Chronicles of the Baltics

Chronicles of the Baltics

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 Skuji?š (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 ?erniauskait? (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.