Literature Review: 18

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time a historical fiction novel by Pauls Bankovskis translated into English. 

I would say that 18 by Pauls Bankovskis (published in Latvian in 2014, translated in English by Ieva Lešinska and published by Vagabond Voices Publishing in 2017) is a reflection about humankind and time, past and present. The title stands for a very important date in the history of the Latvian Republic – the 18th of November, 1918, when the country was first proclaimed. This raises the main question of the novel: why did we need our country back then, and why do we need it right now?

This book was a natural choice for my November literature in order to think more about the history of my country and get into a reverent, patriotic holiday mood. Knowing only two things – first that the author was well-known and respected, and second that the book came out as part of a series of historical fiction novels that talk about Latvia in the 20th century – my mind had already made some expectations about it. But while reading, my very first conclusion was that 18 does not really tell a lot about the history and establishment of the country in 1918, and it did not stir any patriotic feelings in me either ­— that, to be honest, disappointed me. The story is about a young soldier who has deserted and is leaving Riga to escape the German army. This provides a background for developing different theories about time, freedom, nature and the supernatural world, and also works as a tool for the author to show how very bound we are with our pasts. We are almost the same people who live in the same places, walk the same ways and think the same ideas.

The novel consists of two diaries both written by men we know very little about. We know neither their names, nor ages, nor occupations nor family statuses. One man lives nowadays in circumstances of seeming peace, when you can slowly drink your morning coffee and scroll through twitter tweets. The other one lives almost a hundred years earlier in a time of turbulence and war, when it was careless for a soldier to go to bed with no clothes or boots on. However, despite such a great distance between them, their paths manage to cross in the same places, events, objects and people. The most significant ones probably are their walks from Riga to the northern border town of Valka, their wandering around the seaside forests of Kurzeme, and, of course, – the 18th of November celebrations at The Latvian National Theatre in Riga, where in 1918 the country was born. However, the novel also mentions a lot of details that remain unclear as they don’t really supplement the link between the two times and characters — even, for example, the long chapters about the mysterious photos that were found in the grandpa’s coat. The reader hopes he would learn something more about the soldier and his time, but at the end of the day they did not really explain anything. It left me with a question: why was it important to write about it then? I can only guess whether it was the author’s goal to leave the reader confused (he even talks at the end of the book about ignorance being something that characterizes both life during the First World War and also modern human historians or archaeologists who are trying to understand that time[1]) or something else…

Despite having a few exciting moments of action, such as an injured man’s meeting with wolves in the forest at night or escaping from the capture of enemies, the novel focuses more on descriptions of nature, and makes a large amount of cultural references and philosophical reflections and theories about life such as the following one about the increasing speed of life.

“In addition to all the other things it has made unrecognizable or completely destroyed, this war must have changed man’s ability to distinguish between speed and slowness, haste and thoroughness. When you look back on the history of warfare, everything depended on speed. When foot soldiers turned out to be too slow, cavalry and the chariot were invented. Man realized that, in order to win in battle, often reckless – not to say monstrous – speeds are required. Firearms, navy, armoured trains, war aeroplanes and dirigibles – they are all attempts to surprise an unprepared adversary, to be quicker than the enemy.”[2]

I spent a few interesting evenings reading 18, but it took me almost as much time to organize my thoughts and to formulate an opinion and write a review. For me personally, it was a bit too much of everything for less than just two hundred pages and I didn’t know what to say about it. But despite this being quite obviously not one of my favorite books, I don’t want to say that it is “bad” or not worth trying to read. After being published in 2014, it got pretty contrary reactions. While it received not very complimentary reviews by quite many readers, it also got nominated for the Annual Latvian Literary Award for “best prose work” by a jury of professionals. My final conclusion would be that this is not a book for everyone, but it might be a good book for a reader who is not interested in a tense plot and who is not reading this to focus on the historical scene and events — this is for someone who would enjoy some intellectual contemplation about different aspects of life.

[1] Pauls Bankovskis,18, Dienas Grāmata, 2014, 171-173
[2] Pauls Bankovskis, 18, translated by Ieva Lešinska, Vagabond Voices Publishing, 2017. 16

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