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Latvian Prose Writers and Magic Realism under the Soviet Occupation

Blogā piedāvāju piezīmes referātam, kas nolasīts starptautiskajā zinātniskajā konferencē “Figuring Magic Realism – International Interpretations of an Elusive Term”, rīkotājs: City University of New York, Graduate Center.

Time frame and location

The Republic of Latvia was established in 1918, after many centuries of German, Swedish, Polish-Lithuanian, and Russian rule. The country’s de facto independence was interrupted at the beginning of World War II, with Latvia’s occupation and incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940. This was followed by the occupation by Nazi Germany in 1941 and the re-occupation by the USSR in 1944. The act of peaceful and non-violent resistance – the so-called Singing Revolution – in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia started in 1987, demanded emancipation from Soviet rule, and ended with the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia in 1990 and the restoring of de facto independence in 1991.

Latvia’s situation in the occupation regime has been directly linked to its geopolitical position. The Estonian scholar Epp Annus has introduced the “Western borderlands” concept regarding the Baltic states – countries that “enjoyed the advantage of a still-active pre-Soviet cultural memory, in comparison with those lands where Sovietization processes started immediately in the post-revolutionary years: in the Western borderlands, a living memory kept alive continuities with pre-Soviet times”[1]. These continuities were strengthened by visits to the neighboring West and other foreign countries, the acquisition of prohibited or partly permitted literary works, contacts with like-minded people in neighboring countries, and by the Latvian intelligentsia in exile. Through the works published in the 1980s, together with oral memory, writers and people in Latvia encouraged non-violent resistance and a return to the pre-war system of Western and democratic values.

In contrast to the West, where literary works often leave an impact only on narrow intellectual circles or serve the entertainment industry, in the Soviet system, literature played an enormous role in almost everyone’s life. Thus, it was the popular writers and their works, which reflected both European and general democratic values, who recorded and anticipated changes in the Soviet system and prepared society for those changes – the revival of democratic values and the irreversible social liberalization which occurred in the late stages of the Soviet system. In addition to their literary work, these writers devoted their energies to preserving national identity and national values and, drawing on their sense of mission and authority, paved the way for the Singing Revolution.

Theoretical frame: Magic Realism in Soviet Latvia

The manifestation of magic realism in prose can be studied and specified by the colonial and postcolonial situation[2]. “The ‘post’ in postcolonial does not refer to an interest in the historical era following the colonial period. Postcolonial studies emphasizes the discursive continuity between the colonial era, the period of decolonization, and the period after the colonial era; and it underscores the discursive plurality of each of these periods”[3], Epp Annus claims. She also refers to Bill Ashcroft’s explanation: “The post-colonial is not a chronological period but a range of material conditions and a rhizomic pattern of discursive struggles, ways of contending with various specific forms of colonial oppression”[4].

It closely relates to the concept of national nostalgia. In the colonial era, national nostalgia includes modernity and the mythical fullness of the past[5] – a framework that helps “to understand national nostalgia and the discourses of national essentialism during the Soviet colonial era in the Western borderlands: the colonial split separated the recent past into an imaginary sphere of authentic existence and mythical fullness, something now violently displaced by the establishment of the new social order”[6].

The concept of magic realism in relation to literature has been known in Latvia at least since 1931, in the literary periodical “Domas”, in the annotation of Pierre Herbart’s novel “Rôdeur”[7]. In the context of this paper, an essential mention of the concept was made in November 1969, when the leading Latvian cultural weekly, “Literatūra un Māksla” (“Literature and Art”), published an article titled “The Fates of Romance and the Continent”. It was, in fact, a retelling of an article from the French newspaper “Le Figaro litteraire”, which discussed the flourishing of South American literature and the success of Garcia Marquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”[8].

In the summer of the following year, from June to August, the Russian translation of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was published in the literary magazine “Inostrannaja literature” (Иностранная литература) in Moscow. In 1971, it was published in book form with huge success, with the second edition in 1979,

Although the novel was published in Latvian more than ten years later, in 1981, from publications by writers and critics it is possible to conclude that the Russian translation of the book was widely read and discussed; to the point that Marquez gained practical followers in Latvian literature.[9] Upon the next translations of his works in the 80s, Marquez’s name and the concept of magic realism continued to circulate[10], gradually transforming into an idea that had less to do, paradoxically, with means of expression than literary quality and fundamentality of a novel or other literary work or film.[11] Already in the 1970s and 1980s it was becoming fashionable to tag an author as a magic realist; this continued in the 1990s, when Baltic writers become a kind of “export product” and had to be placed in a particular box. In 1993, Latvian poet Māra Zālīte said she would like to read “a thick, good (…) [Latvian] novel, in the spirit of magical realism, polyphonic, which would cover all forms of human existence – mythical, intellectual, ethnic, which would carry life-affirming, great power, great ethical potential. A novel to be read without interrupting for a moment”[12]. This understanding of full-blooded work filled with fantasy and historical allusions as being representative of magic realism is also reflected in cinema. Daira Āboliņa’s book about the film director Jānis Streičs is called “Jānis Streičs’ Magical Realism”[13]. Streičs, like Skujiņš, created his essential work during the Stagnation Period. In a critique of this book, the reviewer said: “That is why I conclude that the concept of magical realism in Streičs’s films is basically not used as a term, but as a sign of quality – to say that the director’s works are good, influential, that they are not only realistic”[14].

In addition to Marquez, it must be mentioned that the most significant manifestation of magic realism in modern European literature occurs in the works of German novelist Günter Grass. He also has followers in Latvian literature. Grass’s “Danzig Trilogy”, especially “The Tin Drum”, was imported illegally into the Soviet Union and was accordingly available to a narrower circle that could read German or English. The only broadly available publication of Grass’s works in the USSR until 1983 was the translation of “Cat and Mouse”, the second part of the “Danzig Trilogy”; it was published in a partial, censored version in the literary magazine “Inostrannaja literatura” in May 1968.

However, Günter Grass’s works were accessible to Latvian writers in exile, some of whom read, influenced, and even exchanged letters with Grass. Gunars Janovskis exiled in Great Britain, should be mentioned here.[15] So, Grass’s influence, albeit through several “filters”, also reached Latvia. In the first half of the 1980s, Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation of “The Tin Drum” (1979) was screened in narrow intelligentsia circles.

Zigmunds Skujiņš and his novel “The Bed with a Golden Leg”

Zigmunds Skujiņš (1926–2022) was one of the most outstanding and popular Latvian writers in the second half of the 20th century. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Skujiņš and other prose writers of his generation restored the connection with pre-war Latvian literature – writers as Eriks Ādamsons, Anšlavs Eglītis and others who had died or left the country to escape the Soviet regime. In fiction, journalism, and public work, Skujiņš called for believing in the strength of the occupied Latvian people, learning the history of Latvia and the Latvian people, protecting, nurturing, and developing the Latvian language, and opposing Russification.

It must be said here that in 1940s, the Latvian population of 1.9 million shrank by about 30 percent. Demographic losses for Latvia were caused by its accession to the USSR because of the people who were evacuated, deported, or shot.[16]

Skujiņš’s works have been published in about 7 million copies in more than 20 languages, ranking him among the most translated Latvian writers. The novels “Nakedness” and “Flesh-Coloured Dominoes” have recently been translated into English.

Skujiņš’s novel “The Bed with a Golden Leg” (Gulta ar zelta kāju, 1984) is one of the most essential Latvian novels written in 1980s – and the most popular, with a total print run of 195,000 (for 1.5 million readers that was Latvian-speaking population at the time).

The subtitle of the novel “The legends of the Vējagali” describes the nature of the book: it is a story of one Latvian family over a century, told through tales and legends. Some critics have acknowledged similarities with García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in the composition and poetics of the “magic” of the novel[17]. Skujiņš himself only partially recognizes Marquez’s influence.[18]

Mythical and real history

One common genre of Latvian prose in the Stagnation Period was the “family saga”, the revival of which began in the 1980s with “The Bed with a Golden Leg” and some other voluminous novels[19]. A “family saga” is a cultural-historical novel in which one family’s experience is centered; in most Latvian family sagas, this family experienced everything or almost everything that the Latvian population witnessed or experienced in the 20th century, and certainly the most tragic developments of this time.[20] However, in some family sagas, “history is not just a tragedy, or the eternal ‘heavy plow’ decided for Latvians, but rather a kaleidoscopic burlesque”[21]. In this aspect, too, the pioneer was Skujiņš – who also added some magic realism into his novel.

The plot of the novel begins in the second half of the 19th century. The Vējagali family of the seaside has two “patriarchs”. The first is Noass (Noah): a classical embodiment of a sea wolf, a captain with great strength and boisterous temperament, and a successful merchant and owner of many ships who, at the end of the sailing era, loses a large part of his property. The other is Augusts (August), Noah’s opposite: a gentle farmer who lives to the age of 99. The family experiences Latvia’s history throughout the 20th century, until the early 1980s. For example, one of Noah’s sons is shot during the revolution of 1905, though he was innocent. The other becomes a professional revolutionary, travels to the United States and organizes a revolutionary movement there, spends a long time in prison in a Central American country before returning to Russia in the late 1930s.

Regarding historical references in the plot of the novel, Skujiņš uses everything available to him, including until-then hidden and undisclosed facts: Stalin’s Great Purge from 1936 to 1938 in Moscow, deportations, Latvian legionnaires during WWII. In the mid-1980s, this was considered a bold and compelling move – though critics, pretending to be naive, blamed the author for historical inaccuracies, too much harmony and optimism, and even a lack of tragedy, they worried about incompetent and foreign readers.[22]

A nation as the novel’s protagonist

There are about forty characters who are family members in the book. The plot of the novel involves Latvians on all continents of the world. One might accept as the main hero the Vējagali family as a whole or, more generally, the Latvian nation, allegorized by the Vējagali house, where two families live under one roof, symbolizing the two parts of the nation: those engaged in shipping and those who tend the land. As Regīna Ezera has stated, there are two ancestral types which Skujiņš programmed into the Vējagali family: sailors and peasants. These types reoccur from generation to generation, born again in another person, another era, another rendition. These archetypes also determine not only propensities, but fate, as the novel strongly shows through Jēkabs Ernests, who is so deeply attached to the earth that, when detached from it forcefully with power, he dies first mentally and then physically.[23]

Some critics have also noted that “relatively paler images [i.e., inexpressive characters] exist in the final section of the book”[24], and the narration becomes hasty. This can be interpreted as “a sign of the population’s dwindling viability”[25], as a warning cry for the crucial phase of non-violent resistance in the name of the nation’s continuation. There is even an episode where the author suggests that he – under the name of Zigmunds Vējagals – is also a successor to the large Vējagali family.[26]

An important symbol in the novel is Noah’s gold, playfully mentioned in the novel’s title. The legend through the generations tells that gold is hidden in the leg of Noah’s bed, and the family, especially Noah’s daughter Leontīne, is keen to find it. This hidden gold symbolizes the Latvian nation’s core value and the fundamental value of life. In the concluding section of the novel, diggers find Noah’s tools hidden before leaving the family house during World War I. These tools are symbolically gold, a lasting value that Noah has saved for his descendants. On the contrary, Noah had never been hiding his precious metal and remelted it into his uniform’s bright buttons. As this had been unknown to Noah’s descendants, over the years they lose some of the buttons, considering them worthless trinkets that can be used in a jukebox in place of coins.

The oppressed nation’s vital strength, creative spirit, and optimism in the face of fate have been embodied in the diverse characters and destinies of the Vējagali family. The repeated burning and renewal of the Vējagali family house (“Fortress”) symbolizes the revival of the Latvian nation; one can also interpret it as the re-restoring of national independence though the author has never claimed such symbolism.[27].


Salman Rushdie, another practitioner of magic realism, once said that the rules of realism are not sufficient to describe the world[28]. At a superficial level in “The Bed with a Golden Leg”, on the threshold of Latvian national independence, Skujiņš formally accepts Soviet modernity, as at the time he needed to express his loyalty to the Soviet regime. However, he was keen to follow and explore the paths that led to Soviet modernity. Skujiņš claims that one must look for the roots of modernity in the history of the Latvian nation instead of in the new order brought by its Soviet colonizers. The plot, narrative, vocabulary, artistic expression, and characters confirm successful usage and adaptation of the stylistics of “magic realism”, introduced to Soviet and Latvian readers by García Márquez. A widely read bestseller, the novel allowed Skujiņš to express essential ideas of non-violent resistance in a postcolonial situation.

[1] Annus, E. Soviet Postcolonial Studies: A View from the Western Borderlands. London/New York: Routledge, 2018, p. 240.

[2] For example, see Anderson, S. A New Definition of Magic Realism: An Analysis of Three Novels as Examples of Magic Realism in a Postcolonial Diaspora, 2016. Honors Program Projects. 82, https://digitalcommons.olivet.edu/honr_proj/82. Last accessed on January 29, 2021.

[3] Annus, E. Soviet Postcolonial Studies: A View from the Western Borderlands, p. 5.

[4] Ashcroft, B. Post-Colonial Transformation. London: Routledge, 2001, p. 12, cited in: Annus, E. Soviet Postcolonial Studies: A View from the Western Borderlands, p. 24.

[5] Annus, E. Soviet Postcolonial Studies: A View from the Western Borderlands, pp 9–11.

[6] Ibid, p. 10.

[7] L. B. Franču jaunākā literatūra un “modernais” stils. Domas, Nr. 12, 1931.

[8] de Gleks, G. Romāna un kontinenta likteņi. Literatūra un Māksla, November 1, 1969. Most probably, the translator and adaptor of the article is Voldemārs Meļinovskis (1910–1997), editor of the critic department of the weekly newspaper “Literatūra un Māksla” (1967–1968), translator of García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and other works by García Márquez, Ana María Matute, Juan Goytisolo, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Alejo Carpentier and other authors.

[9] Čākurs, J. Vēsture un literatūra, kulinārija un valodniecība. Karogs, 1973, Nr. 11, 164. lpp.; also later in exile in USA, literary scholar Valija Ruņģe about the Latvian exile author Benita Veisberga in 1995: “Something that no longer exists” is of great importance in the lives of those who have left this homeland (51). The writer mentions: “(..) we drive (now) miles far, to other cities, where would be something from Latvia” (152). Latvia lives in us, we – in Latvia. It could be called our magical realism.” (Ruņģe, V. Nebeidzamā loka līnija. Latvija Amerikā, August 19, 1995., 3., 18. lpp.)

[10] Treimane, I. No kritiķa dienasgrāmatas. Oktobris. Literatūra un Māksla, October 31, 1986, 6. lpp., a.o.

[11] It was becoming fashionable to put a tag of magic realism on writers, and it continued in the 1990s, when Baltic writers become a kind of “export product” and had to be placed in a particular box. The Latvian poet Amanda Aizpuriete in 1993 reflected about the “Women’s Festival” in Hamburg: “We go to the rehearsal, Latvian poetry will be played tonight in the first hall of Kampnagel. In another hall, the Independent Theater from Tallinn will show Mati Unt’s play “The Murderer of Husbands.” In the program, Mati Unt is called a representative of magical realism.” Aizpuriete, A. Kampnāgelē. Tāds laiks – visur! Latvijas Jaunatne, September 28, 1993.

[12] Ābele, K. Jaunākās parādības literātūrā Latvijā. Austrālijas Latvietis, June 16, 1995.

[13] Āboliņa, D. Jāņa Streiča maģiskais reālisms. Rīga, Dienas Grāmata, 2016.

[14] Radzobe, S. Fundamentāls un totāls Streičs. Kino Raksti, February 1, 2017, https://www.kinoraksti.lv/raksti/fundamentals-un-totals-streics-254. Last accessed on January 29, 2021.

[15] See: Skujiņa, I.,Oga, J. (eds.) Caurums žogā. Zigmunda Skujiņa un Gunara Janovska sarakste 1970–2000. Rīga: Zelta grauds, 2021 (currently unpublished).

[16] Krūmiņš, J. Iedzīvotāju skaits Latvijā. Nacionālā enciklopēdija, https://enciklopedija.lv/skirklis/10754. Last accessed on March 10, 2021.

[17] Berelis, G. Metaliteratūra. Avots, 1989, Nr. 6, 15.–16. lpp.

[18] Berelis, G. Latviešu literatūras vesture. No pirmsākumiem līdz 1999. gadam. Rīga: Zvaigzne ABC, 1999, 190. lpp.

[19] Harijs Gulbis “Doņuleja” (1981), Ilze Indrāne “Zemesvēzi dzirdēt” (1984), also novels by Alberts Bels and Visvaldis Lāms.

[20] Berelis, G. “Nezinu, vai vispār ir brīdis, kad nerakstu.” Par Paulu Bankovski. Punctum, February 18, 2021, http://www.punctummagazine.lv/2021/02/18/nezinu-vai-vispar-ir-bridis-kad-nerakstu-par-paulu-bankovski. Last accessed on February 18, 2021.

[21] Ibid. (Berelis 2021)

[22] Jugāne, V. No kritiķa dienasgrāmatas. Janvāris. Literatūra un Māksla, January 25, 1985; Vāverniece I. Vieglums kā literārs paņēmiens? Padomju Jaunatne, March 13, 1985; Sokolova, I. Par dažiem politiskā romāna jautājumiem. Literatūra un Māksla, February 14, 1986; Plēsuma, A. Vēstures vēju vētītās leģendas. Karogs, 1985, Nr. 4

[23] Ezera, R. Vējagalu dzimta laiku lokos. Literatūra un Māksla, February 8, 1985.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Hausmanis, V. (ed.). Latviešu literatūras vēsture. 3. sējums. Rīga: LU Literatūras, folkloras un mākslas institūts; Zvaigzne ABC, 2001, 103. lpp.

[26] Skujiņš, Z. Spēcīgie un grēcīgie. Pagātne ar rītdienas seju. Rakstu 6. sējums. Rīga: Mansards, 2008, 98.–99. lpp.

[27] Plēsuma, A. Vēstures vēju vētītās leģendas. Karogs, 1985, Nr. 4; Vāverniece I. Vieglums kā literārs paņēmiens? Etīdes par Z. Skujiņa romānu “Gulta ar zelta kāju”. Padomju Jaunatne, 13.03.1985.

[28] Cited in: Kauliņš, J. Lielais kronops. Satori, November 16, 2006, https://satori.lv/article/lielais-kronops. Last accessed on January 29, 2021.

Publikācija veidota pēcdoktorantūras pētījuma “Latviešu prozisti padomju okupācijā: sadarbība un nevardarbīgā pretošanās (1968–1991)” (pētniecības pieteikums Nr. ietvaros.

Pēdējo reizi labots: 14.02.2023 13:32:48