As Time Goes By
Rick: "If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?" Sam: "What? My watch stopped." Flying to Stockholm from Rīga in 1993 was flying from one world to another, from the Wild East to -- civilization, overfed? Back then, the New York Times had dubbed the Latvian capital "the Casablanca of the North."
You arrive in Sweden before you leave, because of the time zone. If it's September '93 in Rīga, it's also '39; an Ulmanis becomes President on the strength of his surname in a country where the historical clock had stopped in 1940 (it didn't really stop, of course, except in some country of the mind). The early 1990s were a time of "fundamental things" for me -- of long summers in Semigallia, without plumbing, without electricity, without the Web (I had a huge manual typewriter that had doubtless served various organs of repression; Vonnegut, ever so popular here, wasn't fiction -- the twin lightning bolts of the SS a common character, shift).
My mother, visiting from Canada, brought her mother's list of the serial numbers of the typewriters they'd lost in the war ("That they are brown and soft, /And liable to melt as snow") -- grandmother ran a secretarial school in a building that by the 'Nineties held a pritons, a den of iniquity. "We lived in the street of parades" -- Bear Slayer's Street, the cobblestones come as ballast from Sweden, still there, the name restored (what names weren't restored -- Vadoņa, Aizsargu [the Great Leader and his Guard]). My repatriation to a country of the mind. Mother said that Latvijas Radio couldn't replicate the sound of the ice breaking in the Daugava until somebody realized that amplifying the sound of salt being rubbed against a table resembled it. "Alchemical broth." A kiss is just a kiss. For heat, you go to the forest. Fire rites. Fundamental things.
When I got here, no one had ever heard of Mark Rothko -- even the few surviving Jews were astounded by the lucrative fame of their son. Today the highest habitable point in town is the Rothko Bar (that tall hotel used to have a radiation readout rather than a clock above the door). I haven't been up there yet. Fama, in of itself ("no picture is made to endure nor to live with / but it is made to sell and sell quickly") -- you will be assimilated, as they say. A "Latvian artist" who never knew Latvia. Is the Pale a country of the mind, too? Desperately seeking some connection to the city of his birth, point to what might be ice floes -- surely his childhood memories meant something, the river's city (which turns its back upon the river, really, the levee hiding the flow). After a winter here ("null winters do sear such and more") the breaking of the ice begins to mean something. Under the lucre, actual riches -- a Matisse for every pot, and then. Nowadays almost no one remembers Vīdzirkste. His crossing paths with the erstwhile Marcus Rothkowitz in New York is as likely as Lenin and Rainis meeting up at the Cabaret Voltaire. Swiss artists all, no?
Back in '93, as a short-lived international secretary of the Writers' Union, I was in Sweden for the opening of the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators on Gotland. Fifteen years later, that Centre has a filius philosophorum -- the House of Language in Ventspils. What time is it in Gothenburg? I have no watch (the last one I had was stolen in a Warsaw train station while I slept), and if you try to call me, my phone is either turned off or I find myself outside of the zone (I'm transferring the number from the Castle to myself). Keeping time, time, time /In a sort of Runic rhyme... Ventspils -- Andra, Ieva, Iveta -- organized the focus on Latvia at the Göteborg Book Fair, and look how far we've come!
My first worry was -- pop, wir sind modern, aber nicht verwestlicht? I hadn't been out of the country for years. The more "Western" Latvia gets, the harder it is to perceive the difference between a functional society and this gorgeously dysfunctional one. But look how far we've come! I spent two summers in Sweden as a child, at Ladvik, and my little nationalist soul was severely disturbed by the fact that most Swedes had never heard of Lettland. On a clear day you can see across the water, but the Iron Curtain came between.
I had a terrific time -- I saw people I haven't seen in more than three decades (Gods, I's old), like Juris Rozītis. To place what exile was, read Juris' thesis. The photo above (by Ilmārs Znotiņš) is of the Latvian pavilion at the fair, which attracted over a hundred thousand visitors and more than a thousand journalists (it is, by any measure, one of the largest cultural events in Northern Europe). One of the highlights was an exhibition of books in Latvian published in Sweden after the war. I have many of them, from Papa (here an echo of an obscure poem by Uldis -- never mind). How we misunderestimate the exodus?
Existentially, we are no better off, Gunilla Forsén said when I asked her how it was to live in what was, comparatively, at least, Paradise -- back then, in the 'Nineties. One doesn't understand what Paradise is until one talks to students. What was the difference between eking out an existence here and the sort of opportunity every Swede has? How much of that comes down to national wealth, quite simply?
What of it comes down to rights, rights we were almost always denied? Lars Peter Fredén, the first Western diplomat to be stationed in Latvia, even before the occupation was brought to an end, spoke at Gothenburg of realizing how Swedes are barely acquainted with tragedy. When the Estonia sank, more died a tragic death than had since the 1700s -- can one ever bridge that gap, Latvians losing perhaps a third of the population in the First World War and a similar swathe in the Second?
Johan Öberg, who moderated one of the panels I was on, brought up a fun fact -- Rīga was once the largest city in Sweden. In Latvian, we still use the phrase "like in the Swedish era" -- when we're doing well, it's kā zviedru laikos. One can parse the hard reality -- it wasn't necessarily as pretty as we paint it -- but one need only look at schooling to realize why the phrase persists; among the concrete attempts to extend peasants' rights, Swedish rule meant bulding schools, and forcing the Baltic barons to provide the means for universal education. When the Russians came, these reforms were rolled back.
Here we are, here we are. 2008. How does the Swedish right to cross private property actually work in Latvia? Me live by lake, me build wall -- and fuck you. Swedes still read -- do we?
The Latvian pavilion was a cardboard reflection of the new National Library, finally being built.