PORTRAIT – Laima Muktupāvela

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The writer Laima Muktupāvela (1962) has published stories since 1993. Her first novel, Šampinjonu Derība (The Mushroom Testament, 2002), enjoyed an unusually successful debut. Since the era of social realism, the concept of reality – or, more precisely, the ancient principles of realist writing – has been devalued in Latvian literature; practically each one of the talented writers debuting in the last ten years has attempted to turn against the code of realism by using abstractions, metaphor, and other stylistic elements.
In Šampinjonu Derība, Muktupāvela attempted to revive these classic principles of writing – an endeavour that was certainly successful, and which transported Muktupāvela to the forefront of Latvian fiction. In Šampinjonu Derība, a young woman named Īva Baranovksa (Muktupāvela’s first stories were published under the pseudonym Felikss Baranovskis) travels to Ireland in search of happiness and quick cash. (Ireland continues to be a popular destination for Latvians seeking employment and an increase in their income; both young and old travel to wealthy countries like Ireland to work in low-level jobs for pay much higher than they would receive at home in Latvia. The writer’s personal experiences are widely used in the novel.)
Īva doesn’t make any money and, during her first week there, is thrown in jail for a while. Later, she is forced to get used to being a “white slave.” (The novel’s subheading is Melnie balti ķeltos (Bloody Balts in Ireland)). Īva flees from slavery and finds a new home where the slavery is a bit more liberal; but even so, she has no room to breathe. During her adventures, Īva meets many unbearable, but nevertheless colourful, characters. Slowly but surely, the world tries to break her; but Īva, who is full of a healthy and enviable dose of optimism, continues to fight against the odds. In the end, she goes back to Latvia, where the money she earned goes toward the funeral of “The Poet.” (“The Poet” is Muktupāvela’s alias for poet Aivars Neibarts, an extravagant character who died in 2001. During the Soviet era, Neibarts was the representative of the local counterculture – a non-conformist both in real life and in his poetry. The benevolent and ironic tone of his texts is echoed in Šampinjonu Derība).
This is essentially all that happens in the novel. Dreary and grey day-to-day life, without any Celtic exoticisms; mushroom picking from morning till night, sustained by an endless diet of mushrooms (in order to save money). Yet the author has the rare gift of being able to describe these altogether mundane events with clarity and elegance – along with a dose of the author’s own scepticism and ironic distance. The fact that Īva is from Latgale (the eastern region of Latvia, which is the home of a specific accent that is very different from traditional Latvian) adds some comic relief to the text, for she often responds with a barrage of Latgalian phrases, and hence totally inadequately, to the questions and commands in English that she does not understand.
Šampinjonu Derība is a work written with great skill, exuding a zest for life – though without claiming to be a serious analysis or deserving of a spot in the upper shelf of literature. But, strangely enough, it is precisely the lack of such pretensions that make the book worthy of attention. At the end of every chapter, the reader finds a recipe for a mushroom dish, and at least a portion of the recipes (though they can also be put to practical use) operate as ironic paraphrases of the events in the novel, or dig deep into the mythological depths of ancient history. Among these recipes we find the mushroom cake “Kuhulin’s Toy Closet;” the mushroom jewellery “The Kali Necklace;” the mushroom pie “Trimurti,” which, strangely enough, manages to include God, Māra, and Laima from the Latvian pantheon, as well as the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Odin, Thor, and Frer.
Muktupāvela’s text is reflected in the recipes, and vice versa, and this simple and essentially technical device adds an additional mythological dimension to her novel. In both of her next books, the author once again focused on the mythological dimension, which acted merely as a garnish in Šampinjonu Derība.
The collection of stories entitled Ducis (A Dozen, 2002) features twelve stories, the titles of which make up the full cycle of a year, forming a closed circle – one of the symbols of infinity. In the stories, mundane events taking place in the Latvian countryside assume an almost cosmological dimension.
The novel Cilpa is strikingly different from Šampinjonu Derība. The author has called this novel a “mythological thriller,” adding that it was designed according to the principles of an Indian raga – that is, the same group of motifs is endlessly repeated, taking on a different meaning in each new context. Cilpa is a remote country village; at the same time, it is also the centre of the world – a lost, sought-after, and perhaps even a potential paradise, as well as absolutely self-sustaining structure and the home of the mythological World Tree, which appears in the shape of a lookout tower. (The novel is saturated with these somewhat ironic allusions). Cilpa is simultaneously mythical and real; its mythical elements form a fantastic chaos in which paraphrases of pagan beliefs and the plots of Latvian fairy tales have been interwoven with allusions to Christianity (many of the novel’s characters are named after figures in the Bible) and literary citations (for example, the character named Dante walks through hell, purgatory, and paradise). The world of Cilpa is extraordinary wide in scope, and quite impressive. Unfortunately, the novel’s mythological elements do not harmonize with the attributes of a thriller, which in Muktupāvela’s novel include the mystical “they” – who see and know everything and follow everyone – and a plot that deals with the sale of narcotics (“artificial paradises” that are contrasted with the mythical paradise of Cilpa).
In the end, one gets the impression that the author has attempted to once again play on Latvian literature’s age-old theme of the contrast between the country and the city, in which the country is natural and harmonious, and the city, and contemporary civilization in general, is the root of all evil. For this reason, the novel is reminiscent of a pretentious and somewhat-naïve allegory. The author is saved by the novel’s ironic tone and her masterful use of the Latvian language; this mastery is most apparent in her use of the Latvian language’s archaic dimensions, in situations where contemporary events are described with mythological attributes.
In her novel Mīla. Benjamiņa (Love. Benjamina, 2005), writer Laima Muktupāvela reincarnated herself in the character of the 1920s Latvian millionaire Emīlija Benjamiņa, uncovering both the intimate, hidden aspects of Benjamiņa’s personality and her outwardly dazzling features, displayed before society. The novel is based in a deep and thorough study of archival documents and other materials; its message is loose, brilliant, and exciting.
Muktupāvela has the following to say about her newest book, a short-story collection entitled Totēmi (Totems, 2007): “We are all hunters and the hunted. We hear within us the primordial, wildly candid souls of nature children, speaking from the time when the Sun and the Moon walked the face of the Earth. We recognize in ourselves part of eternity and part of those who have not locked their beings behind canons and polite behavior but, rather, live according to godly instincts. As do we, when we throw away the muzzles of civilization. We are all so similar and fragile. Everything depends on the net thrown by feelings of love. That’s what we’ve named the instinct for procreation, which nature has wisely endowed us with. We’ve called this instinct by other names, too: understanding, attachment, trust… We have our billy goats, and we have enough cuckoos. But sometimes we really are like foxes, bobcats, turtles, birds. We fly; we crawl; we swim. All stories are true. The characters are not invented; the situations are real.”

Guntis Berelis

Translated by Rihards Kalniņš

Edited by Rita Ruduša-Case and Mark Case

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