What are those ingredients that form the flavour of the contemporary Latvian literature? A cup of thousand years old oral tradition, a handful of complicated history, a tea-spoon of contrasts, a pinch of mild climate, flat and green landscape with a sea on a side and a powerful idea.
Long before the written Latvian language was born, there has been a rich literary heritage preserved throughout centuries and passed along in the form of folk songs (Dainas), fairy tales, riddles, beliefs, proverbs and sayings.
Coinciding with the period of national awakenings in Europe at the end of 19th century, interest in the cultural heritage grew among the young generation of well-educated Latvians. Thanks to Krišjānis Barons, a folklore enthusiast, who devoted his life to writing down and systemizing folk songs, legends and other forms of folk tradition, we know over a million Latvian Dainas today. The Dainas is the source of pride and inspiration for Latvians, be it lifestyle, literature, music, art or design.
The Dainas are like coded messages revealing the traditional Latvian world-view. They offer tips for virtuous conduct and sustainable living, explaining issues of birth and death, the place of all living creatures and nature forces in the big scheme of things. There are also naughty Dainas, songs for weddings, magic and fertility; in a word – a Daina for every occasion.
Since 2001, the Cabinet of Folksongs is part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register .
BIRTH OF SECULAR LITERATURE. NATIONAL AWAKENING
The first book published in the Latvian language was the Catechism (1525) for the Protestant churches - only 8 years after the beginning of Reformation in Germany in 1517! The first secular literary works in Latvian appeared only at the end of the 18th century. On the wave of national awakenings in Europe, Latvian original literature witnessed active development in the 19th century. It was then when the national epic, Lāčplēsis (Bear-slayer), inspired by folk legends, was written by Andrejs Pumpurs. Published in 1888, the epic poem remains the most symbolic work of Latvian literature, recounting the life of the legendary hero, Lāčplēsis, chosen by the gods to become a hero of his people. It is a story of heroism, involving archetypical characters, mystical adventures, friendship, treason, love and sacrifice.
1880s is the beginning of a new era in Latvian poetry – Eduards Veidenbaums, Jānis Poruks. A decade later, Aspazija formulated in literature the ideas of woman’s self-worth, showing the signs of feminism. The psychological realism in Latvian literature was brought in by Rūdolfs Blaumanis – his stories and plays feature skilfully depicted conflicts caused by inner controversies and struggles of the characters. His dramatic plays along with the satirical ones are still staged in theatres throughout Latvia.
Overall, the late 19th century literary works represent the national awakening of the Latvian people and their growing confidence on the path to becoming a nation.
What Goethe is to Germans, Servantes to Spaniards or Shakespeare to Englishmen, Rainis is to Latvians. The beginning of the 20th century brought currents of symbolism and socialism into the literary stream, with Rainis, a poet, translator and politician, being the central figure.
Rainis and his wife, Aspazija, a writer and an active feminist, are considered the driving-force of the Latvian literature. At the time, literary Latvian language was still in its infancy, and Rainis and Aspazija were among those who helped nurture it. In their poetry, plays, translations and political activities they created a sense of Latvian identity. At the same time, their works possess literary qualities of European literary classics.
Rainis: plays, Fire and Night (uguns un nakts, 1905), Joseph and his brothers (Jāzeps un viņa brāļi), Indulis un Ārija (1911).
After the proclamation of the sovereign Latvian state in 1918, 1920s and 1930s brought unprecedented activity of modernistic literature. Aleksandrs Čaks in his poetry glorified the city life, romanticizing the everyday side of life, writing of poverty and prostitutes in poetry, which was previously not done. Other famous poets and writers included Ēriks Ādamsons, Anšlavs Eglītis, Veronika Strēlerte, Jānis Medenis. Many of them became famous for their works about the legendary freedom battles in 1919 of the Latvian riflemen.
THE SOVIET YEARS
After World War II, Latvian literary activity was split into three currents – one by writers who remained in Latvia, another by those in the Soviet deportation camps or Gulag's (after two mass-deportations in 1941 and 1949) and another one by writers who had fled the occupied Latvia to the West.
During the Soviet years, in Latvia, a literary career could put one’s life in danger – writers and poets could be banned by writing something that the Soviet censure didn’t approve of, some writers and poets were imprisoned or deported to Siberia. Poetry grew very strong during the post-war years for it allowed the authors to talk about the true sentiment and express views in the form of allegories, metaphors and symbols. As a response to the cruelty and absurdity of the regime, there was a phenomenal keenness for reading – the print runs of each published title were 20 or even 40 times the size that they have been ever since. The themes covered in the works of the Soviet-times Latvian writers and poets were the conflict between individual choices versus the system, sentiments towards one’s own country, living a life of double standards and hypocrisy, and, naturally, stories of faith and treason, love and friendship.
THE POETRY DAYS
During the age of banned and recommended subject matters, literature (and poetry in particular) cleverly manoeuvred between the lines to convey its message. Attestation of how popular poetry was during the years of Soviet occupation is the festival of public poetry reading, or Poetry Days, which took place for the first time in Rīga, on September 11, 1965, marking the 100th anniversary of the grand Latvian poet, Rainis. Since then, the Poetry Days have grown into an international poetry festival, taking place all over the country for a period of at least 10 days, attracting poets, translators and poetry lovers from all over the world.
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.
Imants Ziedonis 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. 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.
Valentīns Jākobsons and Knuts Skujenieks had been sent to a labour camps in Siberia, Russia, and was one of those who survived to return and write about their experience, along with Sandra Kalniete, who was born in a Siberian labour camp to Latvian parents and became Latvian Foreign Affairs Minister in 2002. Another impressive story of a life in Siberia was written by Melānija Vanaga, and was made into a feature film, The Chronicles of Melanie, in 2016.
More about the film, The Chronicles of Melanie.
GENERATION OF INTROVERTS
Today, on the brink of the centenary of statehood, Latvian literature is flourishing again – with diverse intonations, layers of metaphors, deeply intimate worlds. There are intellectual innovators of form and those inclined towards more ironic intonations. 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.
The current literature scene in Latvia is like a swarming bee-hive, a babbling river or a busy airport. The youngest generation of Latvian writers includes Inga Ābele, poet, novelist and playwright; poets Edvīns Raups, Andris Akmentiņš, Pēteris Draguns, Eduards Aivars, Liana Langa, Anna Auziņa, Kārlis Vērdiņš, Marts Pujāts and Inga Gaile; prose writers include Pauls Bankovskis, Jānis Einfelds, Gundega Repše, Andra Neiburga, Laima Muktupāvela, Jānis Joņevs and Nora Ikstena.
In 2018, as part of the centenary celebrations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the three Baltic countries will be the Market Focus at the London Book Fair. For the purpose, #iamintrovert campaign was launched as an introductory theme for the contemporary Latvian literature. “Latvia is one of the world's most introvert nations. We allow our books speak for us since literature is the perfect world for introverts.”
The digital platform, Latvian Literature.
Hunt down the Introverts! London Book Fair 2018 programme
All you need to know about Latvian Book Market now.
It is often poetry that shares its audience with DJs of electronic music. 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, experimental video projects and collaborations with multimedia artists. Orbita has succeeded in bringing together both Latvian and Russian-speaking 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.
Photo credits: Kultura.lv/LETA; Aldis Pūtelis; Latvian Investment and Development Agency; Ieva Luka/LETA; Reinis Pētersons /latvianliterature.lv