Nations are sometimes defined by borders, but more interestingly by language. Latvia is thus defined by a language spoken by fewer than two million people worldwide; that’s less than half the number who speak Lithuanian, the only other surviving Baltic language.
A century after Stravinsky and Hasek were inspired by 1918 and the end of WWI, the Latvian Pauls Bankovskis has written his own soldier’s tale about a crucial moment in Latvian indepen-dence: 18 November 1918. His novel 18 memorialises – in many senses of the word – that date, when, in the chaos of the German defeat and the Russian Civil War, Latvia declared its independence. One storyline follows a young Latvian soldier, barely eighteen, who wanders between the lines, trying to bring some focus to patriotic hope.
But 18 (translated by Ieva Lešinska, an intrepid soldier herself, who also translates English-language poets like Heaney and Frost into Latvian) is more than the chronicle of a lone teenager sent out into the countryside to scout the enemy. One hundred years after the event, a young descendant of the soldier, cleaning out his family cabin in the woods, discovers a digital camera in the pocket of his dead grandfather’s greatcoat. Improbably, a memory chip in the camera has survived the many years since 1918. It shows images of a newer cabin, a younger forest, an age decades gone. More than just an anachronism, the memory chip acts as a viewfinder on the grandfather’s meditations on memory. Back in 1918, just a couple of years after Einstein’s description of relativity, the soldier muses:
‘whether we compare the location of events in time to cards, pancakes, onion layers or tree rings, we’re describing hypothetical intersections in which our movement through time pierces through the sequential reality of space and, at least theoretically, allows one to be at the same place at different times and at the same time in two or more places.’
Bankovskis published 18 in Latvia in 2014, shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea. He has no illusions about the permanence of Latvian independence. The country that declared its sovereignty on 18 November 1918 was incorporated into the Soviet Union at the beginning of WWII and was batted back and forth by the Soviets and the Nazis for the next five years, before becoming the Latvian Socialist Republic for the next fifty. The Russification of Latvia under Stalin meant, among other things, that the Latvian language went into severe decline. More than one-quarter of today’s population is made up of ethnic Russians, many of whom do not speak Latvian.
The forty-four year old Bankovskis has written ten novels (his 2012 Reds, Rats, & Rock ‘n’ Roll is about to appear in English as well), many of them pondering the history of Latvia. ‘Whenever we go to the country, we start to clean’, Bankovskis opens 18, ’and when we leave, all is order and cleanliness. Yet when we return, we have this irresistible urge to straighten everything out even more than before.’ This is as good as any description of Bankovskis’ novelistic mission, and perhaps even that of his Baltic nation caught between east and west – the endless straightening out of history with the broom of Sisyphus.
Reviewed by Jonathan Levi
Written by Pauls Bankovskis
Translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Vagabond Voices (2017)
US-born Jonathan Levi is the author of the novels Septimania and A Guide for the Perplexed. A founding editor of Granta, he currently lives and teaches in Rome.
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