The Baltic Books Blog Tour #2

This year the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are celebrating 100 years of independence with new translations of Baltic Books coming to the UK for the first time and a series of cultural events happening across the UK. The Baltics are also being honoured as the Market Focus at London Book Fair (LBF), the biggest book trade event in the UK.

Here is the second part of my participation today in the blog tour celebrating Baltic Books…

18 by Pauls Bankovskis

Translated from the Latvian by Ieva Lešinska

I’ll admit, I am a newcomer to Baltic literature and wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novel, first published in 2014, then in translation by Vagabond Voices, a Glasgow indie published last year. It appeared to be a mystery, but once I started reading, it clearly became more than that.

But, at the beginning, there is a puzzle:  While visiting their holiday home in the wooded country, a digital camera is found in the pocket of their late grandfather’s coat. All the memory card contains though are some pictures of his home, all taken from odd angles, with blurred shadows in the background, suggestive of a human presence.

Photograph 3
There was something mysterious in this picture too. It showed a path in the woods on a sunny day, and could have been taken during any season except winter. […]
Only after perusing this photo several times did we notice a silhouette in the distance, behind a pine leaning to the wind. Although it was blurry and resembled the snowman or yeti from that infamous “documentary” footage, it was clearly a human or human-like creature, and not a moose, elk or deer.

On subsequent visits, the family will try to recreate these photos to try and make sense of them.

Then we go back nearly 100 years, to Riga in 1917. Surrounded by the Russians on one side, and the Germans on the other, Latvia is stuck in the middle of conflict, and Riga is in danger of falling. A Latvian soldier decides not to hope that the Latvian army will prevail like his friend Tidrikis believes; instead he walks…

By now I was effectively a deserter, although I was walking with my former battlefield comrades in the same direction. But, as of the previous night, our intentions set us apart.

He visits his parents to say goodbye, although he doesn’t tell them of his intentions to desert to army. He walks off, following the Gauja river by less-frequented paths, and as he goes, he muses that ‘Riga won’t be the same place I left today,’ and waxes philosophical about Heraclitus, who said, “One can never step in the same river twice,” it’s never the same water. His musings are presented as diary entries, and alongside his encounters with passers-by and hiding from the military who are on the hunt for deserters, he speaks a lot about nature, the rivers and particularly the trees on his journey.

Eventually he makes it to Valmeira, where he calls in at his great-aunt’s home. Madame B is a follower of Madame Blavatsky, the proponent of theosophy, and after a vegetarian dinner, she offers him a cigarette which he supposes contains, ‘a mixture of Madame’s “magic” herbs.’ This leads to some very strange dreams indeed, and he leaves the next day with a note from Madame with another contact to visit on his journey. It also has a strange quotation written on it:

“I see people, they look like trees walking around. And trees walking like people.”

The first part of this quote is from Mark (8.24) and the story of Jesus curing a blind man. Indeed, these phrases will provide the subtext for the rest of the novel in a way. There is much discussion of trees and how they may communicate through the mycellium sub-soil fungal network around their roots in the forest. There is the big oak tree in the yard that is over 100 years old, there are rotten stumps that may look like men. I was reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ogres in The Buried Giant (my review here).  There are many metaphors about roots and rootlessness, and inherited memory.

Alongside this philosophical discussion and the soldier’s journey, is the story of how Latvia, in the last parts of the Great War, was edging towards declaring independence in 1918. I felt a bit thick when the significance of this novel’s title became clear to me – but my knowledge of this part of WWII history is very poor. 100 years later, Latvians worry about their neighbour Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, and they remember 1917.

I found this novel to be an interesting blend, veering from the straight-forward diaries of a deserting soldier, to the magic realism of strange dreams and the humanoid in the photos. All of this was tangled up together in the network of the roots of Latvian patriotism and history.  (7/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you.

Pauls Bankovskis, 18 (trans Ieva Lešinska) Vagabond Voices, 2017. Flapped paperback, 186 pages.

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