Literature Review: Flesh-Coloured Dominoes

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time Zigmunds SkujinšMiesas krāsas domino,  translated into English as Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Kaija Straumanis

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes (1999) is yet another interesting and thoughtful novel by Zigmunds Skujiņš. A translation by Kaija Straumanis was published by Arcadia Books in 2014, and was recognized in a 2016 list made by Dedalus Books as one of EU’s best indie novels. [1] The novel explores the unbreakable bondage with our ancestors: the bloodlines that go back centuries and still affect the present.

The title’s reference to dominoes emphasizes the similarities between the board game and the book’s story about the continuity of family — both involve rules, chance, luck, and the creation of long lines with individual parts. Some descendants come into this world offspring of socially accepted marriages between people of the same status, some according to the desire of money and power, some as the fruit of great passion and lust, and some through mysterious turns of fate. In all these cases, their births affect both the people around them and following generations as well.

Guntis Berelis, a well-known Latvian literature critic, has also pointed out the similarity between the game of dominoes and the structure of the novel, because it is put together from various pieces – different times, views, and stories that all together make one whole.[2] In fact, there are two main plot lines in this novel that run parallel to each other. The first one is through the eyes of a teenage boy, and shows life in Riga during the 1930s and 40s. He lives in a small manor on the of outskirts of Riga with his grandfather, step-brother, aunt, and a woman named Baroness Johanna who descends from Baltic Germans. He observes how the war and invading powers decide people’s fates according their ethnicities, facing this tragic situation also in his family and household. The other story is about Baroness Valtraute von Bruegen, a true Baltic German lady of the 18th century. She is a charming woman in her late twenties who doesn’t have children and cannot accept that she has become a widow, so is trying the best she can to find her husband who never returned from war. This search brings her together with a respectable Latvian captain, but her naivety and trust in the superstitions of her time plays a great joke on her. Just as important as finding her lost husband is the Baroness’ strong confidence about her roots – they must be Germans! She cannot handle the mere thought that her bloodline could actually be mixed or even originating from the local peasants. Both plots live their separate lives throughout the novel without crossing each other. However, at one point the reader gets conformation that the described characters are actually distant relatives.

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is an interesting historical fiction novel that doesn’t get much into the details of its times periods. However, it explores some philosophical issues about humanity, and at the end of the book deconstructs the typical linear timeline by bringing characters and events from different times together into one united and unlimited space.

By mentioning and describing the revolutions and war crimes against civilians, the novel poses the following questions; what is a human? Is a human being’s worth primarily as an individual or as a member of a society? What if each individual is judged first by the context of his race, nationality, family and social status, and only then comes their own personal characteristics and skills? This is why Flesh-Coloured Dominoes would be perfect for a reader who has found these questions to be relevant for themselves, or simply wants to think more about them.

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