Literature Review: Five Fingers

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review of a Latvian novel that has been translated into English, this time Māra Zalīte's 2013 Five Fingers, translated into English by Margita Gailītis in 2017

Review by Līga Horgana

Five Fingers is a novel that tells about a young family that is allowed to leave the Siberian camp they live in and move back to their fatherland of Latvia after the end of Stalin’s era – the late 1950’s. This is a brilliant, vivid story told through the eyes of a five-year-old girl named Laura, as well as memories of humankind’s great tragedy of the 20th century. In 2013, the novel won the Annual Latvian Literary Award for best prose work, and the English translation of the chapter “The Major and the Candy” was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2016. It is definitely worth reading!

Five Fingers (Pieci pirksti in Latvian) is an autobiographical novel and the first prose work of Māra Zālīte, who is a very well-known Latvian poet, dramatist, cultural worker and the voice of the Third Latvian Awakening in the late 1980’s. Due to various political and personal life reasons, it was written and published only in 2013 and translated into English by Margita Gailītis in 2017, many years after the beginning of her writing career.

Author Māra Zalīte in 2011
Photo Credit: Marruciic, via Wikimedia Commons

The novel is about returning back home after fifteen years of exile in Siberia. It is a chaotic and destroyed world that appears around there – the neighbours have been killed or deported, the house has been turned into a smelly barn, the old trees in the back yard have been cut down and the expensive books buried in the pile of manure – but still, they are happy to at least be alive and home. The perspective of the child who sees Latvia for the first time and doesn’t have the memories about life before war and occupation is what naturally makes it possible to tell this story without bearing the great sorrow in it. Of course, children understand injustice and feel pain and fear too, and sometimes their imaginations make up a much more intense experience. This is what happens when they experience an odd old woman on the train who is carrying a bag of eggs and unwraps them in the middle of the night.

“Each one of the eggs is wrapped separately in newspaper. Babushka carefully unwraps each egg, then makes sure the egg isn’t broken, and wraps it up again. Now and then the old woman turns the egg this way and that, clicking her tongue with pleasure – oh, what a lovely egg! Then she wraps it up again, all the time mumbling, grumbling something to herself. The eggs do however look much like hens’ eggs. Too big to be snake eggs. But what if they’re the eggs of a big boa constrictor? It’s good that Laura knows where the emergency stop lever is; good that papa has shown it to her. But if the stop lever is pulled for no good reason, then she’d be in lots of trouble. Then she could be put off the train and asked to pay a fine and she would not get to Latvia! No, Laura will wait for a while yet to pull the stop lever; Laura won’t pull the lever at all, then better that the train be full of boa constrictors! The rustling of the newspapers and the mumbling has prevented Laura from falling asleep. From the upper baggage rack she covertly watches babushka; maybe after all she is a ghost. Maybe she is?”[1]

However, at the end of the day children don’t linger in their fear and sorrow because they are in a rush to discover the world and experience new things. Fifty-five stories of the book reveal the little girl’s life – happy, sad, scary, thoughtful moments of a countryside child. In my opinion, the greatest thing about the novel is that it affirms life over and over again and also carries hope for future. The reader will hear about alcoholism, poverty, adulteries, betrayal, death, exclusion from the society etc. But are these the most important? I think no.

The mythical reality is constantly present all through the book. Blurring the imaginary fairytale characters with reality is also the way the child sees the world. Moreover, it has remained and exists as a sacred reality in the Latvian home. Planting trees in memory of the deported ones and keeping this sacred forest untouched or talking to the barn animals and informing them about the death of their master is an essential task that has to be done properly in order to keep the balance between this life and the life after. And there is the very opposite Soviet reality that ruins this balance, destroying the most beautiful church organ, demolishing the old tombs and turning the church into a warehouse.

Everyone is also someone else and no one is only one’s self. (Author –– someone else)[1] – this is the epigraph of the novel that in my opinion clearly states that Five Fingers is not only a story about a five year old Laura, it is a story about her family, her ancestors, her nation, about all the people who lived with her in the Siberian barracks and about their nations that suffered from Stalin’s repressions. That’s why it has some message to bring to any reader from any nation.

[1] Māra Zālīte “Five Fingers”, translated by Margita Gailītis, Dalkey Archive Press, 2017.

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