Literature Review: Soviet Milk

Starting this week, Līga Horgana will begin writing reviews of Latvian books that have been translated for an English audience. This week she looks at Nora Ikstena's 2015 novel Soviet Milk.


Last year Soviet Milk, Margita Gailītis’ translation of Nora Ikstena’s acclaimed novel, was introduced to English readers. The book was first published in Latvian as Mātes piens (Mother’s milk) in 2015 and is based on the author’s personal experiences. The original title highlighted the historical aspect less and is focused more on the plot – a story about three generation women of one family. But they both fit perfectly fine with this novel because it is about a relationship where the Soviet era serves as essential and irreplaceable background. And to be honest, doesn’t mentioning the name of the Soviet make the book more intriguing to the Western reader? 

In the original Latvian version, the epigraph of the book is a short passage where the mother and the daughter talk about a hamster who ate his children in order to save them from the cage, a very interesting beginning that marked the path for the main motive of the novel – life in a cage versus freedom. It appears literally as the wild spirited rodent craving to escape its cage, and figuratively as life in the Soviet Union that forces its citizens to live double lives: 

“We carried flags in the May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot.”[1] 

The story is about those ones who are unable to survive in their Soviet cage, just like George Orwell’s Winston Smith (who is frequently referenced by Ikstena’s main character) couldn’t in his universe. However, this work is not only about destruction. It carries a message about God and freedom in the context of his salvation. “Admit it, admit this truth. (..) then you’ll be free for once.”[2] It almost word to word repeats the text of the Gospel. Since the novel is about the world of women, in this case the author seeks to find the feminine side of the divine too. It starts with a random idea of whether God could be a woman and escalates in words – “your mother was my father.”[3] One of Nora Ikstena’s most interesting characters in this novel challenges the traditional Christian view of God and is an intersex Jesus figure. We can only guess whether it is based on someone from the author’s life or if she just wanted to break the idea of God being related to one certain sex. 

There are different ways to look at this book and there are quite many people who have found it lifechanging and even healing. I recently read family psychotherapist Vita Kalniņa’s advice to read this book in order to understand the relationship with one’s mother or grandmother who has grown up in Soviet Latvia better.[4] I personally did not find this in Soviet Milk. There were of course quite a few times when I thought of my mother or my daughter, but at the end of the day I have to admit that I didn’t connect with the characters quite so closely because they seemed more symbolic and less realistic. The author seemed to want to show only certain aspects of their lives, leaving a lot unrevealed and I think it worked very well if the purpose was to write a novel about women where the only active main characters were women. 

Nora Ikstena claims in an interview that there are only two ways – the way of life and the way of death – and her main character, who could be roughly described as a rejected doctor and bad mother, chooses the second one.[5] Seeing her life going parallel with the life of occupied Latvia and knowing the history of the 20th century, I was very excited do observe this character and see how it changes the closer the time of awakening in the late ‘80s came and guessing weather life was going to defeat death or not. 

I admire Nora Ikstena’s ability to work with the language. I read it in the original Latvian so I can’t contemplate the translation too much, but the writer’s talent to give some deeper meanings to seemingly small or unimportant things and events is amusing. I loved the way she wrote about the train ride to Riga. A paragraph where she describes how the train stopped at one of the stations became my favorite passage in the whole book. In just a few lines, Nora Ikstena captures the essence of being a human in Soviet times: 

The journey was slow. The train rolled into Šķirotava railway station, from where tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia. Nothing had changed since that day when my daughter and I had gone into our remote country exile. People were living in the same world, with identical sectional wall units, crockery sets and coffee tables, in identical flats, with identical doormats. They were irreproachable. For in Šķirotava – which means ‘place of separation’ in Latvian – no one was separated any longer. Husbands were not separated from wives, nor children separated from parents, nor grandparents from grandchildren. No longer separated to become slaves of the twentieth century, to fertilize the vast earth of the motherland.[6]

Nora Ikstena has chosen an interesting way to structure the novel. Basically, it is one story told by two people. A passage from the doctor’s perspective is followed by a passage from her daughter’s. It is just my subjective opinion that has named the doctor as the “main character.” Since both story tellers use “I” when telling their stories, it is very possible to say that they both are the main characters. To be honest, this was a bit confusing – even disturbing at first – but the more I read it, the more I enjoyed it. 

Soviet Milk is a book worth reading. I think the reason people like and love this book in Latvian as well as the other languages it has been translated into is because it has a strong message and it talks about an issue that has always been present and relevant throughout time.

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[1] Nora Ikstena, Soviet Milk, translated by Margita Gailitis, Peirene Press Ltd, 2018. -  22.
[2] Soviet Milk, 136
[3] Soviet Milk, 188
[4] Vita Kalniņa, Pirmās attiecības cilvēka dzīvē, SIA ģimenes psiholoģijas centrs Līna, 2018. 94.-95.lpp.
[6] Soviet Milk, 115.