Māris Bērziņš’s The Taste of Lead takes place between 1939 and 1941 in Latvia. Although this is right at the start of WWII, the charming uncertainty its narrator feels regarding everything makes the book unique. A young man in his early twenties, Matīss is still trying to figure out his future, women, and life in general against the backdrop of political upheaval and the growing importance of national identity. And while we as readers know exactly how world history plays out, we can’t help but buy into his naïve hope that things won’t go the way they are obviously bound to.
My mother is an attractive woman. And judging by all the glances she still gets from men, she’s just as charming now as ever. She was more beautiful in her youth, of course, but most mothers were.
If memory serves, she didn’t rush to find a new husband after my father disappeared. She kept on quietly shelving books in the library, until one day a German named Volfgangs Vengers showed up. A Balto-German, to be more precise. With roots in Latvia, but without branches or shoots. The other librarians watched in amazement as this young man started to check out books almost every other day. How could one person read that quickly? Mum wasn’t surprised; she understood. It didn’t take him long to propose, just a few dates to the movies, the opera and some art exhibitions. Mr Vengers was nice, cultured, and my mother married a second time without much objection. She must have been tired of being in the widows’ club. Sometimes I get really jealous seeing how much Mum and Volfgangs care about each other. But it’s no surprise, seeing as my own interactions with women so far have ended only in total failure.
At first I wasn’t a fan of the lean Kraut; I had a wall up. But then I either grew up or else the German grew more good-natured, and eventually we became friends. He’s a sensible person to talk to. And a cartographer. Volfgangs, or Volfiņš, Volfītis, as Mum calls him, or Volfs, as I call him, helped renovate the home Mum’s parents built, and that’s where we still live. The smallish, but very neat manor house is between Irbenes Street and the pension on Ģimnastikas Street. After high-school graduation they let me move into the attic suite. We’re all under one roof, but I still have my own space to be in. I think it’s a pretty cosy setup.
In the evenings, after I’ve washed away the sweat and dust from work, I go down to eat dinner with Mum and Volfs. We have our routine; I help Volfgangs stack and chop wood, pump and bring in water, till the garden if needed, and wring out the laundry on Saturdays because I have the strongest hands. I go to the store if they ask me, do a few other chores around the house, and pay Mum fifty lats a month so I can eat breakfast and dinner with them with a clear conscience. In short, life is good and I want for nothing.
I’m a little late tonight; Volfs is already getting up from the table and going into the other room to listen to the radio. Mum sets a deep dish in front of me and takes a soup tureen out of the oven.
—Koļa thinks things are going south, I say without any pretense, but Mum misunderstands me.
—How come? You’ve always made it work. Did something happen?
—No, everything with work is fine. He’s worried about Europe. Poland, the Germans, the Russians … the British… He doesn’t think any of it is going to reach us.
—I wouldn’t know. And – here Mum lets out a heavy sigh – nor do I want to know. Koļa can talk to Volfgangs about it.
By Māris Bērziņš
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Māris Bērziņš is a Latvian prose writer and playwright. His most popular book to date, Gutenmorgen, belongs to the absurdist tradition in short prose and is vaguely reminiscent of the works of Russian writer Daniil Kharms. The Taste of Lead is his fourth novel.
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.