Zigmunds Skujiņš: Kailums (Nakedness)

The latest addition to my website is Zigmunds SkujiņšKailums (Nakedness). Our hero is Stanis Draiska who has just completed his military service in Latvia in the 1960s. During that period he has exchanged many letters with a woman called Marika, who saw his published poems and wrote to him. He has never met her but is now on the way to make a surprise visit to her in the town of Randava. However, when he gets there, she has never heard of him and denies writing to him or receiving letters from him. She shares a flat with three other women. Were they responsible? Sandris decides to stay for the weekend in the town, meets an old friend of his father and has his suspicions about who wrote the letters. Gradually, some truths emerge but also so does a fair amount deception. It all ends badly.

Nora Ikstena: Mātes piens (Soviet Milk)

The latest addition to my website is Nora Ikstena‘s Mātes piens (Soviet Milk). This is a superb novel about three generation of women in Latvia, struggling with the oppressive Soviet system. The narrator, who shares a birth date with the author, struggles with a mother who is a brilliant doctor but a depressive and less than brilliant mother (there is no father), who declines to breastfeed her daughter. We follow the stories of other women who suffer, often being persuaded to abort by their husbands or needing assistance to become pregnant (the mother essentially invents IVF) but all too many people, the mother included, come up against the Soviet system and its controls. The Latvian title translates as Mother’s Milk and both titles give some idea of what this book is about.

Zigmunds Skujiņš: Vīrietis labākajos gados (A Man in His Prime)

The latest addition to my website is Zigmunds SkujiņšVīrietis labākajos gados (A Man in His Prime). This is one of two novels written by Skujiņš translated into English from Latvian. This one was published by the Soviet publishers Progress and is long since out of print and difficult to obtain. It tells the story of a man in his prime, Alfrēds Turlavs, aged forty-six and happily married. He is head of the design department of a telecommunications company in Riga and has been instructed to work on a new innervation telephone exchange. He does not think it will work and will be very expensive, so he goes behind his bosses’ back to work on an alternative model. At the same time, he starts an affair with one of his subordinates and gets her pregnant. Inevitably, things go wrong for him, both at work and in his private life. It is a well-told story and Alfrēds Turlavs could be a typical man in his prime in many other countries.

Riga/Copenhagen

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We have just returned from our continuing tour of East European capitals – the third this year and the fifth in the past two years – with a visit to Riga. This was not a literary trip but… I have only one Latvian author on my Latvia page and own only eleven Latvian novels, not all in English. Indeed, very few have been translated into English. The bookshop you can see above left claims to be the largest bookshop in the Baltics. However, unlike in Western bookshops, they did not have a display of recent arrivals. Indeed, their display – which did not have any promotional signs, just the books – had books such as ones by Umberto Eko (sic), Paulu Koelju (Paulo Coelho) and, perhaps not surprisingly, Džordžs Orvels1984. While we do mess around with foreign names in Latin script in English, when it comes to place names and historical figures, I do not think we do it for contemporary authors. Anyway, I cannot give you much of an idea what Latvian authors are being read in Latvia today.

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I did look for statutes of Latvian authors in Riga but the statues seemed to be mainly Latvian historical and political figures. The figure to the right is an author but it is Pushkin, apparently a gift to Riga from the City of Moscow in 2009 (see the Wikipedia article on it for more info). Understandably, I suppose, the inscription is in Cyrillic only, so instead of Aleksandrs Puškins, we merely get A. Пушкин, whose meaning may not be obvious to many people.

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The not very attractive building to the left is the National Library of Latvia, opened in 2014 and the other side of the River Daugava from the Old Town where the bookshop, Pushkin and most of the tourist attraction are located. When I visited, they had an interesting exhibit on the history of the printed book in Latvia, starting with early bibles and travel accounts, up to the present day. As it was in the dark, with low level lighting for the exhibits, it was not possible to take photos. Incidentally the Latvian for book is grāmata, presumably from the Greek γράμματα, meaning letters from which, of course, we get our word grammar.

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The building is eight storeys tall and is all open inside, so you can see up to the stacks, as in the picture to the right. When I arrived they were holding a wedding in the large atrium! Unlike in other national libraries (British Library, Library of Congress, for example) it is easy to gain access to the stacks and I was able to wander around. Knowing about three words of Latvian, I could not find much that I recognised. I do not know if they have large offsite or underground stores as with the British Library, Library of Congress, etc. but there did not seem to be a large amount of books available. It was disappointing to see relatively few people there, apart from the wedding party and a couple of parties of schoolchildren.

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I wandered round the stacks, failing to recognise virtually all of the authors but was glad to see this small display of books by Regina Ezera, the only Latvian author currently on my site. You can see that the two books from the left are her novel Aka, which I have read and reviewed. Sadly it is not available in English (I read it in German).

I would like to hope more Latvian novels make their way into English but I am not optimistic. We saw virtually no-one reading a book (e.g. on the train), no Kindles (though plenty of mobile/cell phones) and only two bookshops in Riga, so I am guessing that reading is not a big thing for the Latvians.

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Back in the West, we did not do much better for literary statues in Copenhagen, except, of course, for Hans Christian Andersen, who does not appear on my site. In the photo to the right, you can see the largest bookshop in Copenhagen, Arnold Busck. It was an excellent bookshop, with many books in English as well as in Danish.

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The photo to the left shows their display of new fiction in Danish. Here is what was on display:

  • Mich Vraa: Haabet, a novel about the Danish involvement in the slave trade in the Caribbean in the early part of the nineteenth century.
  • Merete Pruds Helle: Folkets skønhed [The Beauty of People]. One of her books – A dream of antiquity journey : an imaginary journey around the ancient Mediterranean has been translated into English and a couple of her other books have been translated into French and German. This one is a family chronicle about a poor family in the 1930s set on the offshore island of Langeland.
  • Katrine Marie Guldager: Bror og Søster [Brother and Sister]. Her collection of stories called Copenhagen as well as her book of poetry called have been translated into English. This book is the fifth in a family saga called the Køge Chronicle. Set in 1976, it focuses on the relationship between a brother and sister (as the title tells us) called Henry and Leonora.
  • Benn Q. Holm: De døde og de levende [The Dead and the Living]. This novel is set during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II and is about Karen and Ebbe. Ebbe manages to escape to Sweden but, after the war, when he returns, things between him and Karen are not as they should be.
  • Morten Vittrup: Argentineren der kom sejlende på en cedertræsplanke [The Argentinian who Sailed on a Cedar Plank]. This novel is about Victor de la Vega, an Argentinian who washes ashore in Malaga in 1954. He meets Sofia who is thinking about becoming a nun but changes her mind on meeting Victor. The novel, spanning some eighty years, is about the life of the couple and involves not only various fictional characters but Che Guevara and Borges.
  • Lotte Kaa Andersen: Hambros Allé 7-9-13. This is a novel about the residents of Nos 7, 9 and 13 Hambros Allé, an exclusive part of Copenhagen, with the basic message that money does not necessary bring happiness.
  • Ane Riel: Harpiks [Resin]. This novel is about a strange family who live on an isolated island. Mother is too big to leave the bedroom and father collects junk. Lots of it. He also announces the death of his still living daughter.
  • Charlotte Weitze: Mørke cyklister [Dark Cyclists]. A couple of her books have been translated in to German. This is a collection of stories where reality and fantasy collide.
  • Nitesh Anjaan: Kind of Blue. A story of three rootless young men in Copenhagen, trying to find meaning in their life.
  • Aydin Soei: Forsoning [Reconciliation]. An autobiographical novel about growing up in Iran and then fleeing to the Soviet Union and finally to Denmark.
  • Johannes Lilleøre: Mårhund [Raccoon]. Lars Peter grows up in a remote part of Denmark and finds most comfort talking to animals, including raccoons. Twenty years later, things are not much better.
  • Niels Lyngsø: Himlen under jorden [Heaven Underground]. His poetry collection Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace has been published in English. This novel is the second in a trilogy (the first is called Min ukendte bror [My Unknown Brother]), this novel is about Nadia Nazir, anthropologist and expert on sexuality, who lives in a commune in the Paris Catacombs, where the people experiment with sex, and about Hans-Peter, the unknown brother of the previous book, who is in Geneva dealing with scientific crime.
  • Carsten Jensen: Den første sten [The First Stone]. His novel We, the Drowned has already been published in English. This novel is about a platoon of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan during the recent war and the moral conflicts they face.
  • Morten Pape: Planen [The Plan]. An autobiographical novel about growing up in a ghetto where crime and violence are part of daily life.
  • I thought that this seemed a most interesting collection of books but, sadly, I doubt if we will see many or even any in English.

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    The photo to the right is a shelf in Helsingør public library. You can see Danish versions of Ali Ollikainen’s White Hunger, a Finnish novel which has been translated into English, Katherine Pancol‘s La valse lente des tortues, translated into English as The Slow Waltz of Turtles, Antonio Pennacchi’s Il fasciocomunista, not yet translated into English, though two of his other works have been, Ruth Ozeki‘s A Tale for the Time Being and Véronique Olmi’s Le premier amour (which has also been translated into Chinese German, Italian, Polish and Russian but not English, though one of her other books has been translated into English). I have copies of all but the Pancol. I do not think I would find any but the Ozeki in my local library.

    Kronborg Castle aka Elsinor
    Kronborg Castle aka Elsinor

    Helsingør also has strong literary connections as its English name is Elsinor and Shakespeare’s Hamlet was set there. We do not really know much about the real Hamlet, though his name appears in legends dating back to the tenth century, well before Kronborg Castle was built. We also have no evidence that Shakespeare visited Helsingør, not least because it was royal palace in Shakespeare’s day and not open to the public. Nor do we know his sources. They may have come from what we now call Ur-Hamlet, a now lost play, possibly written by Thomas Kyd. Even if the connection between Kronborg/Helsingør and Hamlet is at best dubious, apart from the name, they certainly cash in on the connection and To Be or Not To be t-shirts and fridge magnets and other souvenirs are readily available. Hamlet has been performed there on numerous occasions, with English actors such as John Gieglud, Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Plummer and David Tennant, as well as various Danish actors having performed in it. With its magnificent setting overlooking the Øresund towards Sweden, it is easy to see why. If you are ever in Copenhagen, it is well worth the visit, a forty-five minute train journey from the city.