Literature Review: The Cage

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time Alberts Bels' Būris,  translated into English as The Cage by Ojārs Krātiņš

For English readers, the novel The Cage has already been available for three decades. Translated by Ojārs Krātiņš, it got published by Peter Owen Publishers in 1990. The works of Alberts Bels, a talented prose writer and respectable public worker, often focus on society, the individual person, and the era they live in. These elements all appear in his novel Būris (The Cage), which came out in 1972.  In a philosophical way, this detective novel contemplates humans’ inescapable fate of never being able to achieve true “freedom.” They are always limited by the norms of society or by their own inner weaknesses and fears.

The novel is about the young, well-educated and well-off professionals of the Soviet era – teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. They have similar monthly incomes, are married with one or two children, and spend their vacations traveling around the Soviet Union. They believe that honesty and hard work have led to not only their own success, but even more importantly, the prosperity of society as a whole. The central problem of the novel is the disappearance of the talented and well-known architect Edmunds Berz, and the search operation organized by the experienced and selfless investigator Valdis Struga. In the first part of the novel, Struga pictures the 35 year old architect as a quite average middle class man with an eccentric personality, some physical disabilities, a very creative spirit, and a persistence only when needed in his professional field. I could say that in the beginning of the novel, the reader gets to know him through other people’s eyes the way he was in life. However, the second part of the book philosophically shows his true personality and its transformation moving closer and closer towards death.

But what are those conclusions made by the man who is doomed to face a long and excruciating death? Life is valuable until the very last breath. Fulfillment comes from doing work that benefits society. But overall – he realizes that there is a metaphorical “cage” that prevents people from being truly “free.” People are trapped by their dependence on financial goods, the need to conform with others, the craving to satisfy physical needs and desires, and the fears that keep people from thinking clearly and making smart decision. Only very few are able to break out of this cage and be free.

I cannot say that this was the most exciting book I have ever read. Some parts of it also seemed boring, such as the portrait of the investigator Struga as a perfect role model whose every action is motivated by inner ideals and the need to help others, and whose only sin seems to be a trivial dispute with his wife about vacation plans. Also, the dichotomy between good and valuable society members and ones that are destructive and harmful for others seemed moralizing and somewhat annoying. However, this is all understandable, because during Soviet times art was exposed to censorship, and despite that Bels created an excellent work that was able to criticize the political regime.

            The novel makes the reader ask various questions; for example, to what extent do others affect one’s decisions they make, and how much is there left for individuality? Can a human – a social being – ever be free from society? Does being forced to exist separately from others make humans unbearably unhappy? I think it is worth trying to read The Cage and ask these questions to ourselves.

In 1993, the film studio “AVE” released the movie Būris (The Cage) by the talented film director Ansis Epners (1937-2003). It is based on the motives of the novel by Alberts Bels, and in a symbolic and in a kind of prophetic way, reveals the same problems with humans’ freedom.

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