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from the February 2018 issue

Latvia: A Small Country with a Big Literature

Latvia is a small country of two million inhabitants in northeastern Europe, a relatively inconspicuous place on the map. The country is celebrating its centenary this year, with a host of events, including Latvia’s participation as one of the Market Focus countries at the London Book Fair, putting its culture in the spotlight.

The history of Latvian literature spans several hundred years; its most recent chapter, however, began when Latvia declared the restoration of its independence in 1990 after decades of Soviet rule. Censorship was lifted, and this new freedom was seized upon by both well-established and emerging writers. For example, novelist Alberts Bels discussed the inner workings of the former Soviet regime in his book The Black Stain, while the young writer Gundega Repše’s Mark of Fire dealt with the suppression of the Latvian intelligentsia in the 1960s. 

The resulting freedom also brought about new styles that would have been hard to imagine just a few years before. Jānis Einfelds’s short-story collection Moon Child and his surrealist novel The Book of Pigs stretched the imagination of Latvian literature.

The end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s saw several writers begin to blossom. Nora Ikstena’s earlier short-story collections set the stage for her first novel, The Celebration of Life, which established her as one of a new wave of women writers who still dominate the Latvian literary scene. That group includes Inga Abele, whose short stories and plays like Dark Deer catapulted her into the literary heights of the country.

The middle of the 2000s saw several writers hit their stride, including the aforementioned Inga Ābele with her novel High Tide, as well as writer and publicist Pauls Bankovskis with his book Euroremodeling, which details the days of Wild West capitalism and the resulting social chaos. The current decade has seen a wave of new talent, including EU Prize Winners like Inga Žolude and Jānis Joņevs, whose novels have been bestsellers in Latvia and well-received abroad.

The last few years have seen several trends, including a burst of historical fiction, led by a series of novels under the title We. Latvia. The 20th Century. Writer Gundega Repše and publisher Dienas Grāmata spearheaded this initiative to explore the often dark and complex history of the last century. Although there have been writers known for their historical fiction in past decades (Aleksandrs Grīns perhaps being the most brilliant of these), this series examined several events that up until that point had scarcely been broached. Māris Bērziņš’s book The Taste of Lead looked at the Holocaust, while Kristīne Ulberga’s novel There explored the hippie movement in Latvia in the 1970s.

Another change in the literary landscape is the growth of genres like fantasy and sci-fi. After decades of underrepresentation in the 1990s and 2000s, the last several years have seen a steady diet of books by authors like Ieva Melgalve, whose novel Moon Theater set off a wave of interest in homegrown sci-fi and fantasy novels. Newer writers like Linda Nemiera and Laura Dreiže have begun to dive deeper into areas that Melgalve has opened up.

A third noteworthy trend is the return of the short story. It is hard to say whether more writers are turning to the short story as a mode of expression; it can be said, however, that the recent Annual Latvian Literature Awards (LALIGABA, in the Latvian acronym) have given ample attention to the short story the last several years. Jana Egle’s short-story collection Light garnered the 2017 Best Book Award, while Sven Kuzmins’s collection, Urban Shamans, was shortlisted for the 2017 Best Debut Award. Other short-story writers of note include Daina Tabūna and Dace Vīgante, whose collections were also nominated for LALIGABA awards in 2015 and 2017 respectively, along with young writer Alise Redviņa.  

Three representatives of this vibrant form appear in this feature. Poet and prose writer Jana Egle’s short stories are hard-hitting gems that talk of loneliness, broken families, and violence, often taking place in the provinces. Her story "The Quarry," which comes from her Light and is translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini, tells of a boy who one day unexpectedly takes one of his playmates to a large quarry in the area, and decides to leave her there.

Sven Kuzmins’s texts often veer off into almost magic-realism-inspired twists and turns. The stories of his Urban Shamans are mostly set outside Latvia, imposing a foreignness unusual for the Latvian short story. His “Three Weddings and a Funeral,” translated by Uldis Balodis, is a realistic portrayal of a wedding musician who, due to an absurd contract clause, is forced to appear at two separate weddings, but not allowed to play.

Alise Redviņa writes often uncomfortable stories that confront the reader's innermost thoughts and desires. Her story "Lynn," translated by Laura Adlers, tells of a man who develops a relationship with a blow-up doll, only to fall for a coworker.

Latvian poetry also deserves a brief mention. Unlike poets in countries such as the US, who can spend years establishing themselves through journal publications before their long-awaited first book, Latvian poets often begin publishing their work in book form in their early twenties, and might even have several books before thirty. Some very active young Latvian poets publish their first books and are never seen in print again. Others continue to build on their prior work and take a long and steady climb upward. The latter group includes poets like Inga Gaile, Artis Ostups, and Arvis Viguls, whose two poems “Forgetting” and “Home,” translated by Jayde Will, are also featured here.

This very short introduction cannot do justice to all the authors out there. There is good news, however, for those seeking Latvian authors in English translation. Due to recent efforts to promote Latvian literature abroad, over thirty new translations of Latvian authors will be published by the end of 2018, allowing English-language readers a chance to see for themselves what that inconspicuous northeastern European country has to offer. In the meantime, we offer you the selection here. 

© 2018 by Jayde Will. All rights reserved.

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