PROFILE: Latvian Literature and the Publishing Scene

News from the world of Latvian Literature
By Robin Grossmann

In many industries, hard times may prompt either a narrower focus or diversification. Should one focus on one specialism – do one thing but do it well – or explore the opportunities that remain, even celebrate the variety that flourishes, under these conditions? Is necessity really the mother of invention?

A recent Latvian Literature News report acknowledged a decline in the number of new publications each year, reflecting a recognisable trend in much of the developed world. Between 2008 and 2010, the figure has slipped from 2855 to 2025 – though the same report cheerfully points out that the actual number of new books produced annually (titles x print run) still exceeds the Latvian population of 2.2 million. Plenty to go round, then.

But the same report speaks of the flexibility, variety and curiosity within the literary sphere in the country; perhaps, it seems to suggest, as a consequence of its restrictive Soviet past. Then, as now, a highly desirable cultural response to difficult times has emerged.

Reaching out

The legendary Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis (b. 1933) has recently been nominated for The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award – the world's largest prize for children's literature. His prose for children mixes fairy tales, original social commentary and philosophical aphorisms, and is credited with helping Latvia escape the Soviet stereotypes under which it laboured in the 1970s and ’80s.

He has also produced three conceptual collections of selected Latvian folklore with the high-minded intention of guiding a child through the transition to adulthood: the prospect of a legendary poet's work guiding one’s children through adolescence must be far more cheering than some of the sub-literary alternatives currently available on the market. Some of Imants Ziedonis' fairy tales for children are available in the archives.

A parallel case of reaching out might be found in Valentīna Freimane's autobiography Ardievu, Atlantīda! / 'Goodbye, Atlantis!' (Atēna), which was No. 4 in the bestseller lists at the time of writing this article. One of the most famous Latvian film critics, Freimane's lectures provide one of the few opportunities for the general public in Soviet Latvia to find out about foreign movies.

Looking beyond

But, to come back to the current literary scene in Latvia, let’s ask which books are attracting most attention in the more open society which Latvia enjoys today? Escaping the limits of present reality seems as popular as ever: Love. Quotations by Paulo Coelho (Jāņa Rozes apgāds) is at No. 1 in the translation charts. And at No. 2 in the overall charts we find Ar mīlestību, Jūsu Zilākalna Marta / 'With Love, Your Marta from Zilaiskalns' (Jānis Arvīds Plaudis – Ameija), a collection of interviews with people who were close to the famous Latvian faith healer Marta from Zilaiskalns.

The public sphere

A more rational engagement with literature and the questions of existence can now be found online at 1/4 Satori. Already the most influential literary portal in the country, and an essential testing ground for young Latvian authors, 1/4 Satori has announced its aim to become a 'portal for independent thought'. While continuing to publish original creative work, it plans to extend its remit to cultural and political commentary. The most popular article during the first quarter of 2011 has been Armands Znotiņš’ 'On Christianity', a work of scepticism. 16-year-old Henriks E. Zēgners’ poems are the most-read original literary texts published on the website.

Beautiful books

As physical publishing endures in the face of digitisation, one option for survival for is in the form of a luxury item; the book as a 'thing of beauty'. The Latvian Book Publishers' Association have announced their choices for the Zelta ābele (‘Golden Appletree’) award for the most beautiful books of 2010, with the prize for fiction going to Gundars Bojārs, chief editor of Latvia’s largest daily newspaper, Diena. He received the prize for Zvaigzne ABC's re-publication of his 2008 short story collection Zīda čūska / ‘The Silk Snake’ with illustrations by Aivars Vīlipsons. Publishers Liels un Mazs won the Best Children's Poetry Book award, with the absurdist poet Aivars Neibarts’ title Ola uz sola (‘The Egg on the Chair’) designed by Jānis Blanks. And in the category of Art Books, the winner was Jānis Lejnieks' biography, Krampis. Arhitekts Andris Kronbergs / ‘Guts: Architect Andris Kronbergs’ (Neputns) designed by Zane Ernštreite.

Charts and awards

Last but not least is the hardest task, as far as promotion is concerned: conventionally published, contemporary literary fiction and poetry. Such literature is seen as difficult to market, as it lacks obvious 'angles'. That said, No. 1 in the Latvian book charts is Latvieši ir visur / 'The Latvians Are Everywhere' by Otto Ozols (Atēna). Described as a 'Forrest Gump-like narrative history of the Latvian role in the major events of the world', it is easy to imagine the appeal: such works capture a national mood through a blend of self-awareness, self-satire and patriotism (as well as more negative attitudes).

Beyond the sales charts, the recognition brought by awards is often the great hope for literary fiction and poetry (especially for those not beautful enough for the Zelta ābele). The five titles shortlisted for the 2010 Book of the Year are three poetry collections, Inga Ābele's short story collection (whose 'shamanic language' appears in Dalkey's Best European Fiction 2010) and Andra Manfeld's self-published volume of photographs accompanied by imagined memories. An unusual mix compared with most of the large, novel-centric prizes in English, although not so strange in Wales, where the Wales Book of the Year prize frequently throws together these genres in the shortlist. The poetry collections include Jānis Rokpelnis' first work for twenty years, Nosaukums / 'Title', the relatively unknown Liāna Langa's Vilkogas / 'Belladonna', and Anna Auziņa's Es izskatījos laimīga / 'I Looked Happy', described as having 'managed to sidestep criticism almost entirely'. Prizes for Best New Title, and for Best Translated Title, complete the range of awards. There is much to be admired here, not least the recognition for poets, the range of literary activities and the celebration of curiosity. How things will look in 6 months is another matter.

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