Literature Review: In the Shadow of Death

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time Rudolfs Blaumnais' "Nāves ēnā," translated into English as "In The Shadow of Death" by Uldis Balodis

The short story “In the Shadow of Death” (“Nāves ēnā” in Latvian) is a masterpiece of classical Latvian literature written in 1899 by Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863-1908).  The author and his collective literary works, especially his short stories, are included in the Latvian Culture Canon as one of Latvia’s 99 cultural treasures that span eras and various cultural spheres. The story tells about a group of winter fishermen lost at sea on a large slab of ice, drifting away from the shore and ever nearer to their deaths. In 2018, Uldis Balodis’ translation of the story was published in the United Kingdom by Paper + Ink.

The story begins when a sixteen-year old boy realizes that the ice where thirteen of his fellow fishermen, their two horses, and all of their fishing equipment are standing on has broken off and started floating out to sea. The men spend five days eating semi-raw fish and trying to survive the hunger, cold, and lack of drinking water. Most importantly, they attempt to stay calm and accept the reality that these might be the last moments of their lives, and they will never return home to see their loved ones ever again. Although there are a variety of characters — young, unmarried lads alongside steady family men and the elder, the poor and the wealthy, the greedy and the selfless, the confident and those with low self-esteem — they all have the common desire to stay alive. The hope to get saved by a ship or a fishing boat doesn’t leave them until the very end. However, when a boat does eventually arrive, another existential decision has to be made — since there is not enough space for all of them, who is going to leave and who is going to stay on the ice slab?

The critical circumstances have limited the fishermen’s ability to act and change anything, so the interactions and personal inner experiences are the focus of the narrative. The center becomes the close relationship that arises between the teenager Kārlēns, with his physical suffering, anger, fear, and sadness, and Birkenbaums, a handsome, well-built, young, life-loving man who cannot come to terms with the idea that life can be cut short in its most beautiful time.
“Kārlēns was asleep. But the boy’s peaceful breathing, which the young man could not hear but only feel from the rise and fall of his chest and the warmth of his fingers, reminded him of nights that had nothing in common with this tired boy’s peacefulness.
So. Everything was done for. Never again would he lie in bed with a warm, beating heart and open eyes, waiting until everyone had fallen asleep so he could get up silently and, placing his bare feet on the cool floor, crawl over to the other side… Never again would he open up the little barn’s doors; never again would he sleep in the shade of a haystack, lingering with sunburned fingers… 
How could it be? How did he get here? Way over in the Eagle Hills, he’d been a herdsman; he’d lived there for many years, gotten drunk, gone wild, had fun, played around, sat in jail for two days just as a gag, and now …and now …now he was sitting on a fisherman’s sled and the sea was raging around him, and he was going to his death.”[1]
Like many other plots by Rūdolfs Blaumanis, this one was inspired by an actual incident that happened with a group of unfortunate fishermen the writer had read about in the newspaper. We know Rūdolfs Blaumanis as an author who gives great insight into the society of his time, particularly the everyday lives of peasants. The psychologically well-constructed characters are even often inspired by real people from his neighbourhood. This can be said about “In the Shadow of Death” as well, where he used his own father, godson and other real people as the prototypes for the main characters.[2]

            Although the plot might seem dark and the story itself old fashioned, I think that everyone who is even slightly interested in Latvian culture should read this work as it really is a fundamental cornerstone of our literature. It is a work every school child has read and knows, as it has been included in school programmes for many years. This is also one of the most translated works by Rūdolfs Blaumanis, and this new translation by Uldis Balodis (2018) is already the second English language version of the story, with the first having come out in 1923. In addition, this “Paper+Ink” tiny format book of 63 pages will most likely not take more than an hour or two to be read.           

[1] Rūdolfs Blaumanis “In the Shadow of Death”, translated by Uldis Balodis, Paper + Ink, 2018.  32-34

In 1971, director Gunārs Piesis made a film In the Shadow of Death (Nāves ēnā) based on the short story by Rūdolfs Blaumanis that also was included in The Latvian Culture Canon. It can be watched for free here with English subtitles.

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  1. Thank you for the anotation for this masterpiece. Latvian Society already have forgotten this masterpiece.


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