d read it to him when our kids were still little. Before he got mixed up in that damn gang and robbed that gas station… He was so surprised that there was a poem like that—about us, he said—just imagine! About us!”
The woman stood and opened the refrigerator. She pushed the champagne toward Andrejs, having suddenly grown very calm. He opened the bottle just as calmly and poured the chilled liquid into the glasses. In the reflection of the flame, the bubbles dancing in the sparkling wine seemed like lonely planets.
Good. We're moving in the right direction with regard to Latvian literature. This looks very promising. Inga Abele is one of the most accomplished Latvian writers.
This means, thanks to Straumanis, that Latvian literature will soon be on the map internationally, instead of being pushed back into obscurity by Estonian and Lithuanian literature.
A healthy rivalry between the three Baltic countries will show that even small countries can produce interesting authors. Up to now, the Latvian exile translators' community, with the exception of Juris Kronbergs, seems to have been lagging behind in the field of novels. Now the Letts may catch up.
When will the book be published, and with which publishing house?
I have translated Rainis' The Golden Horse (Zelta zings) into English. This is one of Latvia's most significant pieces of literature from 1909 (post-Latvian Revolution and pre-Independence of 1918). The work, a play is based upon a children's story, but is filled with symbolism - how to achieve cultural autonomy. The translation will include about 40 pages of relevant history and discuss Rainis' role in the cultural awakening of Latvia. The author was the editor of the liberal paper The Daily Page (Dienas Lapa) and the father of Latvian socialism. The translation will be self-published, but available through CreateSpace and Amazon. The anticipated publication will be in April or May of 2012. The publication has been supported, in part, by a grant from the American Latvian Association - Cultural Foundation.
Tell us when it appears, Vilis. It'll be interesting to look at.
Vilis Inde has completed a prose translation of Rainis' "The Golden Horse" along with historical context and a discussion of the author's role in Latvia's freedom movement at the turn of the 20th century. Avilable on Amazon. Enjoy!
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