Latvia: living with the enemy

Lasītāja emailed me back in April. There wasn’t much Latvian prose available in translation, she said, but she did have a few suggestions: the Latvian Literature Centre had a small database of translations I could search and Guernica Press in Canada had got a grant to publish a short story collection by Nora Ikstena which might be out in time for me to include it in the project (sadly not by the looks of it). However, my best hope was probably European Parliament Member for Latvia Sandra Kalniete’s With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows, a work of literary non-fiction published in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press in 2009.

When I looked it up, I discovered it also happened to be the most translated Latvian title since the work of Vilis Lācis, who died in 1966. What was it, I wondered, that had made the book such a run-away success?

Ranging across the 20th century, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows reveals the impact of the deportation of Kalniete’s parents from Latvia to Siberia, where Kalniete was born in 1952. One of countless Latvian families to suffer displacement, bereavement and extreme hardship on account of the Soviet occupation of their country, the Kalnietes had to develop great resourcefulness simply to survive decades of persecution that saw many of their closest friends and relatives killed. Through their story, Kalniete traces the history of modern Latvia and reveals the dark mechanisms driving an atrocity that is rarely ever mentioned in the West.

Kalniete sets out her intention to present the facts as openly and honestly as she can from the very first page. Starting with a series of stark potted histories and vignettes, she sketches the circumstances of her relatives’ lives and deaths, together with hints of the long-term impact of their experiences – such as the fact that 44 years after her mother returned from Siberia she was still unable to watch bread being carried away from the table without feeling a degree of panic.

The book that follows reveals the context of these short pieces, both in terms of personal stories and the history of Latvia and its neighbours. As you might expect from a politician (well, some politicians, anyway) Kalniete is rigorous when it comes to state affairs. She provides valuable and detailed accounts of the three successive occupations of Latvia in the early 20th century (twice by the Soviet Union and once by Germany), as well as a chilling insight into how a once-free society can be subjected and controlled by an external power. For the Western reader, there are also some surprising observations which bear witness to how little most of us know of events that took place on the other side of Germany during the world wars: I was staggered to read, for example, that Finland managed to hold out on its own against the Soviet invasion for 105 days in 1939-40, while the accounts of how the Nazi soldiers were initially welcomed by Latvians as liberators are testament to the harshness of the Communist regime.

However, it is her relatives’ stories that bring out Kalniete’s most telling writing. Sparing herself nothing in the effort to get to the heart of what happened, Kalniete reveals the hardships suffered by her parents and grandparents: the deportation train packed with people that sat in a station for three days; the cold, brightly lit cellar where her grandfather was forced to sleep on his back with his hands by his sides in between spells of interrogation; the moss and grass her mother and grandmother had to eat to survive the Siberian ‘Island of Death’; and the tyranny by bureaucracy that saw people trapped in limbo for want of the correct form, condemned for crimes they did not commit, and sentenced to permanent exile from their homeland for owning property or being related to an enemy of the state.

Most moving of all are the moments when the composed demeanour of the professional writer-turned-investigative journalist slips and we see what the telling of this story means to its author. Kalniete’s description of her excitement at holding her grandfather’s case file and putting her hand on his fingerprint, for example, is touching, while her reflections on what allowing their daughter to be indoctrinated with Soviet propaganda for her own safety must have cost her dissident parents are fascinating. And when she recounts the impact of an interview with her mother about what it is like to starve, the full force of emotion breaks through:

‘When I later listened to the taped conversations, their calm flow seemed unbearable to me, so abnormal was their content. The sad story told in my mother’s everyday voice singed me with sudden waves of pain. My body shook and I had to hang onto my desk to contain my uncontrollable sobs. I could not listen to my practical voice repeating a question about how a rat tastes or wondering how mother had not died from eating a horse cadaver.’

Despite its devastating content, the book contains much that is uplifting too. From love stories and small triumphs, to Kalniete’s mother’s dogged-to-the-point-of-irrational determination to dress and educate her daughter in preparation for a return to Latvia – a return that looked impossible for many years, given that the family had been sentenced to exile for life – the book reveals how dignity and the human spirit can endure in the most appalling circumstances. As the dance shoes of the title suggest – which refers to the flimsy shoes in which Kalniete’s mother was arrested and forced to travel to Siberia at the age of 14 – sometimes the smallest details can become a symbol of identity and resistance in the face of those who would extinguish hope. Outstanding.

With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows (Ar balles kurpem Sibirijas sniegos) by Sandra Kalniete, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailītis (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009)

Estonia: the past is another country

The Estonian Literature Centre was one of the first national literature organisations on the web. It launched in 2001, back when Mark Zuckerberg was just starting out at Harvard and tweeting was something only birds did. Judging by my correspondence with it, the organisation is also one of the most efficient of its type: within a few days of my query email, I received a message from Kerti at the centre. She sent me a list of three recommendations and attached the manuscript of a crime novel set in medieval Tallinn, for which the centre is trying to find an English-language publisher.

Tempting though the crime novel was, I decided to go with The Beauty of History by Viivi Luik. This was largely because, from what I could find out, she is one of the country’s most highly acclaimed writers behind Jaan Kross, the Estonian writer most well-known to the rest of the world.

The novel follows a young woman who agrees to pose for a sculptor around the time of the Prague Spring in 1968. With change sweeping across Europe and shivering the Iron Curtain, the woman sees life around her tilting out of alignment as old certainties buckle and the authorities rush to clamp down on underground networks. The sculptor senses it too and is preparing to escape to the West in order to avoid military service, but for his model the events have less tangible and more emotional consequences that send her groping through the past, present and future, trying to locate herself in a world that will never be the same.

This is a book about the power of words – words that forbid, mask and betray, and ‘must be soaked in blood in order to be effective’. With the oppressive Soviet regime necessitating the adoption of a ‘secret language’ for communication about the sculptor’s plans, innocent, everyday terms take on sly, double meanings that mean the heroine ‘can never understand whether the talk is simply of buying butter and cream or of the arrival of fateful news’.

Luik further emphasises the infiltration of terror into daily life through her use of quaint and everyday objects in her imagery: fear ‘flashes like a silver ear-trumpet into which one cannot speak, but only whisper and wheeze’, and ‘glows in naked forty-watt bulbs like an egg’.

In addition, the author’s spiralling of her heroine and her reader through time underlines the interconnectedness of personal and national narratives, revealing how political upheavals change not only the present and the future, but also the way we look at the past. When ‘all ages are flung together’ and ‘years are linked to one another like human vertebrae’, a single shock affects the whole organism.

The blending of myth, memory, past and future has a disorientating effect, which makes the narrative seem to whirl wildly at certain points, flinging the reader into confusion. This was no doubt exacerbated by my ignorance of Estonian political history, which meant that several references that might have provided hand holds slipped through my grasp.

Taken as a whole, though, this was an absorbing and beautiful tribute to the desire for freedom of thought, movement and self-determination. It left me with a powerful impression of what living under occupation might mean and a strange, wistful sense of the secret lives of everyday things.

Thanks, Kerti, for the recommendation – if any English-language publisher is looking for a historical Tallinn crime novel for its list, the Estonian Literature Centre may have just the book.

The Beauty of History (Ajaloo ilu) by Viivi Luik, translated from the Estonian by Hildi Hawkins (Norvil Press, 2007)