Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Riga for the first time! It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I have Latvian ancestry (my great-grandfather was born in Riga before emigrating to the US in the early 1900s.) I was invited by the Latvian Literature Platform to tour the city after they saw a video review I did of Nora Ikstena’s novel “Soviet Milk” in which I also demonstrated my family recipe for making Latvia bacon and onion rolls. So it was a thrilling opportunity to see the country for the first time as well as learn more about Latvian literature’s history and authors today. It was quite a moving experience being able to walk the streets of my ancestors, eat some authentic piragi rolls and I even got to meet a distant cousin of mine. I made a vlog about my experiences there which you can watch here.
While I was there I also read most of the stories from an anthology which was published last year called “The Book of Riga”. This includes short stories from a range of authors who write in a number of different styles, but each story centres around the city of Riga. One of the most beautiful parts of Riga is their relatively new National Library which sits right on the river. The story ‘Wonderful New Latvia’ by Ilze Jansone focuses on the character of Katrina who is a librarian in this library (and exhibits the typical introverted Latvian trait where she shies away from having much contact with actual readers.) The story describes how many Latvian citizens have emigrated to other countries over the years, but since the country achieved its independence there’s a refreshing level of new opportunities for people.
One of my favourite stories from the collection ‘The Shakes’ by Sven Kuzmins describes an office worker named Agnia who has a Swedish boss named Mr Jensen. It’s written in a somewhat absurd style as their normal office routine becomes disrupted when Mr Jensen notices a pattern of growing protesters in the city streets. It describes how public unrest is something which slowly builds until a country finds itself in the midst a full-scale revolution. This poignantly reflects Latvia’s history as a country which has been occupied by several different countries over the past few centuries, but who have finally achieved independence as a nation. And I enjoyed the way their unusual office relationship plays out where it rounds back into a normal routine.
Many Latvian writers exhibit a tendency towards being introverted and melancholic. This is neatly summed up in the Latvian Literature Program’s campaign #IAmIntrovert which proudly proclaims Latvia is a nation of introverts. Several of the stories in this anthology reflect that sentiment as well. This can be seen in the very first story ‘The Hare’s Declaration’ by Juris Zvirgzdins which describes a man in late middle age who has lost both his wife and his job and wants to commit suicide by leaping from the top of a Latvian monument. Another story ‘The Girl Who Cut My Hair’ by Kristine Zelve describes how “the only thing that two melancholics can accomplish together is to agree that it makes no sense for them to do anything.” These reflect a general mood amongst Latvian literature towards tragedy. On my visit to Riga I went to a presentation by a literature professor who described how some of the classic foundational texts of Latvia are devastatingly depressing tales. Rather than bringing me down, I find there’s something quite endearing about this tendency in a nation’s literature that mulls obsessively over life’s cruelties – especially since it’s a small country that has such a long history of being dominated and controlled by foreign powers.
I’m really excited to explore and read more Latvian literature now that I’ve visited the country and know more about its history. There aren’t a huge number of books that have been translated from Latvian, but I’m eager to read the ones that have hope to see more appear in the future. It’ll be lovely to keep up this connection to a country where I have an ancestral connection. I even have distant relatives who still live in Riga and got to meet one named Karlis while I was there. Of course, this is the Latvian version of the name Karl (which is my middle name that I inherited from my grandfather.) One of the highlights of the trip was meeting him and knowing that our names came from a common ancestry. So it was touching how the American Karl got to meet the Latvian Karl.