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Baltic literature: the best contemporary fiction you need to read

Baltic literature: the best contemporary fiction you need to read
Sunset over Vilnius. Image: Vaidotas Mišeikis under a CC licence

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have a rich literary tradition that has only recently been picked up by the English-language world. From reckonings with the Soviet past to madcap wartime tales and dreamlike digressions, here are eight of the best recent books available in translation

6 October 2017

Border State by Tõnu Õnnepalu, 1993 (Estonia)

Translated by Madli Puhvel (2000)

After its publication in 1993 under Õnnepalu’s pen name Emil Tode, this became the first work of literature from the Baltic states to win attention beyond their only-just-reinstated borders, being translated into a number of languages. That it received attention is not hard to understand: Border State presents the story, told in letters to the mysterious figure of Angelo, of an unnamed eastern European immigrant, in Paris on a scholarship to translate bloodless post-war French poetry into his native tongue, who has just killed his older lover, Franz. This plot, and the fact that at exactly a hundred pages it could be mistaken for a particularly chunky leaflet, may make this sound like a taut, fast-paced read. In fact, it is dissociated to the point of seeming dreamlike: full of space, trailing questions, unmoored impressions — and intrusive memories from a muted, monochrome country very like Soviet Estonia. The narrator’s experiences are also reflective of an unrepeatable historical moment, when Easterners finally made it to western Europe, to be, in turn, lectured to, exoticised, feared and pitied.

The Cavemen Chronicle by Mihkel Mutt, 2012 (Estonia)

Translated by Adam Cullen (2015)

Tallinn Old Town. Image: schlaeger under a CC licence

Mihkel Mutt’s chronicle takes us through half a century in the life of a sparsely populated northern European country where everyone knows everyone. When we pick up the story, Estonia is a militarily occupied country whose people privately keep alive the memory that once it was something else; when it closes, Estonia is an EU member with a buoyant economy that is the envy of the east. Mutt tracks a varied cast of characters, showing how Estonia’s changing fortunes transform them — or how they transform themselves. The eponymous cavemen take their name from a Tallinn cellar bar, where Soviet Estonia’s intelligentsia mingled with undercover KGB, and Mutt is particularly interested in the country’s numerically tiny but disproportionately important creative class, generally nationally minded but often having enjoyed unadmitted benefits under the Soviets: a captive audience, sinecures and the kind of status that matters more than money when money has no worth. Mutt is also skilled at picking out the momentary, apparently irrelevant phenomena that signal deep changes beneath the surface; how the appearance of a waffle stand in your small country town can bring on sensations of impending doom.

The Saviour of Lasnamäe by Mari Saat, 2008 (Estonia)

Translated by Susan Wilson (2015)

The Lasnamäe estate in Tallinn. Image: Raimo Popper under a CC licence

“’What is there to understand?’ said the man. His voice became a shade warmer and he explained slowly, patiently, as if to a child. “Men have needs; many men have needs but no opportunity.’”

The position of the Russians of the Baltic states, a very sizeable chunk of the population in both Estonia and Latvia — descendants, for the most part, of Soviet-era settlers — has been a vexed question ever since the restoration of independence. Lacking proficiency in the suddenly crucial native languages and often disliked by the ethnic majority, older generations in particular have struggled to find a narrative and identity to replace those now discredited. Mari Saat is an ethnic Estonian author, but her novel has at its centre a sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of Natalya Filippovna, a middle-aged single mother, Russia-born but resident since the Soviet period in Lasnamäe, a vast, bleak suburb of Tallinn. Losing her factory job at almost exactly the same time as her teenage daugher is prescribed expensive braces, she is forced to look for alternative means of income, including some she had hoped never to consider. Generational as well as ethnic differences are subtly highlighted: Natalya fondly recalls holidays in Crimea and barely existent rent, while her daughter dreams bashfully of becoming president of Estonia and worries her Russian accent shows through when she speaks the state language. Throughout, we are never allowed to forget the material reality of life in impoverished Estonia of the late ‘90s.

Read an extract from the novel here.

Natasha, and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, 2004 (Latvia/Canada)

The Canadian writer David Bezmozgis gets into this list by virtue of his Riga birth, as well as the frequent references by his characters to the Latvia they have left for Toronto. They are Russian-speaking Jews, those who the Soviet Union gradually, reluctantly permitted to leave in batches from the 70s onwards. These stories all concern themselves with the same family — the Bermans — and in particular with their son, Mark, our narrator and interpreter. Between the first story and the seventh, he grows from a small Russian child to a weed-smoking suburban teenager to a young man, slipping into the host society as the older members of his family never can. For all the precisely phrased irony and borderline slapstick that define these stories, this is a surpassingly compassionate portrayal of immigration: how talented, smart and resilient people can be disarmed, rendered helpless by a simple switch of language and social codes.

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš, 1999 (Latvia)

Translated by Kaija Straumanis (2014)

The mansion of the Rondale estate in Courland. Image: Dan under a CC licence

“I want to know – if the human body can be cut up and put back together however we want, can the same be done with the soul?”

Sadly, very few works of Latvian literature have been translated into English in the last couple of decades. Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is the pick of the small bunch, but would stand out even among a much larger field. Essentially, it’s an alternate history of Latvia from someone with a short attention span and an intoxicating imagination. The earlier sections revolve around the small and eccentric semi-independent Duchy of Courland, run by Baltic German aristocrats from the city of Mitau (now Jelgava in southern Latvia). The adjective that springs to mind is rococo – characterised by a delight in irrelevant historical details and far-fetched metaphors that abscond with what they are trying to illustrate. If I mention that it kicks off with a Latvian soldier attempting to convince a Baltic German woman that his body was horribly mangled in battle and has since been grafted onto the bottom half of his even more seriously mangled comrade — her husband — you may get the general idea. But in its particular, peculiar way, via its obsession with genealogy and inventive surgery, it has subtle points to make about identity and history, especially important in this much-pulled-about part of Europe.

Breathing Into Marble by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, 2008 (Lithuania)

Translated by Marija Marcinkute (2016)

The Lithuanian countryside. Image: Marijus Medišauskas under a CC licence

A couple in rural Lithuania adopt a troubled orphan boy, Ilya, a companion for their epileptic son Gailius. That sounds like the cue for a tasteful, quiet book, one concerned with things unsaid, pregnant space, telegraphed emotions. Breathing into Marble is anything but. It doesn’t break 200 pages, and yet when you’ve finished, you feel like you’ve gone through a lot more, as though some kind of conjuring trick has been played on you. While it is not long, it is dense: crammed with wild, haunting imagery; impulses and yearnings that break the surface suddenly; relationships past and present that glance off and mirror each other. Ilya is very troubled indeed, and before the book is halfway through, the husband, Liudas, is living alone in Vilnius and Gailius is dead in the woods. Noir Press, which published Breathing into Marble, is an imprint run by the British writer Stephan Collishaw (himself the author of a handful of very impressive novels dealing with aspects of Lithuania‘s tangled past), and is perhaps the most encouraging development of recent years for those interested in Lithuania and its fiction; it will publish three more contemporary Lithuanian novels this year.

Read an extract from the novel here.

Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again by Giedra Radvilavičiūtė, 2013 (Lithuania)

Translated by Elizabeth Novickas (2013)

“When their wives become ill, husbands take forever to recover“

While the pieces collected here may seem like essays, they are a blend of both autobiography and fiction; for the most part, attempting to classify which is which is pretty tough. And if you think of essays as addressing themselves to the solution of a particular question, you may quickly lose patience; these develop in all directions at once; by the end, you know more, but probably not about what you thought you were going to. Any narrative line that exists is quickly swamped by theories the author has, books she’s read, memories that have been stirred up, things that people she knows say, in turn punctured by urgent everyday concerns. For example, one essay includes: a long, rambling and ridiculous call from her publisher; reflections on how people passed time before the invention of the mechanical clock; musings on nail-biting, being propositioned by elderly American men via email and what to do in Vilnius if there is an earthquake; thoughts on writers Julio Cortázar, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jurgis Kunčinas; a recipe for real lemonade… But Radvilavičiūtė is sharp and wise enough that it’s always worth following her.

Tūla by Jurgis Kunčinas, 1993 (Lithuania)

Translated by Elizabeth Novickas (2016)

Vilnius Old Town. Image: Jevgenij Lobanov under a CC licence

There’s a very likeable film called The Children from the Hotel America (1990), set in Lithuania’s unruly second city Kaunas during the rebellious spring of 1972, about the trouble of being teenage and rock ‘n’ roll in Soviet Lithuania — plus the troubles you get being teenage anywhere. Jurgis Kunčinas’s roughly contemporaneous novel is set almost a decade later and shows what happened if you stuck with it: if you made a life outside the system. Down and out, often drunk, more often hungover, frequently lovelorn, nostalgic, disputatious, the narrator traverses the forgotten corners of the republic and beyond, spending time confined to a mental hospital, wandering Ukraine and Belarus, carousing with Lithuania’s non-homeless bohemians, being beaten up by lorry drivers, straying into a private hunting session for a Soviet notable — and periodically transforming himself into a bat to pursue the near-silent, luminous figure of Tūla. Despite the coating of grime, it’s a beautiful novel, not least for the darkly poetic portrayal of Vilnius Old Town, the crumbling centrepiece of a ghostly city, so weighted down by its history that it barely seems to exist in the present tense at all.

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