Literature Review: Doom 94

Last month, Līga Horgana began writing reviews of Latvian books that have been translated for an English audience with her look at Nora Ikstena's Soviet Milk. This week, she takes on Jānis Joņevs' 2013 novel Doom 94.

Review by Līga Horgana

Jelgava 94, written by Jānis Joņevs in 2013 and translated to English as Doom 94 by Kaija Straumanis in 2018, is a story about being a doom metal-loving teenager in a country that had just regained its independence from the USSR. The author compares them saying that the country was just like an adolescent – there was chaos and nothing was really forbidden.[1] The story starts on the 5th of April 1994, the death of Kurt Cobain and a 14 years old boy’s revelation that completely changed his life and goes on leading the reader in a captivating journey reminding once again what it means to be young.

“Then, suddenly, I found myself on the other side of a barricade. As if I had spent the past fourteen years not gathering knowledge about life, but gathering strength to grieve and long for something inexplicable and nonsensical. Why, why would anyone want to be Kurt, to spend a lifetime depressed, depressing others, to marry some ugly skank and then shoot yourself? Wouldn’t it be better to be one of the guys from Take That, who smile, are adored by beautiful girls and even make some money? But suddenly here was a whole crowd of us (no, not a crowd, we were the handful outside the crowd) who hated those who succeeded and who idolized the damned.”[2]

While the book is based on many true stories, the author has claimed that it isn’t a “truly” autobiographic work despite him and the main character both being named Jānis. Jelgava 94 was an instant success with readers and critics alike, receiving the Annual Latvian Literary Award for the best debut and European Union Prize for Literature. After searching the internet, I could find only complimentary comments and reviews devoted to the novel. Pauls Bankovskis, a well-respected Latvian author and journalist, named the novel one of the best works he had recently read in Latvian language. So I had very high expectations when I made the decision to read this book. From the first few pages it was clear that the book was good. It flowed well, the text radiated a careless yet philosophical vibe, and the plot seemed interesting and kind of relevant to me personally.

The plot is very simple and clear. It’s about a young boy who joins the alternative metal subculture in order to find himself. He tries fitting in the group and pretending to be a rebel by doing all the same things a real group member did such as visiting concerts, getting drunk, smoking, being informed about the metal music, planning to start a band despite not really knowing how to play the guitar, growing long hair and wearing ripped jeans and t-shirts with band prints. One little event follows another one and then at one point it is all over and the main character is grown up. It is a funny story that reminds the reader of being young and naive.

However, it is not only a description of a teenager’s life and doom metal music. The novel carries a huge amount of cultural, historical and literary references and philosophical observations, and is a great reflection of the chaotic time in a post-Soviet country a few years after the communist regime’s collapse. These elements fit so fluently into the narrative that the reader does not get even slightly bored reading about the war-ruined church tower or the boring, flat landscape between Jelgava and the capital city Rīga. Small episodes such as him entering the underground club that had moved into a derelict 19th century mansion named Villa Medem show the unbreakable bond between times and tell not only the story of a 90’s rebel city boy but also evoke 200 years of history, reminding readers of all the blaze and destruction this place and its people had faced before. “It was amazing! A large, dark room, filled with shadows of dukes, a row of theatre seating along one wall. Someone was sleeping on the ground by the chairs. Further along the wall were some girls.” [3] I enjoyed reading how intellectually the author can tell the story that is in fact not intellectual at all and in any other case probably would not be very interesting to me.

The book contains three parts – the first two tell about the 90’s and life as a member of the alternative subculture while the third one is written from a modern perspective. Though I see this book being good even without the third part, I also agree with well-known Latvian literature critic Guntis Berelis who stated that the third part of the book ties the times together and finishes the story: in the beginning of the novel Jānis is the stranger in the metal subculture and in the end he remains a stranger in it.[4]

Despite all the reviews claiming that any reader can enjoy this novel and find it relevant, I still believe that this book may mean something more to certain readers depending on their age, interests and place of residence. One group would be readers well informed about and interested in the metal music described at length throughout the novel, and another would be those who were young in 90’s Latvia because the book talks about their time and might bring back some nice memories from their youth. A third group in my opinion are people who have lived in Jelgava and recognize the places described in the story.

Doom 94 is a book so diverse that most likely everyone will find something intriguing in it, be it the coming of age narrative, the references to metal music, the description of life after the fall of the Iron Curtain or something else. For me it was a novel about my city Jelgava where I have lived a significant amount of time, and it allowed me to look back 25 years in the past and observe how many things have changed and how many things have remained unchanged.

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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbGJU-c1Uz8
[2] Jānis Joņevs “Doom 94”, translated by Kaija Straumanis, Wrecking Ball Press, 2018.
[3] Ibid
[4] https://berelis.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/kurts-auj-amerika-un-trapa-janim-latvija/#more-2338

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