The joy of small places

Rankled by inaccuracies in a recent short story published in The New Yorker, Latvian literary critic Pauls Bankovskis reviews Latvians’ cameo role in twentieth-century world literature. When the author gets their facts right, he says, then portraying Latvians as neither heroes nor musclemen, but troublemakers and hangers-on is fair game. For Latvians, the sheer joy in finding themselves in a work of literature outweighs all else.

The boy was running ahead of us grownups. “We haven’t met a single Latvian on the whole trip,” he announced loudly. It was in London, late in the afternoon when people were already on their way home from work. “You have now,” said an unfamiliar woman looking back over her shoulder. A moment, and the escalator had carried her underground, concealing her from our view.

I had finished reading Saturday,1 the latest novel by Ian McEwan, the night before in our hotel room. The story recounts a day in the life of a Henry Perowne, neurosurgeon. Early in the morning he goes to the window and sees a burning plane in the London sky. Later, having turned on the TV, he finds out “it’s a cargo plane, a Russian Tupolev on a run from Riga to Birmingham”.

What these two events have in common are surprise and a sense of joy – a weird sort of joy untarnished even by the Tupolev being described as “Russian”. This particular feeling of joy has been aptly described by the Riga-born writer David Bezmozgis:

For Latvians, I think, just like for citizens of other small countries, Canada included, seeing themselves referenced in a popular work of art is satisfying. No matter how tangentially you’re referenced it’s an affirmation of your existence in some way. You feel that normally nobody recognizes that you exist, and then all of a sudden there you are, referenced in a way that at least no matter how limited introduces some aspect of who you are, even if it’s just mentioning the name of a city to a wider audience.2

In fact, Bezmozgis himself has been known to be just this kind of source of joy. He cannot really be considered a Latvian writer, not even very loosely speaking. And yet the fact that he was born in Latvia and has become a writer of much acclaim in Canada and the US allows Latvians to feel at least the tiniest bit proud of him. Exactly the same goes for Mark Rothko, Peter Brook, or Isaiah Berlin. This joyful feeling makes it even possible to forget for a moment that, in fact, they are all Jewish – like Amos Oz, whose novel Black Box was deemed “unreadable” by a Latvian man of letters for the simple reason that its author is a Jew.

I

The impulse behind this reflection on the joy and bitterness caused by the mere mention of Latvians, Latvia, or even Riga in a widely accessible literary work by a foreign author was “Thicker than water”, a story by Gina Ochsner, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, recently published in The New Yorker.3 The English-reading Latvian public pounced on it immediately and copies started circulating in cyberspace – I was e-mailed it twice, with a comment about this being the way the Latvian image was formed or perhaps was forming of its own accord.

Ivars and Ingrida Alksnis, lecturers at the University of Geneva, who came to Riga to deliver a lecture on this very subject two years ago, pointed out that Latvians are usually depicted in foreign literature as dark, crude, freakish people, culturally closely associated with Russians.4 True, their findings were based on sparse material at the time – Peter the Latvian5 by Georges Simenon (published in Latvian in 1994), They fell from God’s hand6 by Hans Werner Richter, and Russian hide and seek7 by Kingsley Amis.

Simenon’s Latvian is a thug (undeniably a feasible storyline), and in Amis they are simply short and unpleasant fellows amidst all the other Russians who have invaded Britain in the novel. In Richter’s novel, the Latvian meets a miserable fate; while it is hard to object if an author chooses to make a woman of easy virtue in his novel a Latvian, I would expect Latvians to feel more hurt about the apparent dispensability of the character, since she has been left out of the English translation altogether. It is questionable whether these and other literary works have managed to create a single full-blooded, lifelike character of Latvian descent to parallel, say, Gilbert the Lapp in Knut Hamsun’s Benoni and Rosa. More likely we are dealing with readymade scraps of character or characters, with notions and preconceptions picked up in passing or by accident and empty spaces patched up with figments of the imagination (for that is the way writers work).

The Ochsner piece is something much more impressive. It opens as follows:

In the spring of 1988, Vasya Brkic, waking from a dream in which she was a wolf, bit her husband’s neck and killed him in the bed they shared. The following spring, Marti Cosic, a saxophonist in a klezmer band, went crazy and killed his fellow band members – all seven of them – then beat himself to death with his saxophone. One year later, after swimming naked in the newly thawed River Daugava, Semyon Iossel, an unemployed engineer, built a flying machine and died after falling from a great height. His grieving widow distracted herself for a year by giving lectures on the dangers of gravity, then succumbed to a mysterious urge to throw herself in front of the Riga-Tallinn train and was pulped on the tracks. Every spring, like clockwork, there was another death in the small community of Russian Jewish �migr�s in our little town just outside Riga. Each time, Father, who worked at the cemetery just beyond our house, was one of the first to hear about it. The black phone in our kitchen would ring, and off he’d go to dig the hole.

The weird last names of the characters suggest that it is not just George W. Bush who has difficulties telling his Baltics from his Balkans – writers suffer from that too – while the idea of Latvian villages populated by Russian Jews could only be either a manifestation of the ultimate ignorance or an amusing case of artistic licence.

The habit of writing about places the author has never set foot in is as old as the world itself – Jules Verne is a classic of the trend; by the way, he has also travelled in his imagination almost as far as Latvia: “A few details led Mikhail Strogoff to think he was looking at a Liv traditional costume, therefore he came to the conclusion that his travel companion hails from the Baltic provinces.” Mikhail Strogoff eventually falls in love with Nadia, the mysterious Liv girl. “In fact, the young girl was from Riga – she was a Liv”, and therefore belonged to Russia. All this is described in Verne’s novel Mikhail Strogoff or From Moscow to Irkutsk.8 Possibly Jules Verne’s fantasy would have made even more outlandish detours had the Internet and the seemingly easy ways of finding out anything about anything it offers been available in his lifetime. As likely as not, the Internet was Gina Ochsner’s ally in her research on goings on in Latvia. I honestly cannot see any other explanation for all the nonsense she has come up with and delivered to the readers of The New Yorker.

When trying to figure out why Latvians have been portrayed in a particular way in any given author’s work, it is important to bear in mind the period it belongs to, in order to have an idiomatic framework within which to consider the alien, exotic, different happenings and scenes described by the author. Thus, in The Memoires of Giacomo Casanova, Riga is nothing but a stop along the way, in no way differing from any other, while Richard Wagner, in his essay “My Life”, has the following to say: “I was the more agreeably surprised, on reaching Riga, to find myself surrounded by the familiar German element which, above all, pervaded everything connected with the theatre”.9 In Wagner’s text, we are looking at a Riga framed by the “German element”; Jules Verne in his turn uses the Russian frame, not much different from the one typical of authors referring to Latvia when the country was a part of the USSR, and all Latvians were Russians living this side of the border.

Ochsner is using only the remains of this framework, tarted up with bits and pieces snatched up from current news. There is a slight problem with that. I don’t think many people in Latvia have heard anything positive about the decent folk in Rwanda, whereas the mass slaughter is probably common knowledge. Latvia and Riga are likewise mentioned in the international media only when something has gone wrong. The former Prime Minister Einars Repse has owned up to being an extraterrestrial alien; the British heir to the throne has been given a thrashing with a carnation; Jews have been murdered; Russians humiliated; women sold into slavery (as I write this, the BBC is reporting on a London brothel in which women from Latvia among others have been held involuntarily). If everyday reflections and emotions feed exclusively on what is offered by the Internet news portals or, say, the Panorama daily news programme on Latvian television, the resulting image of Latvia, shaped out of the accumulated roadside mud, is very unflattering. The fact that widely circulated news reports hardly ever form the whole picture is quickly forgotten. It is easier that way. The strongest impressions stick in the mind. Just the way it is with tourists, with visitors, with good old Wagner: “He took me home to his summer residence, which was built, according to Riga phraseology, ‘in the fields’, that is literally, on the sand.”

In Ochsner’s story, schools in Riga are being renamed after the new Latvian leaders, but the local cinema still shows boring Soviet pictures such as Orwo. ORWO, by the way, is not the title of a movie; it is a German brand of motion picture and photo film. Mistakes like this are common among schoolchildren desperate to copy at least something from others sitting next to them.

But these are details. The writer needs specific characters and a conflict. She doesn’t have to look far: Mrs Ivaska, suspected of having Gypsy blood, or Maris Kalnins, one-legged veteran of the Afghan war, confirmed nationalist, and ardent advocate of the Language Law; he wears a red plastic carnation on his lapel as a symbol of the blood shed for a just cause.

Strangely enough, the theory that Latvians have invented the Language Law just so as to discriminate against the Russian-speaking Jewish minority is unpopular even in Latvia. Still, it’s good enough for Ochsner because, you see, it has come to her knowledge there are anti-Semites in Latvia. And so she allows her Rudy to declare that “the Jews were the reason that unemployment in Latvia was on the rise. And the �migr� Jews from Russia were the worst kind of Jews, because they didn’t even bother to speak Latvian. On weekends, when he had had too much to drink, Father said that the new Latvia was a wolf shaking the fleas off its back. And everyone knew who the fleas were.” When Latvians do not have to live on sauerkraut, they sometimes fry up eel with onions, and on one such occasion, Maris proposes a toast at the table. He tells a legend of crows, according to which these birds hate all human beings; to make things worse, God has made those living in Latvia caw in Russian, which is why they are particularly nasty. This is also why it is so important to pass the Language Law, because children are allowed to speak Latvian only half of the time at school. Of course, one may attempt to interpret Ochsner’s story as a weak joke along the lines of magical realism. If only it had not been published in a reputable magazine – at least, that is how The New Yorker seemed before. The whole thing should be used as a demonstration to every writer of the dangers of shoddy literature.

II

A different mood altogether dominates in the work of authors who have visited the places they describe – or at least spent a little more time researching the subject matter. To be sure, that is hardly a guarantee of literary quality but at least it makes the whole thing more readable and credible. Better still if there is a nostalgic undertone, particularly typical of writers from the former Soviet Union whenever they mention Riga or the Baltic States.

“The Orlov-Sokolovs”,10 a story by Russian author Ludmila Ulyitskaya, again published in The New Yorker, includes a paragraph that is the epitome of said nostalgia. “Having done their requisite stint of factory work, they went on vacation for a month and a half to the Baltic States, where they swam in the cold sea, fell asleep on the distilled white sands beneath stately pines, drank the revolting Riga Balsam, and ventured into the dangerous dance palaces of Jurmala.” Or, to quote The happy day, a little song by the quirky classic of Russian pop music Pyotr Mamonov: “I dreamt of the Baltics, of Tallinn and Riga.”

Sleeper spy, a novel by William Safire, the well-known New York Times columnist and language commentator, should probably also be mentioned as another example of nostalgic literature, dealing, among other things, with events in Latvia and Riga. The book cannot really be considered a literary success, even as spy novels go, but at least he gets the everyday life and geography of locations more or less right.

Riga has also been aptly described by American writer Dave Eggers in his novel You shall know our velocity.11 Who knows if these are fleeting impressions of a tourist captured by Eggers himself, or perhaps observations related to him by someone else; either way, you cannot call the following complete nonsense:

What did we expect of Riga? Something more drab, with less panache. But good God, this Riga, when we ploughed through its suburbs and into the core of the place, was glittery and so alive. Full of stores still lit at seven pm, and hotels, casinos, restaurants, people going home in big coats and tall furry hats, the huge cable buses, whatever you call those things on tracks and attached from above, full of commuters rehashing in their heads easy but punishing mistakes and wondering about God and his gifts long-withheld.

We stopped at a clothing store, resembling a Gap and staffed by the same sorts of young and indifferent women. It was closed. We knocked on the window, watching the girls fold and carry hangers from the dressing rooms. We knocked again.

“Sorry,” I said, as one, a short-haired girl with the face of a British boy, cracked the door. “We really need pants. Can we just run in and get something? We’ll be easy.”

We assumed they spoke English and were right. She smiled and let us in, locking the door behind us. I went to the shelf of pants, found my size in some green khaki kind of pants and brought them to the counter. There was another girl there, petite with black hair. Their skin, all of them, was so pale, petal-pink.

Hand asked them to dinner. They said no. They told us to come back the next day and then they would eat with us.

“We leave tomorrow,” I said.

“But you said you just got here,” the small one said.

“We did,” I said. “Ten minutes ago.”

I really wanted them to say yes. I wanted to talk, for once on this trip, to young women who were not for sale.

“We’re buying,” I said.

“You should come tomorrow,” the taller one said. “Why not come back tomorrow? We eat tomorrow. Tonight we are busy.”

We said we’d be back, knowing we wouldn’t, and left and checked into a hotel in an ancient building the colour of wet sand and next to a block-long McDonald’s. We dropped our things and for a few minutes watched British news. They were covering the Paris to Dakar race…”

I had not even finished writing this article when I received a direct confirmation of how effective these sorts of literary scenes from foreign lands can sometimes be. German writer Christian Kracht was visiting Riga in October to mark the Latvian publication of his novel 1979. He said he had received his first, and until then only, impression of Riga from the novel by his acquaintance Dave Eggers. Kracht admitted to being surprised upon learning there was a pub named after a novel by M�rquez in Riga. While pub-crawling with Kracht, I was also able to form a few new impressions of things which had somehow managed to escape my notice. People of all different walks of life came up to us in the Old Town (probably because we were speaking English), and everyone seemed either to be offering or wanting something. And there was, indeed, very little difference from what Eggers describes:

We went upstairs and ordered two beers. We watched people walk through the cold, muttering, grimacing, planning.

“It’s colder than Chicago,” I said.

“The latitude must be similar. The air feels exactly the same.”

“Everyone walks fast here.”

“They all wear black.”

“And fur.”

“Right!” Hand said, “So much fur!”

“Almost all women wear fur.”

“Especially the over-forty women.”

“But why all the black?”

“They are expressing their inner darkness. Their gloom. [Now in sociologist voice.] The Latvians, many believe, cover themselves in large coats and furs because they want to disappear. They are ashamed of their bodies. And the hats. Notice the large hats, some also covered in fur. These they wear because they are ashamed of their heads…”

Two women near us, sitting at the bar, nodded hello. We said hello. Actually, only one spoke to us. She was about fifty, with short black hair, a masculine jaw, and wide-set eyes, looking very much like someone’s mom. She tipped her drink to us and asked questions – where from, having fun, where staying. We told her. She moved from the bar to our table and sat down. Her name was Katya. Her friend, wearing a fuzzy blue fur coat that tickled her face like a feather boa, stayed at the bar, legs crossed on a high stool.

“How long are you stayingk een Riga?” she asked.

“We leave tomorrow,” I said.

“Tomorrow! You come here for one drink!”

“Yes,” said Hand, very seriously. “We heard the beer in Latvia was very good.”

“Where in America do you live?”

Hand said Chicago.

“Chicago? Is it very dangerous?”

“Very!” he answered.

This comment somehow changed the tenor of the conversation, and prompted the advent of the furry woman. Her coat was green. She slid off her stool and descended to our table.

“She speaks no English,” said Katya.

The second woman smiled, then held her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “A little.” She smiled again. Her eyes examined me and then, more closely, Hand. She squinted then opened them wide, in a way you’d have to call feline. She did it repeatedly. At some point some idiot must have told her that was sexy. Her name was Oksana.

“I am sorry we do not speak Latvia,” Hand offered.

“We also don’t speak Latvian,” Katya said.

“What were you just using with your friend?”

“Russian. We are not Latvian. We are Russian.”

“Oh. So you’re visiting too?”

“No. We were born here.”

“How are you Russian then?”

She said something to the green-fur friend and they both laughed – quick mean coughing laughs, laughs like the throwing of clenched fists.

“Half of Latvia is Russian,” she said.

“Oh,” we said. We had to accept this as true, until we could get back to our guidebook.

“But they treat us like [tongue out and hand waving away, dismissively, like brushing a cat off a tabletop].”

“They treat you not well? Why?” – Hand again. I wanted to beat him.

“Why? How do I know why? They are corrupt.”

“Who?”

“The government. Run by the mafia. The people here, they are fine. But the government don’t want us here and they make it hard. They are criminals, mafia.”

These excerpts might not be particularly flattering; still it would be silly to try and pretend all of this has been made up. The notorious Buy Bye Beauty documentary by Swedish filmmaker Pal Hollender was said to have provided “exaggerated and untruthful” data on the scale of prostitution in Latvia. Now, when the popular indignation has ebbed away, it turns out the number of sex workers in Riga is just large enough to make it difficult for tourists to distinguish them from all the other women. Nor is the portrayal of Latvian life particularly flattering in The Dogs of Riga, a novel by Swedish detective writer Henning Mankell, published in 1992. Compared to boringly orderly Sweden, this country seems a gloomy and criminally dangerous corner of the Third World. We would be left with the same impression if we compared the Latvia of the early 1990s with the Latvia of today.

III

As far as Latvians are concerned, there’s not much to rejoice about in The Odessa File,12 the 1973 classic spy thriller by Frederic Forsyth. It is a story of tracking World War II criminals. The key villain is the head of the Riga concentration camp. The Riga Jewish ghetto, and the fact that Latvians have also lent a hand in the shootings, are fully described in the novel. To start piping up about Forsyth’s novel forming a distorted image would mean mixing up cause and effect – the image was well taken care of by those who did the shooting. Or took the pictures and delivered vodka afterwards. The tragic fate of Latvian Jews in World War II, as well as the exodus from the USSR and Soviet Latvia, are subjects that have been dealt with often in works by foreign writers, among them The emigrants13 by W.G. Sebald, and Holes by Louis Sachar. The authors focus mainly on Jewish biographies; still, the Latvians are never far away. No image-makers have the slightest chance of changing anything there – tragic, negative, or sad experience is an extremely potent impulse for writing. And evildoers – let’s take the above-mentioned Peter, an anarchist and bandit who used to roam the streets of London in the early twentieth century – stick in memory much better than quiet and hard-working people.

The tin drum by G�nter Grass tells the story of Herbert Truczinsky, a long-suffering waiter whose back is scarred by the knives of Finns, Poles, and Swedes. Then comes a day when the waiter is confined to bed – but this time not because he has been stabbed.

Herbert had killed a Latvian captain. True enough, he was acquitted – as is often the case with people of his profession, he had acted in self-defence. And yet, despite of the exonerating verdict, the Latvian was and remained a dead Latvian, and he weighed on the waiter like a load of hundreds of kilos, though in fact the captain was said to have been a man of slight stature and an ailing stomach.

The description encoded in the paragraph could be considered the essence of the literary character of a Latvian – not much of a hero or a muscleman, yet always looking for trouble. Still, he is and remains a Latvian, even when he is dead, has made a mess, or, in fact, quite the opposite – when has been looking on while others have been committing all sorts of wrongdoings, turning out to be much more similar to a Russian than he would be prepared to admit. And never will it be in his power to pick which of these traits will be chosen by somebody else to talk or write of. Appearances in literary works written by authors of other nationalities, just like mentions on foreign TV news or in newspapers, are an utterly dispensable proof of existence, an unexpected gift from heaven, a consolation offered by a stranger. Extra significance is most likely added by the insecurity and anxiety still prevailing in Latvian minds, a sort of suspicion that perhaps there still is no such thing as Latvians – not really. This is why the Latvian is reminiscent of a tragicomic little person who likes to constantly feel the hero of the day, and be visited by friendly people who never mention anything bad (a desire akin to official modern-day Russian politics). And that is why it is such an unpleasant surprise when guests start dredging up not the nicest things, and go so far as to mention the role of Latvians in the murder of the family of the Russian tsar and the shootings of Jews, or to refer to our Madam President as a witch.

That is probably why the joy of the mere mention of Riga or Latvia flashing past in a literary text is much safer and sweeter than a more elaborated description and assessment of people or events. You have the proof of your existence, no unpleasant questions asked. Exactly the way you are supposed to speak of the departed – you say either good things, or nothing at all.

IV

When I had finished reading McEwan’s novel, I had not the slightest wish to recall the somewhat unlikely scene in which the author attempts to prove the healing or edifying effect of poetry. However, I gladly recall the burning plane from Riga. And the fish soup recipe, also found in the novel. I tried it. The soup was delicious. That is one of the signs of good literature. No author can ever predict what will stick in the reader’s mind – which of the brothers Karamazov will be the favourite. So you have to get the details right. If the soup had been a disaster, the writer would have been to blame.

Ian McEwan, Saturday, Jonathan Cape 2005.

Rigas Laiks, July 2005.

Gina Ochsner, "Thicker than water", The New Yorker, 22.8.2005.

Diena, 28.11.2003.

Georges Simenon, Pietr-le-Letton, Fayard 1931.

Hans Werner Richter, Sie fielen aus Gottes Hand, DTV 1988.

Kingsley Amis, Russian hide and seek, Hutchinson 1980.

Jules Verne. Michel Strogoff, De Moscou a Irkoutsk, www.gutenberg.org/etext/7442.

Richard Wagner. My Life, vol. 1, www.gutenberg.org/etext/5197.

Ludmila Ulyitskaya, "The Orlov-Sokolovs", The New Yorker, 18.4.2005.

Dave Eggers, You shall know our velocity, McSweeney's 2002.

Frederic Forsyth, The Odessa File, Bantam Books 1973.

W.G. Sebald, The emigrants, New Directions Publishing Corporation 1997.

Published 30 November 2005
Original in Latvian
First published by Rigas Laiks 11/2005 (Latvian version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks © Pauls Bankovskis/Rigas Laiks Eurozine

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