Literature Review: Nakedness

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time Zigmunds Skujiņš' Kailums, translated into English as Nakedness by Uldis Balodis


Zigmunds Skujiņš (born in 1926) is one of Latvia’s most-translated authors. His works have been published in more than fifteen different languages, and he has received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to literature, including the Order of the Three Stars, the highest civilian honor in Latvia. The novel Kailums, one of his best known works, was published in 1970 and recently translated into English as Nakedness by Uldis Balodis and released by Vagabond Voices Publishing in 2019. The story starts with a young man who has sent letters to a woman for over a year, and is about to finally meet her in real life.

Imagine a Soviet countryside town with a fabric factory in it, where hundreds of girls work and live, and a young man who has arrived there to meet one special woman. The novel captivates readers with its exciting plot centered around the question – what if the person you think you know so well is not actually real? It is a reality for the young poet Aleksandrs Draiska, a 21 or 22-year-old man who has just finished his obligatory military service and has arrived to Randava to meet Marika, a girl with whom after exchanging more than 40 personal letters he is hoping to start a romantic relationship with. Unfortunately, it never happens. He knocks on her dorm room door, she opens, she looks exactly like the girl in the photograph he has, but she has no idea about his existence or all of their supposed correspondence. Even worse – she is already in a happy relationship with another man. Someone has stolen her identity – her name, her picture, her home address. But who? And why? And how is it going to change the life of Aleksandrs? The author keeps the answers for literarily the last few pages and lines of the novel, which was a good motivation for me to keep reading chapter after chapter to find out.

The book’s central theme is relevant even nowadays, having been adapted by Jānis Rutmanis in his 2008 film Kailums, which contemplates dishonest usage of other people’s profiles on social networks.[1] The novel also questions humans’ fear of being honest with others and with themselves. Going through his investigation into the actual author of the letters, Aleksandrs is forced to admit to himself that all his life he had been pretending to be better than he actually was. He was always a kind of coward, never too hardworking at school, never ready to start something important and finish it, never knowing the right words to say in conversations, and always avoiding any uncomfortable and unpleasant communication. He was never ready to fight to protect his rights, and when it came to girls, he was always interested and attracted to them but too afraid to show it. For example, instead of going on a date with a girl he liked in middle school, he chose to stand her up and make fun of her later. So, the question the novel asks is whether we are actually honest with ourselves about our fears and bad habits and ready to act to give them up, or if we accept them by putting on a mask of indifference and lie and pretend that we are good and perfectly satisfied with the way everything is.

It was interesting to read about a time that had already passed more than half a century ago and how people interacted with each other, how they dressed, and how they spent their free time, because it was the time when my grandparents were young and about to start their families. I realized that nothing much has actually changed — just like then, young people still go to parties, dream about having families, steady jobs and careers, and seek people to either spend their lives with or share a short-term love affair. So, despite the great time gap that stands between now and back when the novel’s events took place, I could say this is a good book for teenagers to read because it talks about life after secondary school, about finding and understanding yourself, and about values and choosing the right way of living. However, I see this book as interesting also for other readers who enjoy romantic plots with life lessons.

In 1981, Arvīds Krievs made a movie called Spēle (which can translate as either The Game or The Play) based on this novel at Rīgas Kinostudija.[2] I was excited to watch it and also write a short comment about it at the end of my book review, but unfortunately it is quite impossible to find it online and difficult even to acquire a physical copy of it. So, for now, I am just going to keep trying to find a way to see it. The same can be said about the second adaption of the novel by Jānis Rutmanis in 2008 that was already mentioned earlier.

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