Category: Latvian

Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena

Today I’m looking at a book from Latvia, the first title in Peirene‘s ‘Home in Exile’ series for 2018. Two unnamed first-person narrators alternate: a mother and daughter. The mother is born in Riga in 1944 and becomes a talented doctor, offered a position to study in Leningrad. She gives birth to a daughter in 1969, but struggles with the prospect of being a mother: she disappears for five days immediately following the birth, and remains distant from her daughter, who is brought up mostly by her grandmother and step-grandfather.
All this changes, however, at the turn of 1977/8, when the mother has a run-in with the Soviet bureaucracy which ends with her being sent to run an ambulatory station in the Latvian countryside. She takes her daughter to live with her, hoping to grow closer to her – but depression continues to overshadow the mother’s life. There’s a stark quality to Nora Ikstena’s prose (in Margita Gailitis’ translation) that really heightens the intensity of her subject matter.
Milk is a recurring motif throughout the book: for example, the mother fears that she will poison her daughter if she breastfeeds, and the girl grows to be lactose intolerant. This works effectively as a metaphor for the troubled mother-daughter relationship at the novel’s heart, but also as a metaphor for the relationship between Latvia and the Soviet Union. The mother longs for Latvia to gain its independence, while the daughter starts to learn about Latvian culture at a clandestine after-school group. As the novel approaches its end in 1989, change is on the horizon, but the way for the two protagonists to reach there remains uncertain.
Soviet Milk is a fine example of a human story that refracts to illuminate a wider picture, and works well at both the small and large scales. I’ll be looking out for more of Ikstena’s work in translation in the future.

Book details

Soviet Milk (2015) by Nora Ikstena, tr. Margita Gailitis (2018), Peirene Press, 192 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

High Tide: reading in fragments

The Latvian writer Inga Ābele’s High Tide begins with Ieva ruminating on how fleeting true happiness can be, how thin the veneer on the cold world (you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread”). Then the novel heads back through Ieva’s three decades of life to uncover exactly how she ended up feeling this way. The revelations come – for example, we discover that Ieva’s husband Andrejs was convicted for murder – but the cumulative effect is where Ābele’s novel shines the most for me.

High Tide is told haphazardly – not strictly in reverse chronological order, but something close to that. It goes through a number of different forms and styles: one chapter is entirely in dialogue; one is a series of letters; and so on. One that really struck me is a monologue where we discover that Ieva’s daughter Monta feels distant from her mother and has never been to see her father; the combination of a dense block of text and a breezily informal tone conveys the sense that Monta is desperate to get out of a situation, a state of being, that she may never quite be able to shake off. Kaija Straumanis’ translation is full of these subtle effects.

The overall experience of reading Ābele’s novel, I found, is one of reading in fragments. Because it’s not a smooth reverse-chronological narrative, and because the chapters can’t all be Ieva’s recollections, the book never quite settles into a seamless whole. So one ends up focusing on the individual pieces – appropriately enough, as one senses that this is how Ieva experiences her own life.

Book details (publisher link)

High Tide (2008) by Inga Ābele, tr. kaija Straumanis (2013), Open Letter paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

A glimpse of the lake

From the book I’ve just read: a quotation on how reading can open doors to new worlds – and then close them again all too quickly:

Knock, and the door will be opened unto you. Maybe not quite opened, but something will definitely change—if that makes you happy. Maybe new wallpaper. Moving to a new apartment. A new perfume. A new perspective. And a new picture. If an irrational hope sparks in your veins now and again, it could even be the moment when you’re on the train reading a book translated into Latvian, and in a brief flash you realize that you understand the author, the main character, and the life of the translator. For a second, all three of these personas unite in you, not in a linear sense, but in a  predestined, glowing arc. You go inside and can suddenly see through to the bottom of a frozen lake, to the stillness of the undercurrent between motionless water lilies. Then you turn the page and it all disappears. You’re back in your own body, you have to buy milk for the kid, and a heart to cook up for the dog—a giant, red, cow  heart—and bring it all home, you have to be a hunter because all around you are nothing but frozen, wintery fields that destroy everything warm and alive.

Book details (publisher link)

High Tide (2008) by Inga Ābele, tr. kaija Straumanis (2013), Open Letter paperback

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