If there was no Latvian literature, there would probably be no Latvians. It is as simple as that. Literature and litterateurs helped crystallize the idea of the Latvian state and bring forth the courage to lay its foundations. During the age of banned and recommended subject matter, literature (and poetry in particular) cleverly manoeuvred between the lines to convey its message. It is only now, at the start of the 21st century, that Latvian writers – perhaps for the first time – can stay true to their art without making any concessions to external pressures.
Latvian literature is flourishing; and its voices, timbres, intonations are diversified. There are writers whose texts are densely woven with layers of metaphors and symbols, employing a mythological way of expression.1 There are others who create deeply intimate, emotional worlds.2 There are intellectual innovators of form,3 and those inclined towards more ironic intonations.4 The generation of grand poets5 who wrote at a time when poetry could influence not just perceptions but also socio-political realities, of polyglots whose knowledge of other cultures became a colourful ingredient in their own creations,6 is now followed by a surprisingly plentiful generation of young poets.7 Standing a little apart, though close by, the Russophone literary landscape of Latvia has been developing and adding to the polyphony of Latvian contemporary culture.8
We have our own master of crime novels,9 our first talents in the fantasy genre,10 and even our poetry slammers who believe that the future lies in the spoken word. The current landscape of Latvian literature is like a swarming beehive, a babbling river or a busy airport.
Inese Zandere & liels un mazs
We would venture to assert that over the past decade or so no child in Latvia will have grown up untouched by the phenomenon of Inese Zandere (1958). Literary critic Anda Baklāne says: “Inese Zandere is not just a children’s poet; Inese Zandere is an entire paradigm, an industry and a concept.” Zandere’s poems for children – or, rather, families – have turned reading poetry into a lively, playful and serious conversation, rich with imagination yet devoid of pretence. Inese Zandere also encourages others to write for children; liels un mazs, the publishing house she founded, is remarkably prolific and, in close collaboration with poets, writers and illustrators, is helping ever more readers to cross the boundary from reading ability into reading enjoyment.
Unable to earn a living in Latvia, Īva Baranovska embarked on the experiences and tribulations of a guest worker in modern-day Ireland (Laima Muktupāvela “The Mushroom Covenant”). Five decades earlier, a girl was born in Siberia, to a couple banished from Soviet Latvia as part of the mass deportations; not until much later will the girl, afterwards to become Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, truly grasp how much endurance, courage and human perseverance was needed to survive starvation and humiliation (Sandra Kalniete “With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows”). Documentary literature (fiction and non-fiction) has been gaining popularity with both writers and readers since the 1990s. Alongside its literary qualities its ap- peal also lies in the chance to hear another telling of the stories of European history.
Orbita. Blurring the Lines
Poetry that shares its audience with DJs of electronic music? Yes – that is the case with Orbita, a union of five Latvian-born Russophone poets of roughly the same generation – Semyon Khanin (1970), Vladimir Svetlov (1973), Zhorzh Uallik, Artur Punte (1977) and Sergei Timofeyev (1970). No less interested in new media than in poetry, they experiment with ways in which poetry can be performed and perceived, creating almanacs (also in CD format), video experiments, collaborations with media artists. Orbita has succeeded in bringing together both Latvian and Russian-Latvian audiences, which otherwise tend to stay on their respective near-lying but parallel cultural streets. An interdisciplinary approach is now advanced even further by an artist-run art centre Totaldobže, where collaborations among poets, musicians, contemporary dancers, poetry slammers and artists have become part of the daily routine.
Imants Ziedonis and the Power of Poetry
When Imants Ziedonis (1933–2013) passed away, thousands of people lined up to pay their last respects. Ziedonis, being one of the greatest Latvian poets, wrote in a way that allowed people from the most varied walks of life – be it a skate- boarding teenager, a forty-something entrepreneur or an elderly teacher – to feel a personal connection with his work. He was a rational thinker preoccupied with the irrational; a master of paradoxes; a poet so in command of the Latvian language as to be able to show it off in all its playfulness. Like Ojārs Vācietis (1933–1983) and Vizma Belševica (1931–2005), Imants Ziedonis was an author whose writings and point of view influenced not only the following generations of poets but also the socio-political developments of his time.
Censorship and Readership
Latvians are often asked how tough life was during Soviet times. When it came to literature, a literary career could put your life in danger. Writers and poets could be banned – prohibited from being published, read, even mentioned. Worse yet, some writers were imprisoned or deported. There were others, though, who were supported by the regime and commissioned to write. However, alongside this sad and cruel absurdity, there was a phenomenal keenness for reading – the print runs of each published title were 20 and even 40 times the size that they have been ever since.
Where Germans have Goethe, where the Spanish have Cervantes, Latvians have Rainis – or, as it would only be fair to say, Rainis and Aspazija (the pseudonyms of Jānis and Elza Pliekšāns). Literary Latvian language was at the time in its infancy, and Rainis and Aspazija were without a doubt among those who helped nurture it. In their poetry, plays, translations and political activities they both created a sense of Latvian identity. you would be hard-pressed to find a Latvian town that does not have a street named after Rainis or Aspazija; you will probably see their names in most theatre repertoires – and so it is hardly surprising that there is even a crater on the planet Mercury that bears Rainis’ name.