Latvian Literature for Beginners
This will be a brief outline of Latvian literature through the ages, with some side- steps to history and other pertinent things. As far as possible I will avoid enumerating hundreds of names, but this endeavour will not be 100% successful. Since the country regained its independence 1991 book-publishing has flourished. Hundreds of optimistic publishers have flooded the market and many of them have not published more than one book.
The situation last year, in 2004, looked like this: 634 literary titles were published, of which 299 consisted of Latvian originals – prose 117; poetry 126; folklore, drama, other 56 titles. 87 them were children’s books and 335 were translations from other languages into Latvian. The two most well-known books in English by Latvian authors are not translations from Latvian, they were written in English by Latvian-born authors in the North American diaspora, and both deal with their own and their families’ experiences during WWII and its aftermath. These are Walking Since Daybreak by historian Modris Eksteins and Woman In Amber by Agata Nesaule. The most famous book (not very successfully) translated from Latvian into English is a book of Latvian Folk Poetry, that – as I was told this spring at Stanford University – was at one stage the most borrowed book from the library of the said university. Its title is: Sex Songs of the Ancient Letts. The erotically outspoken, and for the 21 st century reader, rather cute and humoristic four-line stanzas must really have shocked and thrilled young Americans in the puritanical 50s and late 60s just before “it all happened”.
Latvian folk songs are very up-to-date – as if they were written somewhere just outside of Woodstock in the 1960s: they are ecological, anti-war, pluralistic and matriarchal. They were saved from oblivion by generations of women as an oral tradition. We do not know how old they really are but we know that they were already censored in the beginning of the 13 th century by the invaders, the Teutonic Knights, who came to the territory that later became Latvia, with sword in one hand and the Bible in the other. Mr. Krisjanis Barons collected, systematized and published them in the beginning of the 20 th century – 284.000 four-line stanzas in six volumes, of which volume six is the volume from which our translating friends in America got their samples. The tradition of folk songs is still very much alive today and the Folklore Archive now has about one million four-liners, variations included.
That we can still read and understand this folk-poetry without problems has to do with the relatively few changes the Latvian language has undergone throughout the centuries. Latvian, together with Lithuanian make up the branch of the Indo-European language family known as the Baltic languages. They are the oldest currently spoken Indo-European languages, Lithuanian being the most archaic one. The relationship between Latvian and Lithuanian is a bit like that between Swedish and Icelandic.
Latvian is a synthetic language, which can create some difficulty when translating into, for instance English, which is an analytical language. In English, there is a more extensive use of small words like pronouns and auxillary verbs. It means that word order in a sentence is more strict. For example:
The man bit the dog
Vīrs iekoda sunim
In English you cannot switch the sentence around: “the dog bit the man” is something quite different, but in Lativan you can say: “sunim iekoda vīrs” – the endings of the words show the meaning, not their place in the sentence. This, of course, gives enormous possibilities for poetry!
We are now in Riga – with 800.000 people within the city limits. Greater Riga: almost 1.500.000, which means that half of the population lives within the Riga region. Riga – has been important not only to Latvia, but, since the beginning of the 13 th century it has had a number of different masters – Germans (German influence has been considerable since the times of the Hanseatic League), Swedes (it was the biggest city in the Swedish empire), Russians (the third most important city after St. Petersburg and Moscow). Mr. Gutenbergs invention came to use quite early ín Riga. Immanuel Kant’s works were printed here, and when the Russian Revolution had gone wrong, Vladimir Majakovskij’s love, Lili Brick, came to Riga to find a publisher for his poetry. These are just two internationally known publishing cases from different times in connection to Riga.
The year 1694 is important to Latvian Literature and culture. That was when the Latvian equivalent to The King James’ Bible: the translation of the Bible into Latvian, sponsored by the Swedish King Karl XI, was published. Riga has always been a city of culture – not only a city of nightlife – earlier called the Paris of the Baltic Sea region. Composers like Liszt and Wagner worked here – in our time celebrities, born and bred in Riga, include Gideon Kraemer, Michael Barijsnikov, Misha Maisky, Maris Liepa and Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks.
Starting points of Latvian literature
It was in the 19 th Century, during the national awakening, that a priest in Riga formulated his thoughts on national belonging trough language and tradition. It was Johann Gottfried Herder. In his Stimmen der Völker in Liedern, he also published Latvian Folk Poetry. Sir Walter Scott too made some translations of Latvian folk songs.
The real starting point of written Latvian Literature was the book Songs by Juris Alunans, where he wanted to show that deep and noble feelings can also be expressed in Latvian, which the German Barons regarded as a peasant tongue. This volume of poetry was published in 1856, the same year as Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleur du Mal, the starting point of European modernism in poetry.
The cornerstone of Latvian prose, the novel In the time of the Land-surveyors, by the brothers Kaudzite, was published in 1879.
The quest for an idyllic Latvian past ended around the turn of the Century. Instead we had – mainly through the many German and Russian connections – diverging movements of symbolism, decadence, and politically – socialism, Marxism, these movements went underground after the defeat of the largest national Latvian uprising exactly 100 years ago: the 1905 revolution – and the revenge from the tsarist regime was severe, leading to the first huge emigration of intellectuals from Latvia.
Among them was the foremost Latvian poet and playwright Janis Rainis and his wife Aspazija, also a poet and playwright. For 15 years they lived in Castagnola just outside Lugano in Switzerland. On the beautiful hillside of Mount Bré the socialist Rainis was the first to formulate the idea that Latvia could be, not a part of a more democratic Russian Empire – but a sovereign state.
Amazingly his exile writings were all published, though sometimes with difficulties, in the very same Empire he wanted to end.
In 1920 Rainis and Aspazija returned in triumph to the newly independent Latvia.
In 1918 with the first period of Independence, there was an amazing activity of modernistic Literature and Arts that slowed down in the 30s to end very abruptly – the same day that Hitler’s troops marched into Paris, June 17 1940, Stalin’s troops drove into Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
The Soviet occupation and exile
After WWII Latvian literary activity was split into three parts – those writers still in Latvia, those in the Gulag archipelago (after two mass-deportations in 1941 and 1949) and writers who had fled to the West, among them writers who, being part of the resistance movement had escaped the Nazi concentrations camps during the Nazi occupation of Latvia 1941 – 1945. The resistance movement organized boats, the so called Life-Line action, together with the Swedish and British military, that took people over the Baltic sea to the Swedish island of Gotland, only 150 kilometres from the Latvian coast. That is why, after WWII, for some years the centre of Latvian Literature was Sweden.
In the mid 1950s two important things happened: young Latvian exile writers started to publish their works in Stockholm, London, New York – the NY Hell’s Kitchen group became the leading one, and secondly, in the Soviet union comrade Nikita Sergejevich Chrustjov revealed the Stalin-eras crimes against humanity at the 20 th congress of the Communist Party in 1956. In literature this led to the so called 56 generation, and in Latvia there were notable representatives: Ojars Vacietis, Imants Ziedonis and Vizma Belsevica.
The Latvian poets on both sides of the Iron Curtain – each in their own way continued on the path set out by the foremost modernistic Latvian poet from the 20s and the 30s, Aleksandrs Č aks.
Younger generations would follow. In fact poetry became the most important expression of true statements, national belonging and spirituality during the Soviet years.
After almost fifty years of Soviet military dictatorship people in the Baltic countries were carrying a story, or stories, that had to be told. In fact, Baltic writers, and potential writers, had access to such an overwhelming number of stories, both tragic and absurd from their recent past that, especially young ones, in their flight from the demands of mandatory Soviet social-realism, more or less ignored the Soviet era to end up in a sort of post-modern aestheticism. It is only in the years on this side of the millennium border that we see younger and middle-aged writers return to a form of realism and a new look at the years of Soviet rule.
When is the starting point of post-soviet literature? We know that independence and international recognition of the Baltic countries came at the end of August 1991, after the failure of the coup d’etat in Moscow the 19 th and 20 th of the same month. But in many ways it is also right to say that in reality the Soviet Union had collapsed earlier, more like in the fall of 1989. We know now that even the KGB at that time recognized that the Baltic countries were lost to the Soviet Union, and so began to take away some very interesting pieces of a very special sort of KGB fiction from the archives in Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn and left behind very “cleverly” selected pieces of information about leading politicians, in order to create chaos, in which to some extent they also succeeded. So I would argue that the staring point of Post-Soviet literature is 1988, which was also the time of the founding of the Popular fronts in the Baltic countries. It was a period of an inflow of information from the West, the starting point of avant-garde literary magazines like the Latvian Avots, the Spring (its Russian version Rodnik was very well known all over the Soviet Union and could be bought for a huge price on the black market in Moscow).
The bookshops in Latvia in the last years of the Soviet Union and in the first years of independence were filled with the literature of yesterday. You could find almost 50 years worth of exile literature; there were new editions of translations from the 20s and the 30s, as well as contemporary international literature in translation.
I am myself an example of the new literature after the fall… earlier my books were of course forbidden. In 1989, my first collection of poetry was published in an edition of 20 000 copies and sold out in a couple of weeks. My later books of poetry were published in much smaller numbers. Back to normality!
Latvia re-gained independence. Latvian literature re-gained the past – it’s own: the black-listed exile writers, and the black-listed writers from the modernistic period of the 20ies and 30ies. A good illustration of this circumstance is a very moving story from the end of the 1960s, about the writer Alberts Bels who thought he, in his novel The Investigator – a crime story about a sculptor whose works are stolen, but in the end it turns out that the events only took place in the protagonist’s mind – believed he had invented the stream of consciousness, without knowing that Joyce’s Ulysses had not only been discussed in the literary magazine Daugava in the beginning of the 30s, but that a Latvian novel inspired by Ulysses, had also been published in the 30s, Dienas krusts (Cross of the Day) by Jānis Vesels. When Alberts Bels found that out, he spent a whole week in the bars of Riga.
Voices of the people
During the Soviet time, the writer, especially the poet, was the voice of the people. Some poets, like Imants Ziedonis, had a status not unlike a movie star’s in the West. During the last years of the Soviet Empire, the situation started to change, to become more like it is in all pluralistic Western democracies. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said that poetry concerns only 1% of the people. Maybe that’s the way it always will be – except in totalitarian situations when the poet becomes the Prophet.
Vizma Belševica, born in 1931, was one of the strongest voices of her generation. Several times during the Soviet years her poetry was banned and she herself became an un-person. At the same time her international reputation grew, and her name was often mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize for literature. After independence she wrote a remarkable autobiographical trilogy that immediately became a bestseller in Latvia and a critically acclaimed success in Sweden. The three novels about the girl Bille, the author’s alter ego, take place from the middle of the 1930s to the first years after WWII. The focus is the relationship between the girl and her mother, but at the same time the book depict, among other things, the period in Latvia between the First and the Second World Wars, a period the barley existed in the eyes of the Soviet Authorities – as one poet put it: “immediately after the Stone Age came Soviet rule” – but a period that was understandably glorified by most Latvians. In spite of an unaffectionate mother and poverty and war, Belševicas trilogy is full of humour and life.
Though officially banned, poetic modernism found its way through small holes in the Iron Curtain. Its foremost representatives in the 1970s were three young poets – Leons Briedis, Janis Rokpelnis and Uldis Berziņš. But even they, and especially Uldis Berziņš, were voices of the people.
Uldis Berziņš poems have a total presence in time and space – history, cultural history, the present time, the future coexist in a, in Soviet time, politically incorrect manner – and in language: high and low style come together in a very dense poetry. But his poems are never speculative in an unfocused manner, they are concrete in aim, they don’t hesitate to ask the ultimate questions: why are we here? what happens after death? does God exist? what is time? Time is, in one way or another, always present in Uldis Berzinš poetry.
Still during the Soviet era, Uldis and I came up with an idea to publish a book together about the same theme – I would write in Swedish and Uldis would translate my poetry into Latvian, and thus introduce me as a Swedish poet! Uldis leafed through a Swedish grammar book and thought the threshold to the Swedish language was so low that there would be no problem to learn the language. But soon things started to change very rapidly – there was no more need for me to write in Swedish, and when our book was published in 1994, it was sort of a poetic chronicle about the fall of the Empire and the first years of independent Latvia.
Witnesses and old debutants
Latvian literature has, since the fall of the Empire, seen several books about the Siberian experience. In exile many books have been published through the years about different aspects of the World War II experience, including Dzintars’ Sodums’ satirical WWII novel in 1957 (a year before Heller’s Catch 22 ) – Lets Build a Bridge across the Wide Sea .
In 1986, a Latvian author published his first collection of short stories, titled Breakfast in the Green . Of course we immediately think of Manet’s painting with the same title, we remember reading that it was banned from the official annual Paris exhibition, but was still shown and created a sensation at an alternative one. That was in 1863 but 103 years later in the beginning of Glasnost and Perestroika the whole of the Soviet Union was rapidly becoming one vast “alternative” scene.
The debutant in question was Valentīns Jakobsons. He was born in 1922 and at the time of his debut had already reached the honourable age of 64 – an age when so-called normal people are about to retire.
Among those taken to the cattle trains for transportation to the Gulag archipelago was the Jakobsons family. One of the family members was 19 years old Valentīns. The cattle railway wagons took him and thousands of others to a place that can rightly be called hell on earth. And thus he was introduced to the main theme of his later writing…
His main contributions to literature are the three collections of short stories. The previously mentioned Breakfast in the Green (1986), Breakfast in the North (1992) and Breakfast at Midnight (1995), the two last dealing with his Siberian experience. Breakfast in the North takes places in Norilsk labour camps and Breakfast at Midnight in Siberian exile “beyond faraway lands, in the distant Siberian marshlands, in the middle of primeval forests, on the steep shore of the ice-cold Vasjugana river”, where the “The village of Jolly” is situated. The two latter “breakfast” titles are a form of black humour, casting a dark shadow over our joyful picnics and our everyday normality, when we remember the hunger and famine in the “jolly villages of Siberia”.
Jakobsons is one of the few writers with a Gulag experience that is able to write about it with humour and irony! The ironic comments can sometimes punctuate the story in a Brechtian manner, making the reader take a step back from the narrative, but paradoxically, end up moving the reader even more. Jakobsons is a brilliant stylist; he masters his literary tools very well. His short stories are, to borrow a sentence from W.H. Auden, “well made objects that give credit to the language in which they are written”.
Poet and translator Knuts Skujenieks was born in 1936. After difficult early years – orphanage, war experience – Skujenieks went through the Soviet education system and graduated from the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow in 1961. Next year he was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment as an anti-soviet agitator, his “crime” consisting mostly of telling political anecdotes and owning Encyclopaedia Britannica (although it was available in many libraries). In his 7 Gulag-years he wrote approximately 1000 poems. He returned home in 1969 and promptly established a reputation as a great poet, brilliant translator from many languages, and a keen critic, though he was allowed to publish his first collection of poetry only thirteen years later, in 1978. The next book appeared in 1986. But his Gulag period poems could only be published shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. Knuts Skujenieks has been president of Latvian Pen Centre and has received the prestigious Baltic Sea region poetry prize – named after the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.
Skujenieks’ statement is: you can imprison my body, but not my spirit. His are poems are written in the Gulag, they are not poems about the Gulag. His collected works, under publication, will fill 8 volumes. The main body of his poetry is a sort of Skujenieks’ own Divinia Commedia: Inferno being the Gulag poems, Purgatorio – the poems written after returning home and Paradisio – love poems, paradise on earth is possible in spite of all.
Another book about the Siberian experience is Sandra Kalniete’s “With dancing shoes in the Siberian snow”.
Sandra Kalniete was born in Siberia 1952. She took an active part in the Popular front and Latvia’s regaining of Independence. Since 1990 she has worked at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, she has been the Latvian ambassador in Paris, the Foreign Minister and EU commissioner. Her book, a bestseller in Latvia, has been translated in other languages. It was very well received in France, it was the magazine ELLE’s book of the month. It will be published in Sweden this autumn. The title of the book is a reference to her mother, Ligita, who was deported in June of 1941 on the eve of what would have been her first dance. Her luggage consisted of her new dance shoes. Her parents, dubbed “enemies of the state”, were charged with “exploiting the working class.” Sandra’s father was seventeen when he was sent to the Tomsk district in 1949. His only crime was being related to a “bandit”: his father-in-law was a member of the “Forest Brethren”, a partisan resistance group fighting against the Soviet occupation.
But Kalniete’s book is not only a very moving story about the fates of her family members in “the Valley of the Dead”, it is also an overview of Latvian history of the 20 th Century, and presents a penetrating insight in the madness of Soviet communism, just as vivid as Anne Appelbaum’s, highly praised, GULAG.
The post-modernist invasion
At the same time we saw three significant post-modern novels in the Baltic countries. Maybe it was inevitable, bearing in mind the post-modern landslide in West, but also, because the Baltics were places of such high density that these works of prose were a sort of Baltic Big bang, creating chaos, necessary for the new order to take form – because as we know: Chaos is a neighbour of God. There are differences, characteristic ones, between the three: the Estonian, Jaan Undusk’s Hot: a story of young love, is more of an intellectual construction, the Lithuanian, Ričardas Gavelis’ Vilnius Poker, more socially oriented and the Latvian, Dukts, written by Aivars Ozoliņš (born in 1957), is essentially pure language, parody and self-parody.
Dukts begins with a comma sign, followed by the number 8, which could be the sign for eternity vertically instead of horizontally. But before that nothing has existed. And this sentence, that starts in the middle goes on for eleven pages, and it doesn’t end with a point, neither does the novel…
Ozolins is the foremost representative of postmodernism and deconstruction in contemporary Latvian literature. Due to the success of the novel the concepts of dukts, duktologi, duktism gained a life of their own outside Ozoliņš text – often duktism meant the Latvian variant of postmodernism. Dukts is a parody and an intellectual anecdote. Dukts parodies mythologisation. Dukts makes fun of those naïve readers who think in mythological patterns and follow authority rather than their own common sense. But there is also the suspicion that if one patiently peels off the brilliant shell of Dukts one finds a passionate defence for relativism, diversity and the sovereignty of the individual – against self-parodying, destructive, totalitarian systems. The last word of the book is an answer to the question, who it is that’s talking all the time. And the answer is that it doesn’t matter, the main thing is the talking as such.
After the outburst of national independence and that of Dukts, conformity has been blown to bits. And so has, in poetry, the abab or abcb rhymed stanza.
Is poetry still the strongest genre of Latvian literature, and if so, for how long? And now that we don’t have the same kind of collective mission, who are our friends and who are our allies today? And who is our enemy?
I think our greatest enemy is oblivion, the death of our language. But by maintaining it, writing in it, our unique experience can be heard, even in translation into English.
As far as the possibilities for Latvian writers to be heard I am somewhat optimistic because of the Nordic experience. Not too long ago it was the conviction, internationally, that literature from the Nordic countries was about a guy un a snow-covered cabin – and the surrounding darkness is complete, the guy is lonely, his wife has left him, of course she also took the children and the dog, and the guy is slowly drinking himself to death, while contemplating suicide… so it was… but then a girl named Sophie received a very funny letter in her mailbox, but then a woman called Miss Smilla had some very clever observations about snow… well… I just wanted to say – things change.