Well, the differences between my trip to Latvia – courtesy of “The Tale of the White Crow” and my previous stopover in Estonia (“Things in the Night”) could hardly be more stark.
As detailed in my last blog entry, I found the Estonian novel (by acclaimed literary figure Mati Unt, writing in his mid-50s) too self-consciously postmodern, too inaccessibly complex, and lacking in insight for a non-native reader. However, “The Tale of the White Crow”, by contrast, is a straightforward, diary-form narrative written by Iveta Melnika: an adolescent girl growing up in 1990s Latvia. As such, her account honestly details not only key social and political issues unique to the country at this time as it gained fledging independence, but also chronicles her own – more universal – concerns of growing up, parental disputes, peer pressure and relationships; as she seeks to establish her own independence on her journey into adulthood.
I should clarify here that this is not a fictional narrative, rather the edited actual diary of the author, produced in tandem with the American publisher David Pichaske – a Fulbright lecturer in Latvia at the time who met Iveta in a film class. As he states in his brief, yet insightful, preface to the book:
“I went to Latvia thinking “book” right from the start. I gradually discovered, however, that Iveta had a better story to tell than I did. In some ways she was a better story-teller: fresh, enthusiastic, a good eye for detail and a good ear for speech. I had a ton of photos, but Iveta had a life.”
And this is what we get in this book – and why I am so pleased that it fits my criteria so well – we gain a true insight of a life lived in the Latvian capital city Riga at the turn of the millennium, during a time of real flux for this complex nation. Through Iveta’s eyes we gain an unmediated, realist view of everyday Latvian life: the communal apartments (complete with neighbourly wars over the use of shared kitchens and bathrooms), the food shortages and the euphoria – then disillusionment – of independence from the Soviet Union. At one point Iveta’s father astutely observes that before independence there was not enough food in the shops - whereas post-independence the shops are full of food but no-one can afford it…
These insights are all the more interesting in being filtered through, and overlaid with, the everyday and universal concerns of Iveta herself as she makes the transition form child to adult – concerns which would no doubt resonate with young and old readers in the West (they certainly conjured up some of my own teenage memories!). For instance her painful descriptions of sitting out school discos without a dance partner, her self-consciousness that her parents cannot afford to buy her the latest fashions, and the anxiety of not being ‘part of the in-crowd’ at school. Indeed the title of this work comes from her analogy of her, and a select few friends, at her school - whilst the majority of her peers are the norm: i.e. black crows, she and her friends are not - and so stand out like "white crows” in the flock. It is heartening, and a sign of her growing maturity during the course of this book, that she comes to see this as strength rather than a weakness.
The book itself, whilst in diary form, does not follow a rigid day-to-day format, rather it is split up into individually numbered chunks of narrative which often skip days or even weeks. This probably reflects the way in which it was written and also a degree of judicious editing (around 66% of the original diaries according to the publisher). What does – fortunately – remain, are Iveta’s colourful observations and individual interpretation of certain English phrases, which actually work very well and serve to remind one that we are reading this work in translation. Stylistic features such as “a lot of bullshits,” I think add a certain colloquial colour to this book.
I must emphasise here that, whilst this is essentially a diary transcript, Iveta has an effective descriptive ability that raises this above the average journal. Her sense of teenage isolation and awkwardness could easily have become cliched but is actually portrayed in an engaging way - and also her descriptions of the very real sense of uncertainly and potential threat felt by the populace, as independence drew near yet the Soviet forces belligerently remained in situ is palpable and effectively written. Similarly, her description of the disillusionment amongst the older generation post-independence – represented by her parents – is both sensitively and poignantly portrayed. Throughout the early stages of this book, the family is desperate to move out of their communal apartment and hope that the new regime will lead to this. It ultimately does, but their relocation to a flat in a Soviet-era high rise on the outskirts of town (largely populated by Russians equally disillusioned by their reduction of status as a consequence of independence) neatly demonstrates that independence in this region as a whole has not been without its problems and hardships for the people who fought for it.
The tensions between the long-subjugated natives of this country and the Russians who moved here under Soviet rule (and enjoyed a certain privileged status until independence) is a striking one. I have encountered this in a number of previous locations along the borders of the former USSR. One example was my trip back in March 2009 to Moldova (see my blog on “Lost Province” by Stephen Henighan, which also gave a realistic depiction of life in that country – albeit from an outsider’s perspective).
I fear that I am in danger of going into too much detail of the narrative here and spoiling the plot for potential readers, however I have to address the key ‘plot point’ as it where, for this book. Around the midway stage of this book Iveta strikes up a conversation with an attractive American woman named Lisa who, it turns out, is a senior figure in “The Church of Christ”. This US-funded church, it turns out, is an unofficial evangelical mission operating throughout the former Soviet Union and which has recently established a foothold in Latvia post-independence. Iveta is, of course, flattered by Lisa’s attention and is soon ensconced in the Church – despite her own misgivings and those of her parents.
Whilst Iveta’s astute observations on Latvian life and growing up continue throughout the second half of this work, they are largely filtered through the perspective of her involvement with this organisation (and along the way she provides a number of insights into the controlling techniques employed by sects such as this). I found this a bit of a shame as a reader, as this curtailed some of the elements of her narrative that I could empathise with – although I guess this is partly the point: the fact that ‘Churches’ such as this, filling the post-Soviet vacuum, are all too easily in a position to skew the emotional and social development of young people looking for answers in an uncertain environment...
Also, I do feel here that in describing the insidious influence of this US-based sect upon her youth, Iveta is well aware of the obvious analogy to be made in terms of Western influences filling the influential void left by the Soviet society within Latvia – often for self-serving rather than altruistic ends. And this is no bad thing - it demonstrates, as I hope this journey does as a whole, the value of literature in reflecting not only individual countries, but in the growing global nature of our world. The publisher, David Pichaske, sums this point up excellently in his preface to this book:
“You’re holding in your hands a truly remarkable artefact – the story of a girl coming of age in Riga, Latvia, written in English, edited in the United States, printed in Outer Mongolia. Who in the year of my birth, or even the year of Iveta’s birth, could have imagined such a thing?”
Therefore, I leave Latvia with a sense of satisfaction at having gained a unique and personal glimpse into life in this complex country. From here I make my way to the capital city of Vilnius in neighbouring Lithuania. As with Latvia, this country has a chequered history marred by Nazi occupation in the second world war and then a long struggle to free itself of Soviet rule in the latter half of the Twentieth century. The book that I have chosen for this destination is “The Last Girl”, an acclaimed debut novel by British author Stephan Collishaw – and a novel which addresses the harsh realities of both the modern day country and its recent, difficult, past.
I decide to travel from Latvia to Lithuania by bus – both to see the scenery and because they are so close as to make a bus journey bearable!
There are a number of journeys available throughout each day from Riga to Vilnius, via the major coach company: Lux Express. I decide to take their company up on their ‘luxury travel’ claim, and book a ‘Lux Express Lounge’ coach for my journey. My trip leaves Riga at 12.30 arriving Vilnius at 17.00 at a cost of €20.30.
The ‘Lounge’ option costs a couple of extra € but includes a number of benefits such as: a private lounge at the back of the Lux Express bus, leather seating with table, nibbles, Wi-Fi access, hot drinks, newspapers, wider space between seats with more legroom and access to toilets!
I arrive - reasonably refreshed - at Vilnius’ Soviet-looking coach station ready for Lithuania, and next leg of my journey with: “The Last Girl" by Stephan Collishaw.