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The premise of Virve Sammalkorpi “Children of the Cave” is tantalizingly dark: in 1819 Iax Agolasky, a young assistant to a notable French explorer, travels on an archaeological expedition to rural Russia where they discover a cave inhabited by children with animal traits. The story plays out partly as a thriller and partly as a psychological study about what makes us human. It's presented as a series of journal fragments by Iax which chart developments in their discoveries and recount dramatic events in the camp. This frames the story like an artefact and there’s something pleasingly old fashioned about this style of narrative. Like in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” we’re at a remove from the central character himself so it leaves the reader wondering what’s real and what’s a figment of Iax’s troubled mind. Iax finds himself torn between commitment to their scientific study and his desire to connect with and protect the children while also ruminating about his own upbringing in Russia. Like many expeditions into the wild, the results reveal more about the explorers than they do about the subjects they go to study.

It’s interesting how the story is set in a time which predates Darwin’s revolutionary publications. The character of the French explorer Professor Jean Moltique sketches out ideas that these children with animal traits might be the result of some form of metamorphosis. But they also might suggest a sudden reversal of evolution. I’ve read some other novels like Louise Erdrich’s “Future Home of the Living God” which play with ideas like this as a way of suggesting that our civilization might be regressing rather than developing over time. Iax’s observations about the nature and practices of their crew of explorers shows them to be in many ways more bestial than the strange animal-like beings in the cave. As such, he finds himself in a crisis about where he truly belongs and longing for a universal truth to live by: “I dream not so much of solving the mystery of life as of the immortality of ideas.”

The novel slides into the hallucinatory as Iax’s journals become less documentary and more about his strained situation. The fragmentary nature of this narrative means it becomes confusing at times to understand what’s happening in this expedition which lasts around four years. It makes it creepy and suspenseful in parts, but sometimes this just felt frustrating. But overall I enjoyed the way this story teases with a lot of questions about the true nature of the children and what happens to them. It’s also poignant how the story looks at what it means to be an outsider and questions why society frequently ostracises those who are different.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s really exciting seeing the international book community experiencing a surge of interest in Latvian literature. I’m aware that there is a vibrant literary scene in Latvia, but translations of new Latvian fiction are slow in making their way to the West. So I was thrilled to read “Soviet Milk” by established author Nora Ikstena. This book won the Annual Latvian Literature Award in 2015, but has only just been translated and published in English. The story alternates between the perspectives of an unnamed mother and daughter over a number of years from 1969 to 1989. They have a tumultuous relationship with each other and both struggle to find their place in society because this was a period of time when Latvia was still under Soviet rule. The mother is a skilled doctor specializing in female fertility, but finds life in the communist system stiflingly oppressive. Equally the daughter struggles to grow and nurture her developing intellect in such a regimental system. This is a moving and achingly poignant story of an unconventional mother-daughter relationship and a country undergoing radical social change as Latvia regains its independence.

At first the mother and daughter’s sections are separated by years of time as the mother describes her childhood and the very different landscape of Latvia during WWII. Meanwhile the daughter describes the painful experience of feeling unwanted and being raised by her grandmother and step-grandfather because her mother is incapable of caring for her. Gradually their narratives come together until they occur in a simultaneous time period. It’s ironic that the mother specializes in reproduction, yet finds no motivation to mother her own daughter. She feels “I had carried and given birth to a child, but I had no maternal instincts. Something had excluded me from this mystery, which I wanted to investigate to the very core, to discover its true nature.”

Nora Ikstena

Nora Ikstena

In some ways it feels like the mother can’t nurture her daughter because she can’t inhabit a fully rounded identity under the Soviet system. She’s an intellectual who hordes works of literature that have been banned and experiences severe mental health problems. The daughter is equally intelligent and as she grows discovers how her curiosity is equally curtailed by a regime that seeks to instil only a Soviet-approved point of view. People who don’t fit into the system such as a brave poet who tries to teach school children an alternative point of view or the mother’s friend Jesse who might be intersex or transgendered are winnowed out.

The novel filters such a rich view of Latvian history through three generations of characters. Although we only get the perspectives of the mother and daughter, we’re also given snippets of the grandparents’ points of view. Having lived through so much oppression the step-grandfather resignedly feels: “one shouldn’t dwell on the past. Nothing would change here. The Russian boot would be here for ever.” However, as the daughter comes of age she becomes aware that a new age is finally coming where Latvia can achieve independence from Russia once again. Nevertheless, there are potent and ever-present reminders of the severe violence and tragedies that the Latvian people experienced. Even in a field of growing crops it’s remarked how “Cabbages, beetroot and potatoes to provide for our Soviet pigs would grow abundantly here, for bodies from military executions fertilized the soil.” There is a striking sense of progression within the novel where the physical bodies of the people and their stories persist through succeeding generations. It illuminates the distinct personalities of certain characters in how the weight of history impacts them, but also shows a cumulative sense of national identity.

Interview with Nora Ikstena

Eric:
I greatly enjoyed reading this novel - particularly because I have Latvian heritage and distant Latvian relations, but I know little about this part of my family’s history. The story poignantly focuses on different generations of Latvian life, history and social change. What was your initial inspiration for the novel?

Nora:
In 1998, I wrote my first novel Celebration of Life. It tells the story about the daughter going to her mother’s funeral after not knowing her mother all of her life. I got the first copy of my novel on the day of my own mother’s funeral. That was also the day when I started to think of Soviet Milk. It took 20 years. It’s my most important novel, as it's very personal for me. It's a real story about a mother's and daughter's complicated life under the Soviet regime in Latvia 1969-1989. It’s near to autobiographical, but I think this is honest to share your own life experience with readers. It was important for me to tell this story not only for readers in Latvia but also across borders.

Eric:
Milk takes on many complex metaphorical meanings where it isn’t always something nutritional or life-giving, but which might also be tainted or bitter. How did the image of milk as a symbol evolve for you while writing?

Nora:
Milk, especially mother’s milk, is an essential liquid of life. In my novels it becomes poisoned milk because the mother does not want to give it to her daughter. She does not wish the same life in a cage for her daughter, as she has. At the same time it is a metaphor – poisoned milk of our homeland, for what we were drinking during the Soviet occupation. It is also very poetical – in Latvian folk songs called ‘dainas’ we have many sayings about milk. For example – water is warm like milk, or ‘milk rivers’ or Milky Way in universe.  It is all went together in my novel.

Eric:
I found it fascinating how traditional family roles are somewhat subverted in the story where the daughter often takes on a mothering role. This subversion is emphasised by the fact we never learn the characters’ names so it’s as if they are locked in these identity roles which don’t accurately suit them. Did you always plan to leave the central characters in the novel unnamed?

Nora:
No, that is first time in my writing I leave central characters unnamed. And I did it on purpose. I wanted to generalize the story. The story is inspired by my life, but it’s also a story about anyone who has experienced love and loss, and that battle of trying to bring someone back to life. These people in search of the truth, who in the process struggle against the everyday life, its troubles and joys, and the reversals of fortune. It's a story about a cage and freedom, about endless love, and about life that is larger than literature.

Eric:
The mother’s friend Jesse is such a compelling character who takes on a kind of family role as she has been rejected by her own family and peers. What inspired this story line of someone who is intersex or has gender confusion?  

Nora:
Jese comes from my favourite Christmas song – I know the beautiful rose that blossomed from the heart of Jese. For my mind Jese is a symbol of unconditional love. Spiritual love. Somebody in between man and woman, soul and flesh. Jese is true and devoted. Pure love.

Eric:
Some classic novels of Western literature such as Moby Dick and 1984 are referenced throughout the novel as subversive books read in secret. Do you know of many instances of forbidden literature being secretly shared while Latvia was under Soviet rule?

Nora:
There were many instances of forbidden literature, because the role of literature in Latvia is enormous. We are nation of readers. It has been like this all the historical times (and I am sure will be in future.) I can give an examples of two translations: 1984 by Orvell and Ulysses by Joyce into Latvian. Both were translated by Latvian exile translators and published in 1950s by the Latvian exile publishing house in Sweden. Then some copies were secretly passed to Soviet Latvia. For many intellectuals these underground copies were like a Bible at that time. Imagine that you can have a copy of Ulysses for three reading days? People went to jail for reading such a book. At the same time our national poetry was a huge part of Latvian expression during the Soviet rule – with hidden and obscure meanings, it offered a subversive insight and poets were at the heart of this subversive expression, and thousands of people would come together in the street to hear their voice.

Eric:
It feels as if each of the three generations represented in the novel aren’t entirely aware of the many social and political challenges faced by previous generations. Do you feel children in Latvia today are more aware of the complex history their elders lived through?

Nora:
Literature plays an in important role in Latvia, particularly in the way it allows us to share our history through a personal perspective. There is a new series in Latvia called ‘WE.XX Century’ which explores different aspects of our history through 13 novels. These are all best sellers – with the old and the young – as fiction is such a powerful way of communicating our past and our country, which has forged its independence in the beginning of it and lived through the horror of two world wars, followed by Soviet era, and dramatic regaining of independence.


Soviet Milk is published in the UK by Peirene Press, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis. The Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – will be the Market Focus for the London Book Fair 2018 (10th – 12th April). Nora Ikstena is the Latvian ‘Author of the Day’

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNora Ikstena

I’m not sure what it was about “The Looking-Glass Sisters” which had me excited about it several months before Peirene Press even published it. Something about a story of two sisters in an old, dilapidated house that’s isolated in the far north of Norway captured my imagination. Reading it became an especially good experience because shortly after finishing the book I went to my first Peirene Press book club. This is held in London at Persephone’s lovely bookshop. It’s been ages since my own book club disbanded so it was a pleasure being able to discuss the book in detail over wine, cheese and biscuits with a group of clever fellow readers. This novel is particularly excellent for a book club because its filled with so much ambiguity and opinions about it varied wildly amongst our group.

The novel is narrated from the point of view of a disabled woman who is dependent on the care from her sister Ragna in everyday daily tasks from eating to bathing to dressing. It’s been this way their entire lives and the women are now middle-aged. Their parents died when they were teenagers; we never know how or why they died. The sisters’ routines filled with bickering feel wholeheartedly like they’ve been exhaustively enacted over a lifetime and you quickly get the sense of how intensely intertwined the existence of these sisters has become. It’s as if they are no longer two separate bodies: “Over the years, through conflicts and confrontations, we have shaped, kneaded and formed ourselves into a lopsided, distorted yet complete organism.” This is the most perfect description for the feeling of their co-dependency and echoes the eerie sense that one cannot exist without the other. They can’t escape each other any more than they can escape their own reflection when looking in a mirror.

Or so the narrator believes. One day Ragna disrupts the claustrophobic and solitary life they share by bringing home a rather gruff man Johan. Is he an agent of chaos that destroys their relationship or a partner that could be incorporated into the household if it weren’t for the narrator’s jealousy? The answer isn’t clear because the narrative is filtered so totally through the narrator’s subjective and frequently paranoid consciousness. Having never left the house and being trapped in the physically limited routines of her day, the narrator lives primarily in her imagination. There are echoes of Charlotte Bronte's mad woman in the attic as reimagined in Jean Rhys's novel and also Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper.' Her whole understanding of the world comes from her sister, the dusty standard education text books left from her early life and library books – which the narrator must badger Ragna to exchange. Indeed, she seems made up more of words and lives more in the mind than in her physically-limited body.

I bought my copy of this novel at my local farmer's market at which Peirene sometime have a beautiful book stall.

I bought my copy of this novel at my local farmer's market at which Peirene sometime have a beautiful book stall.

The narrator’s fantasies do get quite intense and graphic. They veer from the heatedly sexual to the repulsively scatological to the furiously suspicious as she believes Ragna and Johan are plotting to put her away in a care home. Again, it’s never clear whether these are her projections or if they occur in reality. I appreciated the occasional respite from the narrator’s frantic descriptions and thought process when Ragna interjects some dialogue that questions her sister’s logic. There are also occasional moments when you see some real fondness between the sisters. However, most of the time, their relationship is destructive and weighted under long-standing resentments.

“The Looking-Glass Sisters” is in many ways a mesmerizing read, but it’s also highly unsettling. It’s disturbing to think that intensely co-dependent relationships between family members can break down so severely and the disturbed areas a consciousness can drift to when a life is lived entirely in the imagination. There is a sense that the narrator’s psychology can parallel our own internal lives when we believe the world to be a certain way. Rather than the disabled sister it could very well be the author speaking to the reader towards the end of the book when she states this story has been about the sisters but “also about all of us who have lapsed into laziness and fantasizing, hidden away in a room closer to the sky than the earth.” Viewing the story from this perspective it does take on a much more personal meaning. It made me consider the way in which my own imagination works in tandem with reality and the amount of dependency I have on other people. This book left me thinking. Gabrielsen is a highly intriguing writer.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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What a joy it is to newly discover small publisher Peirene Press that produces beautifully designed and carefully-chosen European literature in translation. They put out three books a year and each title is under two hundred words. Perfect for a morning or afternoon of really delving into a book and reading it in one go. That was my experience reading “The Mussel Feast” and I believe the all-in-one reading session enhanced the experience as it allowed me to really sink into the intensity of this story and Vanderbeke’s densely-packed narrative method. Set in Berlin before the fall of the Wall, it’s the story of a family that has moved from the east to the west side of the city. A mother waits with her son and daughter for the father to return with a specially prepared celebratory pot of cooked mussels – even though the father is the only one that enjoys this seafood. Narrated from the perspective of the daughter, she describes the tension of waiting as he’s very late returning home and the circumstances of their strained family life.

This nameless family has a dynamic which is sadly typical for many families and transcends the particular setting of the novel. The father is a tyrant who has visions of having a “proper family” and, when his actual family doesn’t quite fit the mould of this ideal, he becomes domineering and violent. Focused very much on appearances, he dresses impeccably and looks down upon his wife who thriftily buys discount clothes after the father squanders all their money on what he imagines are future investments of a stamp collection and shares that inevitably go bad. Ignoring their other obvious talents, he wants his son to be an excellent footballer and his daughter to be pretty. When neither meet his standards, they are punished. Vanderbeke shows great psychological insight when the narrator remarks “The more insistently he harangued me, the more stubborn I became, refusing to say a word, all speech abandoning me in one fell swoop.” When a child is forced to go against their natural passions and limits language often fails them – especially if they are a thoughtful introverted child like the girl narrator. Although it’s nothing like my own family dynamic, I connected with and understood the family strife as the father was continuously frustrated that they couldn’t embody his ideals. The children understandably resent him and it’s with a great deal of tragedy that the mother finds it necessary to defend him remarking “there are so many good sides to him.” I found myself hoping that he wouldn’t return at all, but there is a troubling sense that this would only lead to the total collapse of the family.

Alongside this personal tale of family life, there is a tension in the story particular to the time and place where this novel is set. A feeling hovers in the background that the battling family represents something of the mindset in Germany in this post-war period where there was a great split in the society’s ideology. The story explores how the smallest disruptions like a father not arriving home on time to eat the mussels he cherishes can quickly lead to catastrophe. Vanderbeke writes: “It’s astonishing how people react when the routine is disturbed, a tiny delay to the normal schedule and at once everything is different – and I mean everything: the moment a random event occurs, however insignificant, people who were once stuck together fall apart, all hell breaks loose and they tear each other’s heads off, still alive if possible; terrible violence and slaughter, the fiercest of wars ensue because, by pure accident, not everything is normal.” This quote wonderfully embodies the nervy sensation throughout the text that at any moment everything can fall apart. This includes both the micro level of family life and the macro level of government. It only takes a small change to a known and understood order to make the rules collapse and everything is chaos. The meaning and end of the story remain tantalizing ambiguous making this a haunting and thought-provoking tale.

For a story about a small moment in domestic life with the book lasting only just over one hundred pages, “The Mussel Feast” makes a big impression. I hope to read more of Peirene Press’ original and intriguing offerings.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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