18 December 2008

Baby, Bathwater, Books

My parents crossed the ocean to begin their new life in the New World with only four crates. Three of those crates held books. Much of my father's library --which continued to grow even after his death, the last volumes he had subscribed to still arriving -- lines the walls here in Daugavpils now, the core of my own collection.

Latvian publishing was astonishingly continuous; frail pamphlets were published in the d. p. camps even before the war's end. High quality reappeared remarkably quickly -- the monthly
Laiks boasted a full color reproduction of a Lūdolfs Liberts painting as the frontispiece of its inaugural issue in April 1946, when nearly all Latvians in the West were still destitute refugees. Helmārs Rudzītis, the publisher, wrote in his preface of how those fleeing the Soviet advance had to abandon their libraries -- "God only knows who is leafing through our beloved books now." Rudzītis observed that the odd book that had been carried westward was held to be almost holy, the words pored over again and again.

Even in those straitened circumstances, Latvians swiftly set about building a publishing industry in exile. Benjamiņš Jēgers' bibliography of Latvian publications published outside Latvia 1940-1960 fills two thick volumes. Books were seen as vital to national survival. The nation had been born in books -- we date the Awakening to the publication of
Dziesmiņas latviešu valodai pārtulkotas in 1856, Alunāns' translations of poetry proving that Latvian is more than a tongue for churchmen and peasants (the peasants getting their due as the study of folklore took off).

When the 300th anniversary of the Latvian book was marked in 1885, 3000 books had been published in Latvian -- 85% of them since 1863. From 1585 to 1918 -- 12 500. In independent Latvia, between 1919 and 1929 alone, nearly the number of titles had been issued
in a single decade as had been since Petrus Canisius' catechism (the first known Latvian book) appeared in Vilnius in 1585. Between 1919 and 1939, 26 754 titles were published. In terms of titles per capita, Latvia ranked second in Europe, after Denmark.

There were 166 publishing houses when the Soviets invaded in 1940 -- these were reduced to one, the State Publishing House (later Liesma, which was then joined by other state-controlled entities like that of the Academy of Sciences, Zinātne). In addition to being subject to censorship and other restrictions (something that began during Ulmanis' dictatorship), publishing became a vehicle for Russification -- by 1964, 37,5% of the books published in Latvia were in Russian, and half of the titles published in Latvian were translations from Russian.

I remember a prominent diaspora Latvian (who hoped to be received as an elder statesman here) addressing the Writers' Union during the economic... transition I suppose it was, though trying to describe the early 1990s here to anyone who didn't experience them is like trying to explain a wilderness of pain in a parallel universe through which one stumbles in the dark. The would-be statesman basically said -- you're free, so what are you waiting for... write!

This is not the place to contemplate the legacy of the captive mind or the ravages of laissez-faire à l'orientale, though. Latvia had faced devastation before (though life was different in 1920, wasn't it, when academics from as far away as China returned to Rīga to build the University... this Christmas, as a sign of an opposite process, 17 worship services will be held in Latvian in Ireland, from Galway to Limerick).

In 1920, too, there were politicians who wanted to nip support for culture in the bud. They had to face Aspazija in the Constituent Assembly, though. Latvian publishing between the wars depended upon strong state support.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvian publishing slowly but steadily revived -- 1387 titles in 1991, 1509 in 1992, 1614 in 1993... of late, around 2500 Latvian titles are published each year. There was no drop after the crisis of 1998. Many of these books are irredeemable trash, to be sure. Then there are publishers like Neputns and the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art.

The Government's and the Saeima's decision (Parliament practically rubber-stamp by now, though the "Green Peasants" seem to be losing their enthusiasm for the coalition, the "moderate" "Russian party" eagerly angling to replace them) to try to squeeze blood out of a stone by increasing the VAT on books
more than fourfold is criminal. It is spit in the face of those who brought this nation into being and those who keep it alive. It is a sadistic crime, as the cash the Government hopes to collect amounts to no more than a pittance, comparatively.

In an open letter to the President, the writer and publisher Inese Zandere writes that children (whose numbers in Latvia have at last begun to rise, if slowly) are being thrown out with the bathwater in which our Government is trying to wash itself. The photo above was taken outside Parliament Thursday morning (by Reinis Oliņš for Apollo, where there is a photo gallery... you can also see how dark it is here at this time of year... that's morning, really). Slogans included "Latvia wants to read in Latvian," "down with the dictatorship of those who do not read," and "a tax on books is a tax on the mind."

Among our neighbors -- VAT on books in Estonia is 5% (0% on approved textbooks -- yes, Latvia's new 21% rate will apply to textbooks also!). Finland -- 8%. Sweden -- 6%. Poland -- zero (it's zero in Britain and Ireland, too).

How dark it is. Gustavs Strenga suggests a simplified crisis plan -- why don't we just arrest those that can read (except those in the coalition and their supporters) and shoot them, or place them in internment camps... before dread March comes and they try to make trouble?

Ikars Kubliņš notes that little demonstrations like yesterday's mean nothing. The ruling clique sips coffee and enjoys the show from the Saeima windows. Kubliņš, like some others of late, is wondering aloud about our pain threshold -- looking at the Greeks or the Thais, it's impossible not to.

But that's another topic I will try to address in the coming days. For today, I simply want to emphasize what darkness emanates from this Saeima -- del no, per li denar, vi si fa ita. (Inferno XXI: 42 -- "No into Yes for money there is changed"). Since some in Government were so offended by being called a "gang," I would like to go further -- this coalition consists of shameless creatures who belong in Malebolge dragging us into eternal night. I say that in the name of everyone I have known who cared as much about books as they did about their crust.

You're free, so what are you waiting for? But we're not free -- and we won't be until we finally free ourselves, for real this time. Baby, bathwater -- cart, horse?

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11 Comments:

Anonymous Jem said...

My understanding was that the special tax rate (which was 5%) is going up to 10% whilst all items currently taxed at 18% is going up to 21%. This means taxes on books would double, not be raised four-fold. Or have I read things wrong?

20 December, 2008 10:24  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Some things are losing their special rate status entirely -- books are among them. The Government originally wanted to do that to newspapers and magazines also, but backed down and agreed to the 10% rate. It hasn't done so on books.

20 December, 2008 10:27  
Anonymous jem said...

Tahnks for the clarification - looks like its going to be even harder here next year....

20 December, 2008 20:25  
Blogger jams o donnell said...

Hmm not exactly a move to murture Latvian culture...

I hope you have a happy Christmas Peteris

22 December, 2008 23:28  
Blogger Pierre said...

Funny... I have been thinking that Latvians should rise up, general strikes and the like. But is it really in the Latvian temperament?... Would it accomplish anything?... The umbrella revolution, small as it was, seems like a distant memory...

But someone needs an ass-kicking, damn it!... Bring back the barikades!

Oh, un Priecigus Ziemassvētkus!

22 December, 2008 23:54  
Blogger Taras said...

May the Latvian Government turn its face toward the book publishing industry! No books, no brains.

Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus, Pēteris!

25 December, 2008 16:53  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for the comments -- and Merry Christmas to all!

25 December, 2008 21:34  
Anonymous asehpe said...

I for one hope that the Latvian culture will be able to survive this crisis -- it has survived many others in the past, as Mr Cedriņš's post itself points out.

Now, one thing -- if this tax raise suggests lack of concern for the Latvian language/culture, how come the fine for speaking Russian in the workplace was also recently raised? It would seem that this is more the result of 'cluelessness' -- not really knowing what to do -- than an attitude enmical to Latvian cultural growth.

30 December, 2008 05:09  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder whether Mr Cedrins could suggest the closest to the point literature to try and make up the case for not disintegrating The Misiņš Library, a Treasury of national writing, which, ignoring the fact that it has been legitimately written of by the founder to Riga, and being the direct descdendant of the 16th century Biblioteca Righensis is attempted by the megalomaniacs in power to be sent away to drop-off storage places outside. which, apart from it being apparently illegal, no one in his right mind believes to bring any good, for no initiative by those in power still ever does. any ideas? thank you.

08 May, 2009 19:51  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

The wretched idea of dismembering Misiņi has apparently been withdrawn, at least for now.

13 May, 2009 09:29  
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23 February, 2010 20:27  

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