Landscapes of Loneliness: New writing from Latvia hits Prague

Photo: CTK

This week Czech Books comes from the main exhibition ground in Prague, where the Bookworld - or Svet knihy - festival has been taking place. It was founded in 1997 by Czech publishers and booksellers, mainly to promote literature in the Czech Republic, but in the past years it has grown very much from a simple book fair into quite a major literary festival with writers from many parts of the world coming here. The theme of this year's Bookworld is "Literatures of the North" and the special guest of honour is the Latvian Literature Centre.

Photo: CTK
I'm delighted to have with me the director of the Literature Centre Marta Dziluma. There are many Latvian writers here this year. Can you tell me something about the size and the scope of this year's festival?

"When we received the invitation to come here and be the guest of honour, we realized that this should be the biggest possible presentation of Latvian literature, and that is why we are bringing the biggest delegation of Latvian authors we have ever had abroad. Seventeen Latvian authors are participating and we tried to select this delegation to be able to represent Latvian literature in its variety."

There are some similarities between the two countries in that they're both starting anew and they're both relatively small countries that have had different, but similarly troubled histories. And I know that particularly in the past few years there have been a lot of literary exchanges, there have been "Days of Riga" in Prague and "Days of Prague" in Riga. Can you explain why there seems to be a special connection between the two countries?

Photo: CTK
"Firstly I think that both the Latvian and Czech nations have experienced this very hard, but very important period of resistance, being resistant to power from outside, and trying to keep their culture as the main sign of their identity. In this respect I think that we have a lot in common, and probably because of this Iron Curtain history we have all experienced, which of course goes together with a lot of tragic things. I think we probably have a bit more in common than just these memories of what life was like twenty years ago; we also have a similar sense of humour and a similar way of expression.

"There is also one other very important feature. Although our languages are not from the same group - the Latvian language is one of two living Baltic languages in its branch - the thing that people often do not know is that when new Latvian writing was invented at the end of the 19th century, the system of diacritics was taken from the Czech pattern. We have often spoken with Latvian authors and linguists that probably this outer form of language is something that is very deep in your subconscious, and a feeling that we are very close may develop in some respects."

Karlis Verdins, photo: www.literature.lv
So that proves the importance of accents! You've mentioned the rich variety of Latvian writers, and I'd like during our short conversation to read some short extracts from some of the writers. I'd like to start with a very short poem by one of the leading younger Latvian poets Karlis Verdins, and in fact he will be featuring in the new Czech-Latvian anthology of poetry.

Like a Picture

Take me from that plane, from the heavy gold frame of a large picture. See - I'm standing up to the knees in a compost heap. Second from the left, in a suit, flowers in hand. Lips squeezed shut, a smile running along the chin. I look furtive - you have come with someone else and will stay later at the ball.

Nice to meet you, I'm a pumpkin. But tonight your hands will turn me into a stagecoach. It will take you to the open, dirty countryside - you'll open the door and watch how the rain tries to draw down your face in thin strokes.

This variety of writing, it seems that there's a lot going on in Latvian literature. Can you explain this?

"I think it's very significant that you started by reading a poem, because in Latvia poetry has always been the most important and the leading literary genre. This is very interesting, because you know that most readers would like to read fiction, not poetry. But in Latvia the situation is a bit different. Latvian poetry roots come from very old Latvian folk songs, four-line poems describing how old Latvians saw the world, describing their mythological principles, describing their emotions and nature of course. And this very strong poetic impact has remained up to the present day. Of course contemporary Latvian poets do not write folk songs, they write contemporary poetry, but there still remain features which come from these old days, from the old poetic system, and I think it makes Latvian poetry so different from the poetry of other nations.

"The second thing I should mention, speaking about Latvian poetry and why it has always been the main genre, is this period of resistance. Actually I can say that Latvian history is pure resistance - resisting Germans, resisting Russians, resisting whatever, because Latvia's geographical position has always made big nations and big countries willing to take it over, because economically this is like a bridge between Scandinavia, Western Europe and Russia, and this is why our small nation's history is just resistance.

"At that time literature was the most important weapon and the most important way of speaking about things, not mentioning them literally. And that is why poetry has been so important during that time. There is this possibility to speak between the lines."

Here is an extract from another Latvian poet, who actually writes and publishes in Russian, Sergej Timofeyev. This is from his poem Letter to a Friend.

I love this town

it's like all the others. Here

you can get cream

liqueur

and locally made

virtual playthings.

There are progressive

DJs

and there are commercial

DJs. There are trolleybus stops

with chewing-gum ads.

And in this town we spend our days

that are like cigarettes, notepaper,

cough drops. Like thoughtful glass-blowers

we blow lamps with frosted

glass. We smile and move

like teddy bears, little rascals, flashlights.

Mickey Mouse shows us the way, listening to

acid house. The school

children are ready to start

the game. They have everything needed for

love: trolleybuses

and birthdays. But wait! The TV Centre

on the island,

the island in the river. After the nightly broadcasts

the shabby taxi is

waiting for us.

The moustached drivers remember the times of

rock-'n'-roll.

The empty snowy air stands like a pillar.

We leave. Back

home where we live.

As well as this wealth of poetry in Latvia there are very many strong prose writers and many of these are women. In fact there's a brand new book coming out in the Czech Republic this week, which features four Latvian women prose writers.

"The new book, published by the publishing house One Woman Press is publishing an anthology of Latvian female short stories, and the title of the new book is Landscape of Loneliness. I should say that I really like this title very much because in these two words there is a total description of all the emotional landscape which is in Latvian female writing, and I really recommend to those people who can read in Czech to read this book to gain an impression of contemporary Latvian female writing."

Even those who are English speakers can have access to Latvian writing in English. One of the ways is through the wonderful online literary journal produced by Literature across Frontiers. This is called Transcript and you can access it on their website. Literature across Frontiers is one of the major players in Bookworld and is playing a great part in opening up the audience for Latvian writing. Here is a short extract that is in the most recent issue of Transcript. The extract is entitled The Baltic Pigs Have Arrived. It's from a novel by Laima Muktupavela called Mushroom Covenant, and it describes her journey to Ireland to work as a mushroom sorter. I think it's a very interesting reflection of how - now that Latvia's opening up to the world - the subject matter is widening too.

Everything will be all right; I try to calm myself finding it impossible to understand how I could fit the ton of goods I have to take with me into a carry-on bag. No more than 20 kilos. I'd like to see them try and weigh work boots, jackets, shirts, socks, extra work pants, if they have anticipated no place to do laundry with everything getting soaked because it doesn't just rain in the pubs and taverns in Ireland. Not easy to ditch from my bag the rye bread, the sprats, cheese, Riga's Balzams liqueur and the bottle of schnapps, the canned meat, coffee and black tea, for who knows when the first payday will come and I'll be able to buy my daily bread. All those who end up abroad moan and groan in yearning for authentic Latvian rye bread and bacon. Bacon! That's to keep up one's strength. Rye bread! No Latvian should leave his country without it. That applies whether he's heading East or West, whether he's escaping or being deported in a cattle car. That's why the bread! It's every Latvian's ID.