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)

Russia: cold comfort

‘How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?’

I’m being a bit self-indulgent here given the hundreds of excellent and intriguing contemporary Russian novels out there. But the truth is, I’ve been wanting to read this book nearly half my life, ever since one of my A-level English teachers described how she’d spent one Christmas absorbed in it in her teens.

I’m not the first to feel this way. When it was published in the journal Novy Mir (New World) in November 1962, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s portrait of life in the Siberian Gulag, which drew on his own eight years imprisonment in labour camps, flew off the shelves, causing the magazine to sell out, whipping up international outrage and eventually leading to his deportation on the grounds that he opposed the principles of the Soviet Union. (He was allowed back and award the Nobel Prize in the end, but not for long time.)

One of the Ronseal school when it comes to titles, the novel does exactly what its name suggests: it follows one prisoner, Ivan Denisovich (or Shukhov), through a single day. Yet this window of time and experience becomes the prism through which Solzhenitsyn diffracts the Gulag system, separating out its psychological, political, emotional and sociological impact on the prisoners, the guards and the wider world for all to see.

When your world is shrunk to a single punishing routine, little things come to matter very much: the mittens you hide under your pillow, the piece of bread squirreled into an inner pocket, the trowel concealed in the wall because it is slightly better than the others and will help you work faster. Dignity and identity also shrink but are not extinguished: they persist in your pride at not scrounging, in playing fair with your peers, in finding little loopholes through which to gain an extra portion by rendering someone a service.

Likewise, the guards are diminished and hardened by their daily efforts to limit and control the existence of others. Meanness glimmers in the thermometer placed in a sheltered corner so that it never drops below the -41 degrees that would enforce a day off work and in the carelessness that sees prisoners hauled out of bed again and again to be recounted.

The narrative reflects this shrinking, slipping into the present second person now and then, as though the reader is a new arrival whom Shukhov has taken under his wing and is showing the ropes. So engrossing is the text (which features on the Translators Association’s list of 50 Outstanding Translations from the Last 50 Years), that it can be quite jolt to find yourself looking up and realising you are not in the Gulag anymore.

All of which is doubly impressive because, really, this is a novel that shouldn’t work. If Solzhenitsyn had submitted it to the weekly workshop on my UEA Creative Writing master’s course, I can imagine the group sitting round, shaking its head, telling him that though the prose was well-written, there was a fundamental problem with the plot. ‘A man getting up, going to work, going back and going to bed is not a story,’ we would have told him. ‘Nothing happens. Nothing changes. Try again.’

What we would have missed is that the change that this book brings about is in its readers. Through immersing us in the details of the Gulag life and making us feel what it is like to have to bank all your happiness and comfort on the ability to secure an extra minute’s rest or a slurp more of cold gruel, Solzhenitsyn bridges the barrier between the imprisoned and the free.

How can a man who is warm understand one who’s cold? Well perhaps he can’t. But he could try reading this book.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (translated from the Russian by Ralph Parker). Publisher (this edition): Penguin Classics (2000)