Chronicles of the Baltics

Within Memories and Dreams

Within Memories and Dreams

Jennifer Deborah Walker

Haunted by the ghosts of Communists past, the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are countries that have been reborn into new, shifting identities under the blanket of the European Union. Although Estonia shares more in common linguistically with Finland than its Balto-Slavic neighbors to the south, all three of these countries share strong cultural and historical links with one another. Their mutual history with Soviet Russia, which grabbed the territories and incorporated the Baltics into the “Motherland”, has influenced the Baltic States in more ways than one. Within contemporary Baltic literature national identity and a sense of home have become prevalent themes. Begin the Baltic literary exploration with these three translated work authors originating from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Estonia: The Cavemen Chronicle, Mihkel Mutt (2012)

Translated by Adam Cullen (2015)

In a country changing over regimes, Mutt’s novel may chronicle a basement bar that lies beneath Tallinn’s medieval streets, but it’s a story of a country and its shifting identity. Told through a series of vignettes about the residents who call the “Cave” their home, an eclectic mix of intelligentsia, artists, and undercover KGB artists, the Caveman Chronicles weaves the reader through a personal history of Tallinn’s creative class and how the shift in regime affects their lives. Some benefit from Estonia’s liberation from the Soviets, others suffer having enjoyed the benefits of the regime. The narrator of the story, perhaps slightly autobiographical, is a tabloid columnist who is a keen observer of the various personalities that walk in and out of his life and the bohemian circle gathering in the Cave, and  tries to save fading artistic figures in the post-communist world by promoting them in paparazzi photos used in gossip columns. A fascinating insight into the world of changing Estonia and its cultural undercurrents.

Latvia: Flesh-Colored Dominos, Zigmunds Skujinš (1999)

Translated by Kaija Straumanis (2014)

This is one of the few pieces of Latvian literature that has made it into English translation. It’s a unique piece of magical realism that presents an alternate history of Latvia. Themes of identity prevail throughout the novel, which is told in two stories - one set in the 18th century and another around World War II. Even if more than a century separates the family residing in a Latvian town that has survived multiple occupations from the Russians and German, the novel reconciles the two threads into one. In the 18th century, Baroness Valtraute von Br?gen’s husband returns: except only half of him. The baron’s body has been severed in two. His lower half sewn onto the body of Captain Ulste, who returns to the baroness and they conceive a child. However, when her husband eventually returns in one piece, questions arise. During World War II, the narrator is a nameless young boy and his half-Japanese step-brother, J?nis, raised by his grandfather The novel dances around the theme of identity - especially national identity and whether nationality is determined by blood, especially in the case of J?nis, who is treated as a foreigner for his Asian appearance, yet identifies with being Latvian andalso Baltic German at the height of World War II’s anti-German sentiment. Zigmunds Skuji?š was one of Latvia’s most renowned writers, and this translation gives English speakers the opportunity to delve into his work.   

Lithuania: Breathing Into Marble, Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite (2008)

Translated by Marija Marcinkute (2016)

Breathing Into Marble is a high-octane family drama set in rural Lithuania. Isabel, a young woman living with her husband Liudas and epileptic son Gailius, decides to adopt troubled orphan Ilya on impulse. Ilya doesn’t complete the family the way Isabel had wished. Instead he begins to unravel a thread that leads to tragedy. Uncomfortable memories of the past and the horrors of the present interplay among wild emotions and haunting imagery where the concept of home is torn to shreds. The novel tackles issues from childhood sexual abuse, suicide, and the problems that can arise from the adoption process in Lithuania. The relationship between Ilya and Isabel is at the heart of this story, a moving and intense walk through a dark and twisted relationship. Breathing Into Marble was one of the first novels to be translated from Lithuanian into English.

Within Memories and Dreams

Masha Kamenetskaya

Aetherial Worlds

Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya. Translated by Anya Migdal. Knopf, 2018

Tatyana Tolstaya comes from a famous Leningrad family (her grandparents were literati and her father was an eminent physicist). She has been writing fiction since the early 1980s and almost immediately gained critical acclaim and readership. Later, Tolstaya moved to the USA where she worked as a professor of Russian literature and creative writing, and contributed to the local press. Today, Tolstaya lives in Moscow. She continues to write, blog, teach and travel.

Her newest collection of short stories is written in the first person and inspired by a wide variety of real-life events: buying a new house, meeting an old friend, driving in the dark, cooking kholodets, shopping, entering an apartment which has been sitting abandoned for years. But this constitutes only the first layer, only one entrance to the aetherial worlds where memories live, where small routine coincidences develop into life altering events, where old flats are inhabited by house elves and have doors that lead to parallel dimensions. These worlds are imaginative but not imaginary. Tolstaya plays masterfully with time, has a brilliant gift for dialog and possesses a sharp eye for detail (not to mention sharp tongue). She is simultaneously tender and keenly eager to hear what the world has to tell her.

As the collection unfolds, we see how time accelerates: themes change, places are tranformed, and childhood becomes increasingly remote. Most importantly, the door that connects these worlds remains stalwartly in place.

The Symmetry Teacher

a novel by Andrei Bitov. Translated by Polly Gannon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Andrei Bitov is a radically independent writer. Even though he is frequently cited as one of the first postmodernist writers in Russian literature, that description does little to define him. It is unlikely, however, that Bitov cares exactly what he is called. What he cares about is language; his long journey as a writer has been centered around exploration of language–its boundaries, semantic twists, and the relationship between so-called real life and literature.

Among his most famous works translated into different languages, are novels such as Pushkin House, A Captive of the Caucasus, and The Monkey Link. The Symmetry Teacher is a three-part “novel-echo,” consisting of seven stories. Bitov states in a preface that he did not write the novel but only made a translation of an unknown English text by A. Tired-Boffin. The novel depicts a life, from beginning to end, of a man called Urbino Vanoski.

None of this is true, or untrue in the practical sense. “Urbino Vanovski” may be an  anagram for Sirin\Nabokov as Sirin was Nabokov’s pen name and “A. Tired-Boffin” is most likely an anagram for “Andrei Bitov” where ‘v’ is replaced with double ‘f.’ But, don’t worry, obfuscation is not the author’s intent. The Symmetry Teacher is provocative, frustrating, fragmented, and sometimes annoying. It’s art for the sake of art. It’s not easy to follow and requires a certain patience and some experience as a reader, but broadens enormously perceptions of conventional storytelling.

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel

Growing Up in Communist Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna

Summers. Penguin Group (USA), 2017.

The voice of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is genuinely unique, no matter what she writes about – the unhappy women of post-Soviet era, tales for kids about Peter the Piglet or, as in this case, stories about her childhood.

Now 80, Petrushevskaya reflects vividly on her life – first on growing up as an orphan, beggar, and street performer, then on the Second World War, her family history, and on her first attempts to write, and finally on her adult life as a prose writer, a playwright and performer.

The Girl from The Metropol Hotel is not a memoir in the classic sense of the word: but a collection of short and very short essays, written disparately and, at some point, collected in a single volume. The narration is as chaotic as the memory itself, but, perhaps, that helps the author from becoming overly sentimental, accusative, or playing to her readers’ sympathies.

Petrushevskaya is elegant and brimming with humor. She is capable of keeping her distance and writing emotionally at the same time. She plays with narration, sometimes allowing it to remain simple in its wording. Although her childhood was miserable, she never goes too far in pointing the finger at those who might be responsible for her and her family’s troubles. The result is a book that makes you, the reader, happier.