Literature Review: Castagnola (Rainis)

 Līga Horgana is back with a literature review of Castagnola, a memoir by the poet Rainis about his time living in Switzerland.

After spending time first in prison and then in Russia as an exile, Rainis (1865-1929) – one of the greatest Latvian poets, play writers, translators and politicians – watched the promise of the Revolution of 1905 fade away before his eyes. In order to escape persecution, he moved to Switzerland along with his equally famous wife, the writer Aspazija. These fourteen years spent in exile turned out to be filled with hopes and dreams about their homeland, as well as the creation of Rainis’ greatest works.

Rainis first had the idea to write a memoir about his experiences in Switzerland as early as 1917; however, he actually started only ten years later. On the 7th of August, 1927, Rainis and his artist friend Alberts Prande traveled to Lugano and Castagnola for three weeks to work on the text and illustrations for the book. While Rainis was moved by returning to his “second homeland” — the place that had been his refuge during his exile years — Prande was exalted by the beauty of the nature as well as the richness of colours around. The book that was published in 1928 by the publisher “Anša Gulbja apgāds” comes with his beautiful vivid and bright illustrations. (You can find some of them with a longer description of Castagnola at the webpage of the museum of Rainis and Aspazija. ) The book’s English translation Castagnola: in the footsteps of memories in the second homeland by Ieva Lešinska and Vita Matiss (Archivio Storico) that came out in 2015 contains these images as well.

Castagnola is a work not easy to describe. To some extent it is a travel diary, while to some extent it is also a book of memories. The book starts with Rainis meeting Prande at the train station and coming up with plans to go to Switzerland in order to work on his memoir. Then it goes on with descriptions about the town of Lugano and nearby Castagnola and his life there; however, at one point the narrative loses its purposefulness and turns into something quite similar to a compilation of impressions. So, more than anything else, I found this book similar to diary notes – reflections on life, nature, politics, history, economics, society and culture inspired by years spent in Castagnola and returning back there eight years after the end of his exile.

I will be honest – it was not easy to read this work. Although the book is so short (just over 100 pages), it took me almost two months to get all the way through. I got bored and confused while reading, and I also understood perfectly why this is not one of his best known works despite telling so much about such a long and important period of Rainis’ life. While it has immense value as an important primary source about Rainis' life during his exile years, I cannot unequivocally suggest this work to casual readers. 

However, my dissatisfaction with the book urged me to keep searching for materials related to this period of Rainis’ life, and I found an awesome project by the organization “Atvērtās krātuves”  - a virtual museum called Aspazijas un Raiņa virtuālais muzejs Lugāno, where everyone can learn more about their lives and Lugano town itself. It offers visitors written texts, including passages from the work Castagnola  (which unfortunately are available only in Latvian language) as well as a lot of visual material – photographs and videos. 

Rainis, et al. Castagnola: in the Footsteps of Memories in the Second Homeland. City of Lugano, Historical Archive, 2015. 

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