The Beauty of History (Latvia)

Latvian flag

by Viivi Luik

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

This book was really hard for me to understand. It’s like being in a dream. A dream with no context. What do Americans know about Latvia? If I hadn’t recently read a Swedish mystery in which a cargo ship comes from Riga with a dead body, I’d know exactly nothing at all.

When I was in junior high school, I was very indignant about the countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia being swallowed up by the Soviet Union. I felt their pain; their tragedy very strongly. I’m not sure why: I just remember at age 14 sitting on a bus outside Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall, crying over the injustice of all the East Germans imprisoned by the Soviets. Meanwhile my peers were running up and down the aisle throwing condoms at each other and laughing. How could they not care? Why did I? I don’t know, I just do.

Soviet propaganda poster depicting Latvia "joining" the USSR. From the Museum of Occupation. Notice that Latvians don't write in Cyrillic.
Soviet propaganda poster depicting Latvia “joining” the USSR. From the Museum of Occupation. Notice that Latvians don’t write in Cyrillic.

So I have a deep sympathy for the national struggles of the Latvian people. Having said that, when you have to go outside of a book to discover what it’s about, that’s not a good sign.

It’s like going to a museum and staring at a painting, only to have to read the lengthy little description at the side to understand it. I’m sorry, but I think paintings and books should stand on their own.

What It’s All About (I Am Told)

Latvia from airAccording to Norvik Press, this book is “powerfully evocative of life within the Baltic States during the Soviet occupation and of the challenge to artists to express their individuality whilst maintaining at least an outward show of loyalty to the dominant ideology.” Uh, oh. I’ve been here before.

In a Post-Stalinist Literature class in Pecs, Hungary, we studied the writing of the Stalinist era and how writers were forced to be very obscure for their safety–so obscure that as a Westerner, I had no idea what they were talking about.

Lativa MapCensorship: When my husband and I watched The Lives of Others, we got a tiny taste of what it must have been like to live in East Germany when 1 out of every 2 people were spying for the State and the Stasi (secret police). It was creepy, and frightening.

Here is the narrator of The Beauty of History speaking about her lover’s attempts to get out of the military:

“Aunt Olga has promised to come and tell her as soon as Lion has telephoned from Moscow…If things have gone well, Lion will say that he has succeeded in buying Mother those blue cups. But if things have gone badly…he will announce curtly that he could not find the blue cups in Moscow and perhaps Mother had better come herself.”

Latvia by nightI did like:

  • the books’ poetic imagery
  • how effortlessly one thought flowed into another in a truly dream-like fashion
  • the way the book brought in the entire region, not just Latvia.

Poetic Writing Style:

“The curtain flutters so innocently, the bunch of flowers in the vase smells os sweet and the circle of light thrown by the ceiling lamp glows so warmly that it feels as if down in Prague it could not, after all, already be autumn and as if up here in Riga the Stat could not set its hand on human days and as if the work of the officers of staff of the Baltic military district were mere imagination or mockery.

book cover“Everyone who puts his head out of the window draws it back quickly for the night is as large and dark as the kingdom of death. On the other side of the window stands the Angel of the Lord, notebook in hand, writing. What he notes for today he keeps to himself, as he does everything he sees, as he looks through house walls and ribs. Nevertheless there are two words–smoke and salt–which he must set down for today, for in his opinion the entire state is nothing but blue smoke which was and which no longer is, and human days and bodies are, according to him, only salt, which dissolves. One could argue with him, and with him arguments have truly been made. Is a human being an animal? Attempts could be made, with the help of books, to explain this to him and this really has to be explained, but he does not even bother to raise his eyebrows. Arguing with him is like carrying water in a sieve.

“The first stars are appearing in the sky. Certainly there will be some among them that fall into the nettles of Estonia, the flowers of Latvia and the mud and dust of the Czechs.”

Someone Who Gets It

Ruined castle in LatviaIf you’d like to try reading this book, here are some helpful approaches.

  1. Flip to the back and read all the end notes, plus the Afterword entitled Spring in Prague, Winter in Tallinn. This should have been the foreword.
  2. Read Eric’s review: he translates Estonian literature and understands the context: Thank you, Eric! For example, the following paragraph would have been useful for me to take into the book:
    1. A street in Riga“What is interesting about this novel is that it touches upon various themes such as the Prague Spring in 1968…A country girl from Estonia meets a sophisticated Jew from Riga, someone who wants to travel to Moscow to obtain papers to get him out of the army. He, like most Balts, wasn’t too excited about shooting Czechs while he was conscripted into the Soviet occupation army, when in fact the Balts harboured the same thoughts of shrugging off Soviet domination as did Czechs and Slovaks.

Rating: Three stars made of nettles and mud. The book is good overall, just a lot of work. I’m not sure I want to do that much work.

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