Pauls Bankovskis // PORTRAIT
Pauls Bankovskis (1973) is the most productive of the younger generation Latvian prose writers; author of nine novels, several novellas and three collections of short stories.
With his first books – the story collection St. Bocasines Tree (1996) and novel Book of Times (1997) – Bankovskis debuted as a post-modern writer, characteristically most interested in the ultimate reason for and existence of books, and literature, overall. The plot of Book of Times is intricate: the story development travels through time, as well as journeying through different worlds whose history is played out in variants (among them, for instance, the version offered of World War II, in which Stalin and Hitler sign a peace treaty in order to conquer the world together). Nor is it written as an ostensive hidden track of real history, as it contains both imagined and valid processes, with time periods and worlds constantly shuffled and revealed again, forming paradoxical twists of plot. Several separate story lines interweave, the connection between them established – though not entirely clearly – at the end of the book. More precisely, there is one plot line, but it is simultaneously realized in several worlds (books?).
Bankovskis also published the anti-utopian story for adolescents, Thin Ice (1999), but after that his creativity changed direction; specifically, he made a radical alteration to his writing principles, playing as a trump card just that field around which writers of Bankovskis’ generation drew a wide circle – following the rules of the old form, realism, and setting his writing in this time period.
The novels Soviet Latvian Woman (2001) and Cheka, Bombs & Rock’n’Roll (2002) are retrospective looks at the era of socialism in Latvia. Cheka, Bombs & Rock’n’Roll is especially impressive, and can be viewed as one of the outstanding Latvian novels of the early 21st century. The action takes place between the years 1978-89, the most tarnished phase of Soviet splendor. From the beginning the scene is so chaotic that it is difficult for the reader to orient oneself. There’s the thoroughly drunk poet Harry Mikelson, who for the consolidation of his career becomes speaker for the Cheka; there’s the old Cheka official who commits suicide for unknown reasons, leaving his house to Mikelson; there’s the swimmer, potential champion Eva Kallas, and her incomplete romance with the somber Israeli spy Joren, himself unaware for whom he works and what he gains from his spying; there’s ruffian and rapist Zmejs and his comrades; there’s Jozef, who’s joining the army, and endless numbers of other individuals – the novel is thickly peopled (a long cast of characters being a trademark of Bankovskis’ last novels).
Each has a separate story line, and at first glance it seems they have, and could have, nothing in common. At times their paths draw close and touch, then separate and grow distant again, the information gained seeming a coincidental and fortuitous sighting. Each of these individuals seems to represent, from one side, only themselves; from another, they project the greater context of the novel.
Mister Latvia (2002), in its turn, is in the style of a period novel of nefarious doings, and is plot-wise an incredibly involving story about a person’s tragic-comic and at times unbelievable experiences at the beginning of the 20th century. Identities are constantly changing in the novel, authentic occurrences in history interlace with the author’s concessions (among them, for instance, Bankovskis’ juxtaposition of real historical events such as Latvian revolutionaries robbing a bank at the beginning of the 20th century in England and experiences during the Russian Revolution, written with eccentric and free interpretations of history), creating as a whole an impression of the timeframe, which is dominated by the absurd – and, if the time is absurd, then experiences within it are also absurd (though one must add that, differentiating this from other novels in which absurdity has the appurtenances of total hopelessness, the author of Mister Latvia has utilized more farcical elements).
Pauls Bankovskis’ novel Eurorenovation (2005) is a voluminous novel for contemporary Latvian literature; and it is written “severally” – this in relation not only to its experimentation with reality, grammatical tense, the function of language and style, genre, etc. As though following Herbert Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic writings about transformations of perception and the perfecting of electronics; so to speak, in the new age of acoustics, the author has made his book a multi-media production. Even without the hope of achieving a particular ambition, sanction to open the book and start reading from either side (cover) allows a smooth building up of interpretations, as though rising above the dictates of an age of alphabetical order (moreover the second/first cover opens into a wider development of text and possibilities for connections, giving reference to the web of Paul Bankovskis’ representations.
And yet – there is something else that adds significance to Paul Bankovskis’ work. This is the condition that he attaches to all his work, using in artistic and intuitive form, the recently experienced or endured period of time, as well as circumstances which cannot be understood – something that the historian holds back from the written history (an objective viewpoint) and reality (insofar as reality is individually perceived and a person or people in the novel have an interrupted awareness of it). Very personally presented and with utter simplicity (like a pop culture standard) – for the return of their unvarnished past in written form, readers may be thankful to the writer. For the impetus to think about history as well. We. Our search is in the novel a tormenting one that has no end. In attempting to relate various doctrines, ideal systems, historical perspectives or simply political correctness to experience, sooner or later there are discrepancies and a) heroism appears equally to be absurd; b) the ideal and the norm appear controvertible; c) principles seem to be constructions vulnerable to history – one cannot answer questions for others, nor for oneself. The writer raises many questions and sketches out many problematical areas in our history and mode of life – Latvians and Russians, Latvians and Jews (or perhaps Latvia and Russia, Latvia and Europe?) – what really happened to us in the cordoned years before 1991? And later? The novel begins in Greece, the cradle of Europe, which the author uses also as justification to bring in Greek myths, among them that of Narcissus. The concept of mirror images is also at the center of the novel, seeing oneself and one’s people in reflection – no matter whether through theory, history or travelogue – it is not possible to draw back from reflection, it pulled Narcissus to his death.
2006 saw the publication of Bankovskis’s novel Ofšors (Offshore). In the work, where reality mingles with imagination, the protagonist sets off on a journey that ends with a plane crash; afterward, he finds himself in a mythological land of ancient Latvians. Along the way, the protagonist’s thoughts, associations, and memories about family, school, marriage, church, the state where he lives, and his peers, friends, and acquaintances comprise a tragicomic literary process of self-discovery. By positioning himself in a specific time and place, the protagonist – with all his weaknesses and interests, and through his relationships, the facts of his existence, and experiences – captures the essence of our time and our society.
Bankovskis’s short story collection Skola (School) was published along with the novel Ofšors. The collection includes sixteen stories, which address the theme of school; they include Extended Day Group, Autumn Field Day, Motorcycle Summer, Yearly Bonus, Cheeses, and Rubik’s Cube. In the collection, the author looks at the subject of school from a myriad of different angles. The stories transport the reader back to a school environment during the Soviet era – dodgeball in gym class, grenade-throwing and the girls’ locker room – and help recall the gathering of therapeutic herbs, obligatory summertime work picking beets in the fields, or the feeling when you have currency or a voucher and may get your hands on imported goods – jeans or a Rubik’s Cube. But most of all, the stories themselves are a type of school, where, through the depicted relationships, events, and facts, the reader may learn about himself, his time, and the world around him.
Also in 2006, Bankovskis published the work Drēbes jeb Ādama tērps (Clothes or Adam's Costume), which was included as part of the international series The Myths. The book is a contemporary version of the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve.