Hi, folks! Today, we’re continuing our adventure with the second of three posts in which I talk 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, click here to check out the last post, 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.
Thursday 8th March 2018 started with a guided tour of Riga’s old town, and while the usual guide was out of town, the guy we got instead was fantastic. He asked plenty of questions to get us involved and he also had a great habit of telling us all the stories that they tell to stories and then telling us that they’re not actually true. The stories were super entertaining, but I also prefer to know the actual truth, which meant that his approach really worked for me.
For example, when we went to see the walls of the old town, he showed us a statue of a ghost and told us that the story is that a woman was buried inside the wall and that her ghost still haunts it. The truth is that it’s an art installation from a couple of years ago from when Riga was announced as the European Region of Culture.
Other examples include the famous Cat House. Legend has it that the cats were deliberately positioned to poke fun at the building opposite. But that’s not true either, the cats are just there as a display of wealth and opulence.
Riga itself is known as something of a cat city because of the number of stray cats in the area. A lot of the tourist stuff has designs of cats on it, and they even have “cat hostels” across the old town where they can seek refuge from the snow.
After our tour, we paid a visit to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, where we learned all about the injustices carried out against the Latvians by both the Germans and the Russians. Because they’re located right between the two countries, they’ve experienced hundreds of years of strife with them since before the country itself was even founded.
During the Second World War, the Russians occupied Latvia by essentially forcing the country to accept its terms or to find itself at war with them. Latvia knew that if they stood up to Russia and found itself at war with them, the loss of life would be devastating.
When the Germans arrived and drove the Russians out, they were welcomed as heroes and as liberators – at least until it became clear that they had no interest in liberation and that they were just as bad as the Russians. And then when the Germans were defeated, the Russians rolled back in and took the country again. And of course, every time this happened, there was a huge loss of life and widespread devastation and destruction.
Of course, many Latvians stood up to their occupiers and formed resistance movements, and some brave souls harboured Jews during the Nazi occupation. But perhaps the most touching story of all is the story of Freedom Street, which was renamed Lenin Street, Adolf Hitler Street and then Lenin Street again before the Singing Revolution in which the Baltic countries overthrew their oppressors and reclaimed their statehood.
From there, we went back to Robert’s Books, where we were taught a little more about the Latvian publishing scene. It was just growing and growing until the financial crisis of 2008, when VAT on books was increased from 5% to 20%, halving the number of sales in one fell swoop because it forced a price increase.
The situation wasn’t helped by Latvia’s entry into the European Union and its switch to the Euro. Book prices went up because the Euro was weaker than the Latvian Lat, so while the value of the money was the same, the number itself was higher. It’s a psychological factor, but it had a huge impact on the number of book sales. By the time that VAT was lowered to 10%, the damage had already been done.
When it comes to original literature in the Latvian language, there are around 100 children’s books and 500 adults books published every year. 21% of children’s books are poetry and 69% of them are illustrated. Many writers and illustrators work across both children’s and adults literature.
Some of the larger publishers include Zvaigzne ABC (“Star ABC”), Liels Un Mazs (“Big and Small”), Petergailis (“Peter’s Rooster”), Neputns (“Not a Bird”) and Latvijas Mediji, which publishes the daily newspaper as well as cheap poetry and prose.
One quick note about Petergailis is that they were named after the rooster on St. Peter’s Church. Roosters were used to differentiate between catholic churches, which used the cross, and protestant churches, which used the rooster.
Neputns is mostly known for publishing art books, but they’re also behind the “Art Detectives” series of fiction books in which the protagonist can travel through paintings to the time and place at which they were created.
Another personal favourite of mine are the Bicki Buck Books, a collection of just over 100 minis that remind me of poetry chapbooks in terms of their look and feel and their form factor. They’re basically folk tales and children’s poems which are illustrated with the goal of taking an old tradition and bringing it up-to-date. They’re popular amongst both children and adults as collector items and many ex-pats even order them to be shipped overseas.
As for the writers, I’m looking forward to picking up Doom 94 by Janis Jonevs, which is sort of semi-autobiographical and about teenagers going to see doom metal bands in the days shortly after the country reasserted its independence, and 18 by Pauls Bankovskis, which is about the revolution of 1918 and which led to the formation of the Latvian state in the first place.
Inese Zandere is one of the country’s most well-known authors, and we were told that “everyone knows at least one of her poems by heart”. Zandere also wrote The Boy and His Dog, which is about the son of someone who hid Jews in his house during the holocaust. And of course, she also wrote the Shammies series, which was turned into a popular animation.
Two more writers to check out are Ieve Melgave, who’s one of the few Latvian SFF (science fiction and fantasy) authors, and Juris Zuirgzin, who writes about history. Zuirgzin tries to make history more “catchy and attractive” and covers the history of the world, as well as the history of Latvia itself.
After we’d finished learning about the Latvian literature scene, we headed off to see Grupa Sigma, a Latvian indie rock band. They’re not particularly well-known even in Latvia, but they’re a favourite of our hosts and they’re closely linked with the literary scene because their lyrics are mostly Latvian poetry set to music.
They were fantastic. For a three-piece (drums, bass and keyboard), they have a really full scene, possibly helped by the string quartet that joined them. They also performed with a projector beaming psychedelic footage of dancers onto the backdrop which really made it an audiovisual spectacle. They’re playing in London in April where they’ll be singing in English, so let me know if you fancy going along and I’ll meet you there.
I’d love to tell you that we got up to all sorts of shenanigans after that, but the truth is that we headed back to the hotel and I had a bath. It was still midnight by the time I got into bed though, and I had to be up early on the Friday for our final day in the city.
That’s it for this post, but be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel where I’ll be sharing daily videos about my adventures in Latvia. I’ll also be posting daily blogs and reviews about Latvia and Latvian literature, so follow SocialBookshelves.com on Facebook and Twitter for further updates and head back soon to see what else I got up to. Big thanks to the British Council in Latvia and Latvian Literature for inviting me along. If you enjoyed this post, go and buy a book. If you’re into poetry, allow me to recommend 30 Questions People Don’t Ask by Inga Gaile.