Literature Review: Insomnia (Alberts Bels)

Līga Horgana is back with a literature review of Bezmiegs by Alberts Bels, translated into English as Insomnia by Jayde Will.

I have slept horribly the last few years, quite horribly, since I started thinking less about my career and my work, and since I began thinking more about life, about other people.

Written by Alberts Bels in 1967, Bezmiegs took 35 years to finally get published. This was due to harsh criticism about its non-compliance with the official doctrine of Social Realism, as well as “ideological harm” in making fun of the Soviet regime. A criminal case was even started against the very successful and well-known author. However, the modernist novel about a quiet, sleepless night full of thoughts, reflections, memories and plans back then would have definitely been something very fresh and modern on the stage of Latvian literature. Even nowadays, it hasn’t lost its value with its fascinating use of droll humor to tell a tragic story about longing for freedom. In 2020, it became available for English readers as well after being translated by Jayde Will and published by Parthian as Insomina.

The main character is a young and prosperous economist who has a well-paid job that he loves and a relationship with a wonderful woman, but he avoids living a typical Soviet life as much as possible. He suffers from insomnia, spending sleepless nights being honest with himself and thinking about how absurd the consumer society he lives in is, how deformed its values are, and how hopeless it would be to leave his situation. Most of the book takes place within his thoughts and those of his neighbors — their observations and reflections being revealed in fragments. The text very easily jumps from one topic to another, from time period to time period, reacting to associations and parallels and depicting the cyclicality of the world.  

Both the Latvian publication of the book and the English translation come with an introduction by the author, as well as the actual censorship board’s reports regarding the book’s banning. Censors claimed that Bels attacked and mocked the foundations of the social order, aspects of Soviet life, the Soviet people’s moral and political maturity, and their achievements in building communism. It is obvious that the descriptions of communal living — where five families are forced to share one apartment, fight for a place in its kitchen, and wait in endless lines to get into the bathrooms— are funny and as absurd as it gets. But the depictions of socialist labor and manufacturing goods, as well as buying goods, can create some associations also with the consumer society we live in today:

The clothes, dishes, vehicles, we wear things, we eat, we drive, we sell work, we buy things, we work for the sake of things, we philosophise in the sake of the things, we work again, work our butts off, grit our teeth, fight tooth and nail for, better, better, live more prosperously, more, we need more things, we sell arms, legs, brains, we sell time, we buy things to replace things, we sell will, nerves, we sell health, things surround us on all sides, because the more things we have, the sunnier the future will be, we have to produce, we have to hurry to buy more, sell, wait, wait, when finally we will be swimming in prosperity, carpets, cars, champagne, owners love things, but things never love their owners, the wheel turns, you pull out the winning ticket, everything gets muddled up, changes, owners turn into things, things turn into owners, we topple the tsar, God, things, we construct things…

Although I loved the novel (and there are not many works I can describe with these words), I understand very well that it is not literature for everyone. Insomnia does not have a traditional linear plot; the boundaries between many of its parts are not very clear and, in fact, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Although a reader who has lived in the Soviet Union or at least has knowledge about its ideology and people’s everyday lives will understand it deeper, I am sure that this is not the main precondition to enjoy the work, because I think it is more universal than just the Soviet era. In the introduction of the book, Bels mentions that “It isn’t an anti-Soviet novel at all, but a cry for freedom and justice.” 
  • Bels, A., & Will, J. (2020). Insomnia. Parthian, Cardigan: Parthian Books.
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