Hi, folks! Today, we’re going on an adventure. This is the first of three posts in which I’ll be talking about what I got up to on my recent trip to Latvia to discover the latest and greatest in Latvian literature. You can check out my announcement here, and be sure to stay tuned for further posts every day this week and a wrapup on Sunday with handy links to everything you need to know about my trip to the Baltics.
It was a surreal trip, mostly because I wasn’t invited along until a week or so before and so it was all a little last minute. We also had a packed itinerary, which is why I’m breaking up into three different posts for the three different days we were there. But the adventure really started the day before on Tuesday 6th March, when I downed tools at lunchtime, picked up my case and hopped on the train to London.
We flew from Gatwick (or at least, I did) and arrived in Riga at around 10 PM local time. My sleeping pattern is atrocious, but fortunately they put us up in a decent hotel, the Hotel Monika Centrum. The beds were super comfy and the rooms were warm despite the cold outside, and while one of the others on our trip was kept awake by some other guests coming back late, I slept like a baby. Not bad for an insomniac.
This brings us up to the morning of Wednesday 7th March 2018, the first official day of the trip. We started off at the National Library of Latvia, a stunning building that’s nicknamed Gaismas Pils (the Castle of Light). Latvia itself was established in 1918 after the end of the First World War, and it’s heading for its centenary in November 2018. The National Library was founded in 1919, which makes it a year younger than the country with its anniversary due in 2019.
The designs for the current building were started in 1989 by Latvian-American architect Gunnar Birkerts, but construction wasn’t approved until 2008, when the build started. It cost nearly 200 million euros to build and has thirteen floors and nearly 1.8 million books, as well as technological gear such as 3D printers and virtual reality devices. It was designed to reflect Latvia’s ascent out of the darkness of the Soviet Union and into the 21st century and was opened in 2014, just three years before Birkerts’ death at the age of 92.
There’s so much I could tell you about the library that we’d be here all day, but a few things in particular stood out to me. The first is the People’s Bookshelf, which stores over 5,000 books that have been donated to the library. As high as a five-storey house, the idea is to invite everyone to donate a book that’s “of special importance to themselves” to the National Library of Latvia. Books are often donated by visiting dignitaries and politicians, but anyone in the world can take part. You can click here to find out more about that.
The second thing that I wanted to mention is the human chain that was formed on January 18th 2014 to carry selected books from the old buildings to the new one. It was freezing cold (temperatures as low as -19°C), but people turned out in mass anyway to help celebrate Latvia’s title as the European Capital of Culture. Here’s a video of that happening, it’s quite the sight.
The National Library hosts around 500 events every year, from lectures and conferences to live performances in its 460-seat concert hall. In April 2017, they welcomed their millionth visitor and gave them a cake. They also have nearly two million books in their archives, with 300,000 of them on public access. Part of their mission is to archive as much Latvian literature as possible, and this includes folk songs too. After all, folk songs are just a form of storytelling, and perhaps the oldest one in existence. They have a cupboard from the 19th century with over 218,000 folk songs on 350,000 slips of paper. It’s the lifetime work of Krisjanis Barons, and Dainu Skapis (or the Cabinet of Folk Songs) is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The library’s furniture was also designed by Gunnar Birkerts specifically for the library, mostly using Latvian pine and Canadian maple. The average visitor stays for around three hours and it’s particularly popular with students and local creatives because of the resources it has on offer. Around 4,000 people walk through its doors every day.
While we were at the library, we received presentations on Latvia by Ieva Stare of the Latvian Institute and on Contemporary Latvian Literature by literary critic Iveta Ratinika. It’s a fascinating city, founded in 1202 despite the fact that the country itself is just turning 100. It was a trading port, which explains much of its historic opulence, but 50 years of Soviet oppression took its toll. Still, it’s an ambitious city in an ambitious country, one which is still in its adolescence and which draws strength from that.
Latvians are essentially modern day pagans, but without the connotations. Being close to nature is important to the Latvian soul, which is why there’s a flood of birthdays every March. It’s nine months after midsummer, which is essentially a fertility festival in which people go into the woods and do their business. Apparently there are a lot of mosquitoes.
According to our hosts, the typical Latvian wants to live alone in a homestead in the country with no neighbours. In fact, people are starting to retreat to the country to work from home with the superfast broadband. After all, they’re introverts. But folk songs and stories help to bring them together with a national identity. All of the folk costumes are hand-made and unique, acting as a business card for young women who want to be seen as a good craftswoman and a potential match.
We also learned that every five years, Latvians form the biggest choir in the world with 40,000 amateurs expected for the centenary celebration. They also celebrate the Cemetery Festival once per year when people come together to remember the dead.
As for Riga itself, it has a reputation as the world capital of art nouveau, and it has the second largest heritage of wooden architecture amongst European capitals. It’s also the birthplace of the decorated Christmas tree, with the earliest one in the world on record in the city for the 1510 winter solstice.
There are just under two million people in Latvia and so everyone has to pull their own weight. It’s a small, ambitious country with a bright future ahead of it, but like a teenager going off to university, they’ll need to work hard if they want to make the grade. Still, they must be doing something right because last year they were the first to hold the title of European Region of Gastronomy.
Latvia is all about taking the old to create the new, whether we’re talking about literature or whether we’re talking about entrepreneurship. For example, birch sap was traditionally used as a detox/emergency boost. It tastes like slightly sweet water and is a little bit like maple syrup. Nowadays, people are finding new ways to use it, such as in the cosmetics industry.
Meanwhile, over half of the top management positions in the country are held by women, and there were two Latvian entrepreneurs Alise Semjonova (Infogr.am) and Sabine Pole (Sorry as a Service) in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. It’s also the birthplace of Airdog, a drone that follows you to make it easier for you to film yourself during extreme sports sessions.
Other cool facts include that the country’s literacy rating is 99.9%, making it one of the top countries in the world, and that with 14 Olympic medals per million inhabitants, they beat both Russia and the US. The country is also a great demonstration of the power of grass roots movements, because the state used to control the people and now that the people have a vote, they exercise it. They want to make things happen. This is evidenced by the Statue of Freedom, which was crowdfunded entirely by donations, and the fact that when the city didn’t create a bicycle lane, someone just painted one on to the street. And motorists abided by it, too.
We also listened to a talk by Iveta Ratinka where she told us that “due to historic, cultural and political circumstances, the timelines of several literary movements and trends in Latvian literature differ from those of the West.” Romanticisim in Latvian poetry has never really died, and poetry itself experienced a boom in the 1960s. Soviet rule was efficient to the development of poetry even if it was devastating to the poets themselves. Much of the poetry was for “practical” use, such as on gravestones and in greetings cards.
Ratinka told us that “a poet was expected to be national tribune, historian, caretaker of politics, ethics, and even ecology, with a strong respect for folklore and language.” Poets were allowed to write what they wanted and so it was a form of revolt. The problems started if they published something which criticised the state. If they weren’t careful, they could be sent to Siberia. That happened to Skujenieks.
Latvian poetry is characterised by “typically romantic images marked by the means of an unexpected, paradoxical poetic context, irony, a dramatic and alienated expression, a stoic scepticism and emotional freedom.” It’s distanced from the “daily fake optimism” and is more sceptical and ironic. In recent year, poetry has had more of an urban mentality, representing social issues and depicting daily life. It’s also been getting noticeably longer. And in Latvia, as is the case everywhere, while poetry is taught in schools with live poets, we were told that, “Being a poet is easy. Being paid to be a poet is hard.”
As for the prose, it’s largely being written by young people and about young people. It’s almost the inverse of the scene in the UK, because the poets are popular but prose and fiction is almost looked down on. Still, the country’s still witnessing the rise of genre literature such as sci-fi, while the typical protagonist is a strong, Latvian woman versus the universe.
Other trends include the rise of psychological content in prose, as well as literary biographies of noteworthy Latvians and more experimental, intellectually challenging novels which push the language to its limit. But in contrast to the scene here in the UK, they don’t have many crime/thriller novels, and those that do make it into the country are usually either low quality or imported. They also don’t really have YA books, although there are plenty of both adult books and children’s books.
After that, we learned a little about the Latvia Cultural Program which encompasses the Latvian Literature Platform and the Latvian presence at London Book Fair. It’s part of a team effort between International Writers and Translators House, the Latvian Writers Union and the Latvian Publishers Association, amongst others. They have some awesome stuff planned so be sure to stop by if you’re planning on going. You can get your tickets here.
In them meantime, be sure to click here to learn more about Latvian literature and to follow them on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for further updates. You can also follow SocialBookshelves.com on Facebook and Twitter and subscribe to my YouTube channel to receive further updates about Latvian Literature Week. I’ll see you soon!