Literature Review: Life Stories

Līga Horgana is back with a literature review of Life Stories, a collection of short stories written by Nora Ikstena and translated by Margita Gailitis.

Nora Ikstena is probably best known to English speaking readers with her very successful and widely translated novel Soviet Milk (2015), which introduced the cold and desperate relationship between a depressed, self-destructive mother and her love-deprived daughter against the background of the Soviet era. As with many others, the main character’s life had been hugely affected by the Soviet authorities. After rising against the official ideology, the mother, a young and talented doctor, got expelled from the academic society. While her future plans and hopes were swept away, her belief in humanity and love for the independent Latvia — the country she had never lived in — were not.  In 2023, Ināra Kolmane’s emotional and visually stunning screen adaptation Mātes piens was released, which I can highly recommend for everyone to watch whether or not they are familiar with Ikstena’s novel.

Life Stories, a collection of 8 short stories, was originally published in 2004 and translated into English by Margita Gailitis in 2012. It covers similar themes – birth, death, and life between – limited by many different conditions such as political regime and the chaos that comes after the collapse of it, fear, health issues, sexual needs, the loss of the loved ones, and betrayal. It tells about the real life — where everyone always wants to do what is good and right despite this so often just not being possible. 

In a perfect world, Ella’s big house would be filled with the voices and laughter of her children and grandchildren, Nadezhda would not become a prostitute, Maria would not have lost her only son, and Ada would keep enjoying a peaceful and simple life with her husband, children and work she loved so much. However, real life is far from good and perfect.

In these stories, just like in Soviet Milk, Nora Ikstena covers the complicated topic of cross-generation relationships, focusing on experiences of hurt women who want to find some remedy in life. "The Still Life with Death" correlates with Soviet Milk so well by showing a destructive woman who was born in terrible war time poverty, with only the unconditional love of her mother having “snatched her child from the very jaws of death.” (24.) However, she cannot be saved despite her beloved husband and daughter Mia's attempts.

Later her mother had often played with death. Film sequences flash by Mia’s eyes. Mia is playing on the floor, while her mother is lying in bed smiling oddly – her lips tinged blue, beside her a bowl with expired pills. Mia is standing at the end of the corridor. Her father is breaking down the bathroom door. Her mother has locked herself in. Probably trying to drown herself. Mia is home alone. She is sitting at a desk. The closet door creaks. Mia fearfully goes to look – her mother is attempting to hang herself with her husband’s necktie. The 18th of November – Latvia’s Independence Day is being celebrated at the insane asylum. Her mother’s medication has prompted her to hallucinate on a grand national scale. (24.-25.)

Although there is a lot of tragedy in many of the stories, I wouldn’t call this collection somber — there is plenty of humour and irony as well. In no other way would Ikstena be able to tell a story so well about a young homosexual Catholic priest who has a passionate love affair with an older woman. 

These stories reveal the richness and beauty of Latvian language that fortunately has not got lost in this translation. My favorite of the Life Stories has always been "The White Handkerchief". It is the story of a Latvian American who moved to the USA after the second world war — his wife is German, and he speaks German to her as well as to their cat Bagar. His sons and grandchildren know only English, so he speaks English with them. But there always has been the Latvian language in his life; he talks in Latvian to himself. He is a good mechanic and sometimes when working under cars his language turns round and round like the screws he is tightening. And sometimes Latvian words just crowd in his head or roll off his tongue when remembering his past. 

        He lost his leg serving in the Latvian legion. Latvian women didn’t want a cripple like him.

Klibkāji, klibiķi, klibi, klibzaķi, klinkatu, kluburu, klumburu, sleini, kleini – so many words for ‘cripple’ in Latvian! (100.)

Or just doing his casual shopping in the local Vanetten store.

        “Well, what have we here?” the cashier mumbles to herself. “Red potatoes.”

She drags the bag over the squeaking code-registering surface.

Yes, potatoes. He pulls out a somewhat worn, shabby wallet, with carefully folded dollar bills – potatoes.

Tupeņi, kartupi, kartiņi, rāceņi, buļbas, buļvas, pampaļi, bimbaži, bimbaļi, bambuļi, zemes pupas – potatoes, spuds… (106.)

The moment when after these many years of being alone with his language he hears another Latvian having a seemingly casual cell phone conversation in the bus station turns into a emotional and sacred experience for the main character and, to be honest, for me as the reader as well. 

Latvian poet Jānis Rokpelnis has chosen an interesting comparison for Life Stories. The collection “is an apple orchard. With lovely, sweet fruit, which suddenly, like a fist, punches you in the face.” (115.) I am pretty sure that reading the diverse Life Stories could be an entertaining, enjoyable and valuable experience for many.

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  1. Life Stories, originally published in 2004 and translated into English in 2012, delves into various universal themes DUI Attorney. The collection covers topics such as the cycle of life, including birth, death, and the struggles in between. These stories are influenced by different circumstances, be it under political regimes or the turmoil that ensues after their collapse. Fear, health issues, sexual desires, the grief of losing loved ones, and betrayal are also confronted within the narratives. The collection emphasizes the realism of life, portraying characters who strive to do what is morally right despite the multitude of obstacles that hinder their efforts. Life Stories reveals that despite the genuine will to make morally righteous choices, circumstances often prevent individuals from doing so.

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