This April, Latvia together with the other two Baltic states – Lithuania and Estonia – participated in the London Book Fair as the Market Focus countries. Due to this event, and the help of state support, British publishing houses set out to publish over 40 English translations of works of Latvian literature. The Latvian Literature platform offers you a series of articles honoring these publications — this time introducing our readers to the top 10 saddest books written by Latvian authors. Several books in the list are soon to be available in the UK and other English speaking countries in translation.
1. “Kauja pie Knipskas”, Jānis Poruks (The Battle at Knipska, 1897)
“The Battle at Knipska” is one of Latvian literature’s classic Jānis Poruks’ best known stories. Its heroes - the poor, faithful and humble Cibiņš, and the naughty and proud Buņģis - have become iconic characters in our culture. Empathy towards poor Cibiņš, his trials and tribulations at school, and the snowball battle seem to be encoded in every Latvian’s DNA. Just the thought of the ending scene will bring a tear to your eye, and you might wish to ask Poruks himself: why did the story have to end like this? Do Latvian authors really not know how to write a happy ending?
2. “Nāves ēnā”, Rūdolfs Blaumanis ("In the Shadow of Death", 1899)
"In the Shadow of Death", thanks to the Riga Film Studio’s motion picture based on the novella, and its continuous inclusion in required reading lists, is one of Rūdolfs Blaumanis’ most renowned works. If this was a list of 10 saddest professions, Blaumanis’ work would ensure the top spot was given to fishermen. The novella tells a story about fourteen ice fishermen, who, preoccupied with drilling holes and setting up nets and rods, fail to notice that the ice platform they are on has separated from the coast. The extreme and terrifying circumstances reveal each of the character's true nature, letting the reader helplessly observe the rough existential drama unravel somewhere on a melting block of ice out in the sea.
Rūdolfs Blaumanis’ novella “Nāves ēnā” (In the Shadow of Death) was published this year by the British “Momentum Books”.
3. “Ziemas pasakas”, Kārlis Skalbe (Winter Tales, 1905)
Skalbe must have intended these tales for grownups for they are truly too sad to be meant for children. And for some reason the author was convinced that adults long for this kind of sadness. He wrote most of his stories being imprisoned for participating in the Revolution of 1905. This experience allowed him to produce literature so full of deep sorrow and suffering that at times it borders on horror fiction. The collection comprises tales like the unambiguously titled “Bendes meitiņa” (Hangman's Daughter) , “Pasaka par vērdiņu” (Tale about the Brass Farthing), “Kaķīša dzirnavas” (The Cat’s Windmill), et al. It looks like Skalbe knew exactly what he was doing though, because his tales and stories are now considered the canon in Latvian culture, and “The Cat’s Windmill” was voted by readers the nation’s favorite book at the “Great Reading” TV show.
4. “Cilvēki laivās”, Alberts Bels (Men in Boats, 1987)
“Men in Boats” is one of Alberts Bels’ most brilliant works. His grim and fatal novel tells a story of of mid-19th century Courland people in a time when all hope is lost. The focus of the story is a fishermen village and its inhabitants (yes Bels, too, was big on fishermen), their lives watched over and lamented by the Svente Hill — a wandering dune, moving forth unstoppably. Just like the dune, men in boats are moving along the stream of history — the Courlanders, their language and culture. The sadness and doom embodied by this tale will touch any person living in a small nation.
Two works by Alberts Bels are to be published in the UK this year: “Bezmiegs” (Insomnia, “Parthian Books”), and “Būris” (The Cage, “Peter Owen Publishers”).
5. “Veļupes krastā”, Melānija Vanaga (On the Shores of the Shades, 1991)
“On the Shores of the River of Shades” is an autobiographical memoir that tells the story of the deportation and exile of the protagonist and her son. It represents not only the tragic life of the author and her relatives, but also the sad fates of other Latvian families. When asked about the genre of her work, Melānija Vanaga says: “It is not a novel. It is the story of my fate.” The book is accompanied by photographs, copies of documents, and excerpts from diaries and letters of other exiled women, saturated with their thoughts, pains and longings. Sorrow is appreciated highly not only in Latvian literature but also cinema: in 2016, “The Chronicles of Melanie” was made based on the novel, directed by Viesturs Kairišs.
6. “...pār izdegušiem laukiem skrien mans sapnis”, Regīna Ezera (“...across burnt fields runneth my dream”, Priedaines, 2003)
Regīna Ezera, one of the most prominent Latvian prose writers of the 20th century, passed away in 2002, and in 2003, two of her previously unpublished works saw daylight: “Ode to Sorrow” (a book worthy of a spot in the list of saddest works, but the article is about the other one this time) and “...across burnt fields runneth my dream”. After her mother’s death, Ezera’s daughter found twenty-five letters she wrote and never sent to her beloved. They were not meant to be sent. These sincere letters have now been compiled in a tiny book, as beautiful and sad as unreciprocated love is.
7. “Svina garša”, Māris Bērziņš (The Taste of Lead, Dienas grāmata, 2015)
“The Taste of Lead” is certainly one of the most loved books in the “We. Latvia. The 20th Century” series, and accordingly won the Best Work of Prose nomination in the Annual Latvian Literature Awards ceremony of 2016. Although the book and its characters will deliver some of the most joyous moments, the ending will shock the most cynical of readers. It is again a story about our history, but this time not in exile: Matīss lives here, in Riga, with superpowers taking over the country one after another in 1940 and 1941. The reader will quickly learn compassion, getting to witness the misfortunes of the young protagonist, the Rumbula Massacre casualty.
An excerpt of Māris Bērziņš’ work “The Taste of Lead” is included in the “Dalkey Archive Press” anthology “Best European Fiction 2017”.
8. “Duna”, Inga Ābele (Thunder, Dienas grāmata, 2017)
Another story entwined with sorrow in the “We. Latvia. The 20th Century” series. Writer and playwright Inga Ābele depicts Latvia after the Second World War. It is a time when people are just about to be reconciled with the absurd laws of the existing power. It is a time of suffering; suffering that fractures people and their fates. War, dread of exile, escape and hiding. And human spirit above all. And the strength and struggle that guides the protagonist Andrievs, a former racer at the Riga Hippodrome.
9. “Kurš no mums lidos?”, Andra Manfelde (“Which one of us is gonna fly?”, Dienas grāmata, 2017)
Yet another testimony to the great value Latvians place on sad literature. Andra Manfelde’s “Which one of us is gonna fly?” tells a story of the Princess of Sorrow herself. The work received the Annual Latvian Literature Award as best work for children this spring. The reader will be accompanying three children on their quest for the lost city cathedral, encountering the Princess of Sorrow dwelling in the Hut of Grief, the Queen of Wrath who throws wrath around, the Lady of Empty Handedness, et al. It may be that the brave hearts of children will conquer sadness, sorrow, wrath and all the other foibles, so well known to us, all the weaknesses too powerful to be fought by adults. This only happens in Latvian literature.
10. “Suns, kurš atrada skumjas”, Rūta Briede (The Dog who Found Sorrow, Liels un mazs, 2018)
Sorrow in Latvian literature appears not only in writing, but also in illustrations. Rūta Briede teamed up with the illustrator Elīna Brasliņa and created a picture book inviting the youngest of readers into the city, overwhelmed by dark clouds spreading despair and robbing everything of color and smell. The courageous Dog won’t let the sadness take over. He decides to climb up to heaven, only to find out sorrow has climbed all the way to the top. Briede’s story uncovers the importance of emotions guiding a person’s view of the world, and Brasliņa’s illustrations will allow you to feel the weight of depression on your own skin. Up to a point where all sadness just goes away.
Rūta Briede’s book “The Queen of Seagulls was published this year by “The Emma Press” in the UK.