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Photo by Indrikis Sturmanis

A new chapter in Latvian literature

Essay | 8 minute read
A generation of writers and illustrators are attempting to define the nation in a whole new way

It is minus 7 and the Daugava has begun to freeze over. Soon, we are told, the brave or foolish will avoid the bridges and walk instead across the ice. Our driver lets the car fishtail as he swerves on the frozen road and tells us about the Soviet times and the Restoration of Independence. They speak about this here in Latvia, the Restoration of Independence, to distinguish it from an earlier freedom.

The year 2018 marks Latvia’s 100th birthday, but for its century of statehood the country has been occupied for over half of those years by one force or another – Russia, Germany and then Russia again – and was part of the USSR until as recently as 1991.

This is all to say that Latvia is even younger than it sounds, and as so often with youth, it brings with it energy and enthusiasm; the future is bright, optimism abounds. As too with youth, there is a real intensity in the striving for identity: in one part this comes from their heritage – from the traditional dress, National Song and Dance Celebration, Midsummer Festival – but in quite another it comes from their arts, the Latvian writers and illustrators attempting to define what Latvia means in a whole new way.

As we cross Riga’s freezing river, we’re told of the library books that made this same journey: 14,000 people formed a 2km human chain on a morning colder than today to pass the old library’s stock from hand to hand to the new building. This is born of the same tradition that saw Latvia’s book-lovers come, when the ceiling of the old library fell down, to save the books from the rain. Books, so often censored or banned or unavailable in Latvia’s 100 years, are, maybe because of this very scarcity, central to Latvian national identity, and nowhere is this more enshrined than in the new National Library.

Suddenly the snow abates and this stunning structure comes into view. The institution of the National Library reflects the country’s own history: founded in 1919, a year after Latvia’s independence, it lost its status while Latvia was in the USSR. When the USSR fell apart, work began on this new building and was eventually completed in 2014, the year Riga became European Capital of Culture.

Designed by Gunnar Birkerts, who fled to America when Russia invaded and returned home to design several key buildings in modern Riga, the very building evokes Latvian folklore. The new National Library is based on the legend of The Castle of Light in which a mystical castle sinks to the bottom of a lake and a prophecy tells that one day a great son of Latvia will rebuild this castle symbolising freedom, culture and education.

Now this new building aims to fulfil that prophecy

Visitors are welcomed by the People’s Bookshelf  – a startling five-storey structure disappearing up into the building’s upper echelons. Every citizen was asked to donate a book of special importance to them with a message or personal story on its title page, and it has engendered a feeling of joint national ownership over this institution. The most donated book? Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Why? Who knows. Today, books are accepted from anyone all over the world and count thirty different languages in their midst, including titles chosen by various visiting heads of state.

Dotted around the library are personality islands, preserved personal libraries, complete with favourite mugs, armchairs and ashtrays, of noted intellectuals. Present here too, as always in Latvia, is heritage. The Cabinet of Folksongs contains 218,000 dainas, Latvian folksongs with a set metre and style. It is an amazing achievement led by Krišjānis Barons, the nineteenth-century ‘father of the dainas‘, who toured the country to record these words. Created well over 1,000 years ago, dainas are little reflections on life preserved in oral form that continue to play an important part in contemporary Latvian culture.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that literacy and books took their place on Latvia’s national stage with the arrival of this wonderful library. Latvia is one of Europe’s oldest languages and Latvia has a 99.99% literacy rate, but it is a very young written culture, and Latvians have only been writing novels for 150 years.

Again, this youth lends a vibrancy to the contemporary and, after the library tour, we meet an incredible selection of young Latvian illustrators and artists. Visually, the post-Soviet style so apparent in exhibitions throughout the library is absent from their work. In many post-colonial countries the literature skews towards magical realism, a striving for the fantastical, the never-before-possible, bursting with relief from the censor. In Latvia too, the tales tend towards the surreal, with a healthy dose of dark humour and even, occasionally, the bizarre.

The illustrators show us The Horse, a catalogue of Latvian authors and illustrators. It contains twenty stories created by twenty teams of an illustrator and a writer, with titles like ‘In Which the Horse Travels through Space and Time’ and ‘In Which the Horse Runs through the City Like in a Movie’. I beg a copy, and later, back in my hotel room, it quickly becomes one of my favourite books.

The Latvian bestseller chart is presented, as so often is the case with bestseller charts, with a mild sense of bemusement. Colouring books and cookbooks stake their claim, along with books more intrinsically Latvian like Diamonds in Your Backyard, an aspiration guide aimed at Latvian women, and The Karma of Latvian Women, a book for couples by a renowned Latvian pastor.

Continually the literature returns to Latvia as subject, with an attempt to claim or define itself. One of the familiar names is Nobel Prize-nominated Vizma Belševica, whose trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels chronicles a Latvian girl’s life before, during and after the Second World War. We Latvia is a commissioned series of thirteen novels telling the story of Latvia’s twentieth century, forging its independence, through the two world wars, into the Soviet era, and finally regaining independence. Each of the series that has appeared to date has been shortlisted for the Latvian Literature Award. One is the winner of the Baltic Assembly Prize (2015), and another the EU Prize for literature (2017).

The biggest surprise is that poetry is everywhere in a way it is simply not in the English-speaking world. Poetry’s prominence is perhaps linked to the still-strong oral culture of folk songs and singing in Latvia. Poetry, so often obtuse and foggy, provided an outlet for protest that the Soviet censor struggled to identify. That Latvian history is buried deep in their people is undeniable: one speaker makes an easy impromptu list of twelfth-century Baltic tribes and, when she is one short of complete, it is provided immediately by an audience member.

History hangs heavy over Riga. We pass the looming Corner House, the ex-KGB building where thousands of Latvians met their end. The documents abandoned there by the KGB detailing the workings of the secret police – including the names of collaborators, informants and double agents, many of whom are still alive – have been sealed and stored in an undisclosed location. The argument rages about whether or not to release this information; its authenticity, its trustworthiness is understandably queried; always there is the question of whether the information was found, or supposed to be found, as a classic piece of Soviet misdirection.

Ethnically, the country is approximately 60% Latvian and 40% ‘Russian-speaking’, but the latter is in fact made up of a mix of languages and nationalities. In the back room of an English-language bookshop, Robert’s Books founded by English journalist Robert Cottrell, we meet Orbita, a multi-disciplined collective of Russian-speaking Latvians. Along with their admirable track record of creating roughly thirty bilingual, or even trilingual, collections of fiction, poetry, art and photographs, they are also visual artists and performers, and festival organisers.

In their work we see an interesting dialogue between mediums and cultures, including a book for bilingual couples; when laid between a pair sitting opposite one another, they each read towards the middle fold in their respective tongue. There is also a pair of flip-flops fitted with rubber stamps and dipped in ink so that the Latvian words on one foot and Russian words on the other turn the walker’s footsteps into poetry.

Creatively and visually amongst Latvian artists there is an attempt not just to define an identity, but forge one. Everyone here is doing something else – illustrators are fashion designers, poets are publishers and DJs. There is too a wonderful sense of collaboration. I ask a literary agent which authors she represents. ‘Everyone,’ she answers and then pauses for a moment to think. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘everyone.’ Throughout our stay, this ecosystem of creators feels vibrant and healthy. Riga is one of those admirable places where it is unremarkable and unpretentious to refer to one’s self as an intellectual.

On the eve of their 100th birthday, Latvia is ready to take on the world. They share the market focus with Estonia and Lithuania at this year’s London Book Fair, and with events across the globe and multiple titles appearing in English through publishers like The Emma Press and Peirene Press, 2018 promises a new chapter in Latvian history with the arts and books still firmly at its core.