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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24 October 2008

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.

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26 January 2008

The Blue Danube

Rumor has it that my city's new master plan calls for restoring the Zilā Donava -- The Blue Danube, a saloon that was gutted by fire not long ago. As it was one of the few seedy bars to survive the clumsy gentrification of darkest Dvinsk, and as its character is now a rarity rather than the norm -- bravo! I append a brief, relevant fragment from The Penetralium. Other extracts from my work-in regress may be found here. The work pictured (paper, watercolor, ink) is "Padegs un astrālais" ("Padegs and the Astral") by Kārlis Padegs, 1939.

Vegetable Street (literally the Street of Roots) runs parallel to Bread Street until the latter curves. Vegetable Street is the steepest street in the city, reaching Station Street at an ugly monument built for the Dvintsi, their bronze faces scowling under the red star, across from the Blue Danube, first tavern to greet a visitor to our fair city, the kind of bar that only certain women enter late at night, or long-suffering women accompanying their suicidal husbands for a last drink – what the rite is here: a man, dressed in hideous synthetics (no longer so obvious, since there is a “sekondhends,” a second-hand clothing store, on nearly every corner, erasing the old distinctions in No-Man’s-Land) – such an one, shining with the slime of masculinity, slimed with machismo, brings his draugs his droog his buddy, for early destruction (“no man is safe who drinks before breakfast”) – eight a.m., at the Blue Danube or Uyut (vaguely Gemütlichkeit) or the nameless bar next to the ragpickers’ – the scene is the same: a bottle of Agdam, a sort of faux port that is really grain neutral spirits and color, sugar, a trace of grapes – my buddy – the man with whom I am entering the grave – my buddy and I: Agdam, half-liter jars of bad beer (once, mine had maggots at the bottom of the glass), and a thick, hexagonally patterned tumbler of vodka, two three hundred grams of vodka each, and a pair of voblas, a dry, salty fish – the Caspian roach. You talk, the benches scraping against the floor, sip Agdam, down vodka, and drain your beer, beat the fish against the side of the table to loosen its meat, and then it is morning. And that is manhood, far from the nervous children and neurotic wife, finally far from your buddy’s seeming inability to see what it is you were saying as the fish kept time, far even from yourself. Somehow lately everyone is dying from cirrhosis, or from the brake fluid they drank during prohibition in the eighties. You stagger home to Stropi, where the slaughterhouse is (“please celebrate your wedding at our café”), or Grīva, crossing the river by ice if it is winter. When the thaw comes, the last to cross seem to disappear, or ice fishermen adrift, devoted folks, away from the family each day, warming themselves with grain alcohol, waiting for fish. This is only a man and his bottle, dawn or was it dusk, crib.

And then we came out and saw the stars of hell. In vino veritas, pravda? “And ruthlessly sow the salt of deformation.”

For years now, the Fortress is a place of internal exile. If you are unable to pay the “heating net” or the hot water (only on weekends in summer), and are delinquent for a few months, you are sent to the Fortress – “allocated space” – and live there with men who can no longer afford the aforementioned manhood. They gather by the yellow tanker trucks that sell beer, loll in the grass of the dry moats, torture their families (what is a family) and create hell as easily as I drift into doubt and ambivalence. The poetry of departure. In Hochsommer, the barges still function, bearing ordinary sand from as far as the rapids – this is an unnavigable river beyond Pļaviņas – the formerly proud tugboats lately sinking when they are not moved on time from the summer to the winter dock, the pressure of the ice, the pilots ensconced in the sorry Blue Danube or another nameless place known by a graffito of a crescent and star, where they were about to plow under the shuttered wooden hovels of Viduspoguļanka and build soc-houses, what leader are the buildings named after today, what is built, confused crones bearing sour cream to market, so that yesterday by mid-afternoon, when the hopeful enter despair and pack it up and head for their homesteads, the tables were still laden with cottage cheese and the eyes of those who milked that animal were dark... they look good, things here, from the bars the few foreigners enter, the ones where one beer would buy you seven at Uyut, and there is some fresh happiness in the ulitse Lenina, after all my daughter went to Denmark to study drawing and Sasha is working for that man behind the tinted windows of the Lincoln Navigator… and now is something akin to goldenrod, last night’s mussels in brine, I reacting to my sudden presence after two days dragging my lover into selfsame nightmare, an old and degenerate man rounding our house, peering at the garden, and entering I’s mother’s apartment, my not understanding a word he said as I led him away (how do I know what he wants? Once it was a man whose family squatted here when this house was abandoned during the tail end of the German occupation – he only wanted to see his memory – “my first bath, I had never seen a bathtub before”) … kak cauchemar, why have the Russians taken the French word for nightmare, did they not have them before?

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03 December 2007

The Revolution Devours Its Own Children

Die Revolution ist wie Saturn, sie frißt ihre eignen Kinder. -- Georg Büchner, Dantons Tod

Among the ca. 70 000 Latvians killed in the Soviet Union seventy years ago were many fervent and prominent Bolsheviks, ranging from the creator of Dalstroy, Eduards Bērziņš, to the "perpetual dissident" Linards Laicens. The author of remarkable love lyrics like Ho-Tai, Laicens, "who could only be in eternal opposition," became a diehard Red in independent Latvia, departing for the Soviet Union after various stints in prison. Uldis Ģērmanis describes his sorry fate with style (and error) in Zili stikli, zaļi ledi (Blue Glass, Green Ice, an account of Ģērmanis' visit to occupied Latvia to research the Riflemen) -- Laicens' ashes were scattered in the unclaimed remains section of the Don cemetery in Moscow. Ģērmanis wonders whether he thought of his earlier "bourgeois" convictions (the author of what may be the first detailed demand for the Republic, Laicens repudiates his "errors" in an essay that can be found in his 1959 collected works -- collected minus his nationalistic writings, of course, though the poet had been "rehabilitated" during the Thaw).

Another victim was Gustavs Klucis, a pioneer of political photo montage and a leader of the Constructivist avant-garde. More of his work can be seen here; additional biographical information in English can be found here. The director Pēteris Krilovs is about to release a film entitled Nepareizais latvietis (The Wrong Latvian). A trailer for the film -- in English -- can be viewed here.

In Latvian, here is a text entitled "Latvieši - Staļina upuri un bendes" -- "Latvians -- Stalin's victims and executioners."

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17 August 2007


I've recently returned from Ventspils, where I spent a deliriously happy month in the delightful House of Language, translating the Latvian poet Uldis Bērziņš and the fine Portuguese writer José Riço Direitinho. Meanwhile Ingūna Liepa, the woman I live with, was at a painters' symposium in Lithuania (that's her drawing above -- more of her work can be seen here). I'd meant to continue blogging whilst there, but a different muse hovered nearby -- history and politics were shunted aside in favor of leaping between five languages and sipping strange libations in diverse company (Uldis makes a remarkable infusion of parsley and vodka...). I'll start posting again soon!

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14 January 2007

Auseklis Baušķenieks, 1910 - 2007

One of the leading figures of Latvian avant-garde painting, Auseklis Baušķenieks, died on Saturday at the age of ninety-six. He was attracted to visual art as a student of architecture at the University of Latvia in the 1930s and graduated from the Academy of Arts in 1942. After serving in the Latvian Legion and being held as a prisoner of war by the English, French, and Americans, he returned to Latvia in 1946. His first individual exhibition was in 1975. The target of Auseklis Baušķenieks' works, subjected to a warm but acerbic irony often suffused with strong, sad social commentary, quickly switched from homo sovieticus to consumerism and our troubled transitional democracy once independence was restored -- in "Pikets" ("The Picket," 1993), for example, the sign says "yes to us"... the banner behind it, "no to those and these." The painting above, entitled "Māte Eiropa" ("Mother Europe"), is from the Latvian Artists' Society -- other works by Baušķenieks can be found at his pages there and at Mans's Gallery. Auseklis' son Ingus Baušķenieks founded the then underground music group Dzeltenie pastnieki in the 1980s ("The Yellow Postmen" -- under the Soviets, the color of mailboxes was blue... the postal color is again yellow); the group still exists (a track can be heard here).

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