One of the splendid Peirene Press’ new publications is Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk. Part of the Home in Exile series, this ‘literary bestseller that took the Baltics by storm’, by an author who has written over twenty books, has been translated from its original Latvian into English for the first time. This novel, Ikstena’s most recent, won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award for Best Prose, and has been highly lauded. I was particularly interested in reading this title, as I travelled around the Baltics last summer, and fell in love with Latvia.
Founder of Peirene Press, Meike Ziervogel, writes: ‘At first glance this novel depicts a troubled mother-daughter relationship set in the Soviet-ruled Baltics between 1969 and 1989. Yet just beneath the surface lies something far more positive: the story of three generations of women, and the importance of a grandmother in giving her granddaughter what her daughter is unable to promote – love, and the desire for life.’
Soviet Milk ‘considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual. The central character in the story – a nameless woman – tries to follow her calling as a doctor. But then the state steps in. She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter.’ This woman, who suffers with depression, is banished to a small village in the Latvian countryside, miles away from her home in the capital, Riga. Soviet Milk is dark, and stark, in what it depicts, particularly with regard to the central character. The narrator reflects, in sadness: ‘I don’t remember Mother ever hugging me much, but I remember her needle-pricked thigh. where she practised injections. I remember her in bed with blue lips the first time she overdosed, possibly as part of some medical experiment.’
The narrator begins her account by telling us that she does not remember her birth in October 1969. She goes on to say: ‘I do remember, or at least I can picture, the golden, tender calm of October, alternating with foreboding, of a long period of darkness. It’s a kind of boundary month, at least in the climate of this latitude, where seasons change slowly and autumn only gradually gives way to winter.’ The narrator’s mother abandons her at birth, and returns five days later. As her childhood progresses, she spends a great deal of time with her grandparents, the only constant in her life. Of them, she reflects: ‘My grandmother and step-grandfather were the closest things I had to parents. My mother stood somewhere outside the family. Our lives revolved around her; we depended on her – but not for maternal nurturing. Now and then, her struggles with her demons and angels would spill over into our daily routine, forcing us to acknowledge the fragile boundary between life and death.’ Many recollections of this interesting and complex fractured family dynamic follow.
As well as largely being raised by her kindly grandparents, and having less physical and emotional contact than she would have wished with her troubled mother, Soviet Milk describes the effects upon the narrator of what it was like to grow up in such a regime. ‘Despite these absurdities,’ she says, ‘my mother continued to raise me as an honourable and faithful young Soviet citizen. Yet within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence. We carried flags in the May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot.’
Ikstena’s imagery is powerful. When the daughter’s father dies in his apartment, ’emaciated, gasping’, he is found in the following state: ‘Beneath him, on the stained day bed and all over the floor, newspapers displayed the faces of smiling workers and stern Politburo members. He was lying upon words that promised five-year growth in a single year and extolled the superior morality of the people who were building Communism… He was lying among words advocating the diversion of rivers, the conversion of churches into storehouses for mineral fertilizers, and the destruction of the literature, art and sculpture of our Latvian heritage.’
Margita Gailitis’ translation is fluid and understanding. The structure of Soviet Milk works incredibly well. It is told in short vignettes, which encompass remembrances of the narrator’s childhood, and musings upon her place in the world. The perspective of her mother, the book’s central character, has also been used in alternating chapters. Soviet Milk is a perceptive and introspective work. Its character portraits are both multilayered and revealing. One soon gets into the rhythm of the shifting perspectives, and the sharpness of what it demonstrates of the Soviet regime is sure to stay with each reader long after the final page has been read.