The Birds of Paradise is the sequel to Māra Zālīte’s first biographical novel Five Fingers and is about her family’s return to Latvia and how she learns to adapt to the new rules of existence in a world when no one can speak their minds. While not forgetting to be carefree and to enjoy her childhood, she’s often misled about what’s going on, seeks the truth, explores her own idea of paradise and has her own dreams.
—How was school? Mīma asks, like always, and helps take off the heavy backpack. What’s in here, rocks? How was your day?
—Good, Laura answers, like always.
—Could you say a little more than that? What am I supposed to get out of a single word? Mīma isn’t satisfied.
—Aivars almost choked me to death! Laura adds happily. She actually had a really great day.
But what had been so great about it?
—All the teachers were sick. With the flu.
Ah. Then it really had been a great day. Mīma is happy. She’s made soup with dried apples and dumplings.
Laura has to finish her homework. She has to finish it. It’s odd. No one else has to finish work, they just do it. Mīma doesn’t have to finish carrying water in from the well. Mīma doesn’t have to finish lighting the stove. Mīma doesn’t have to finish making the soup. No one else has to finish homework. Except for Laura! To finish – it sounds far more important than just doing.
—Mīma, when are you going to make cranberry moss again?
—Cranberry what? I don’t know what that is.
—Yes you do. We had it Sunday.
—Sunday? You mean cranberry mousse?
—Yes, cranberry mousse.
—Good thing you brought it up. I was just thinking that we should have something for dessert. You’re papa will be home tonight.
—Really? Laura pushes her chair back and jumps around with joy. Yay! Yay! Papa! Papa!
—Oh my cranberry mousse! Mīma sighs.
If only Papa would come home sooner! That arithmetic homework. Laura breezes through everything else at school, but not arithmetic. Those word problems. There are seven tables in the cafeteria. Each table has four chairs. A group of seven students from one class comes in and sits down. How many empty chairs are left? Laura can’t figure it out. What if they all sit down at one table? What if they push all the tables together? Then there’s one, big, communal table. And what does it mean that all seven students are from one class? Why exactly seven of them? Like the seven dwarves, seven goats, seven days in a week. There has to be some meaning to it all. A trap. Laura’s thoughts dart around like bats in a cave. Her throat hurts.
—What’s an ‘object’?
—An object? The table, for example. Or your ruler. There are objects all around. Objects everywhere. Dishes. Slippers.
—Slippers! That can’t be right.
—The Communist Party object. What’s that?
—What kind of object is that? Laura presses Mīma.
—Do your homework and stop talking nonsense!
—I have to check if that dough is finally going to rise or not, if I’ll be able to bake any pīrāgi tonight.
Mīma is cross. Another bad batch of yeast. She’s also a little embarrassed; Laura can sense it. Maybe she shouldn’t have asked those questions. Maybe Mīma is embarrassed to admit that she doesn’t know what the Communist Party objective is. Maybe the adults don’t know, either. It makes Laura sad that Mīma is embarrassed by that. She could have just said she didn’t know, and that’s that. But Laura wants to know. Laura needs to know what she’s fighting for.
By Māra Zālīte
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Māra Zālīte is a Latvian poet and playwright born during her family’s exile in Krasnojarsk, Siberia. She played an important part in the Latvian Awakening movement of 1990s and many of her plays are seen as iconic, such as her rock opera Bearslayer, based on the Latvian national epic, and her musical The Chronical of Indriķis.
Kaija Straumanis has an MA in Literary Translation Studies from the University of Rochester and is Editorial Director at Open Letter Books. Her translations include Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš, Doom 94 by Jānis Joņevs and Inga Ābele’s High Tide.
Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini was born in Riga. She graduated from the Faculty of Foreign Languages, University of Latvia, in 1995, at the same time completing a course in Italian language and culture at the University of Perugia. Žanete is fluent in English, Italian and Russian and also has basic knowledge of French. She worked for the Latvian Embassy in Rome which has led to her now dividing her time between Latvia and Italy. Žanete has translated literature for both adults and children. She enjoys the challenge of rendering the text precisely while keeping the target language as natural and flowing as possible.