Running as fast as they can

New Latvian Fiction

Latvian writers have spent much of the 20th century in their own or in Soviet company, cut off from Western literary developments. Now they are catching up with a vengeance, as demonstrated in "New Latvian Fiction," an issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction produced with the support of Soros Foundation Latvia.

Reading this volume (meticulously guest edited by Nora Ikstēna and Rita Laima Krieviņa) is a bit like a jog with the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland—a breathless, exhilarating and sometimes confusing experience.

Some stories can be completely understood only from within the culture; Pauls Bankovskis’ "The Week of Golden Silence," for example, hinges on a children’s rhyme that loses something in the translation. The story portrays love as a child’s game; a bet of silence leads to the realization by two lovers that, really, "There’s nothing to say."

Several authors are engaged in late-blooming love affairs with post-modern literary techniques. In "Beckett is Alive: Texts to Myself," Guntis Berelis speculates on knowledge and reality: "If we assume that Beckett isn’t dead then we can never be completely convinced that he isn’t dying at this very moment … Beckett is continually dying." Aivars Ozoliņš’ "Tale No. 13" is a playful and ultimately exhausting set of variations on a story; literature is a game to this author, who claims that words "have a hollow centre." Jānis Vēveris takes it one step further—his story "Eventide" begins as poetic stream of consciousness but ultimately turns on itself and on its narrator, telling him that his cleverness and facility are merely the failure of his art.

Other stories have a deep and sensual connection to the real, as opposed to the literary, world. Andra Neiberga’s "Summer Log (The Zone)" is a slow, quiet meditation on the city and the country, encompassing the death of the village and of rural life in Latvia: "In the city my soul runs a chronic high fever and has an irregular pulse," while "in the countryside there is no fear of death." An excerpt from Gundega Repše’s "Stigmata" appears to be a realistic story told through the dialogue of argumentative travellers; it acquires mythological overtones in the course of their journey to what may be the end of the world. God becomes a fellow traveller—the ambivalent and sometimes irrational God of the dainas who is not necessarily in a position to help: "You’re old and tired, Your knees are made of shadows and Your hair is made of twilight, Your chest is the desert and Your genitals have dried up…You tyrant of chaos, You old elephant…"

Dream and reality mix in Aija Lace’s "The Stairs," which recounts how a woman’s refusal, in childhood, to follow a dream leads to its malignant opposite in later life, and perhaps to death. In "Pleasures of the Saints" by Nora Ikstena, the two lovers Theresa and Augustine, two raindrops in a round bed, tell each other their dreams. Martins Zelmenis’ story "Storm Approaching" is a day in the life and also a life in a day; the details of a farm woman’s life fuse with the larger elements of myth and folklore.

"The Flying Fish" by Rimants Ziedonis (son of the poet Imants Ziedonis) is a mischievous skein of literary invention that defies description. At the outer fringe of fantasy, Arvis Kolmanis’ "Veronica, the Schoolgirl" takes place in some future or parallel Latvia where men carry vaguely illicit "motors" in their pockets and women form what seem to be sexual liaisons with white slug-like organisms called "Sophias."

These stories demonstrate a characteristically Latvian love of the unexpected simile, of the metaphor that delights. Among the most artfully deployed are those of Jānis Einfelds, who is a sort of enfant terrible of Latvian letters. His stories—"Cucumber Aria," "The Wonderful Bird," "Fate," "Etude with a Bullet," "Nice Guy Moon" and "Dundega Mornings"—are reminiscent of the blunt grace of Aleksandrs Čaks, their random brutalities overlaying a bitter romance.

To several authors, words themselves have become suspect. Bankovskis alleges that "talking makes no sense anyway; a person can only harm himself by uttering words, because in response he is barraged by a reciprocal flood of words that literally knock him to the ground." Have Latvians found their own words only to abandon them so quickly? Fortunately there seems to be no ebb in the flow of words coming from Latvian writers, and the stories that claim to distrust words are by no means the shortest in this invigorating collection.

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the site.)


New Latvian Fiction

O’Brien, John, ed.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction,  1998

ISBN 156478178X

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *