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Cozy up to a winter of reading

  • 2005-12-14
It's that time of year again - the long Baltic winter. As the darkness settles in outside and the snow dirfts whistle away at your window, why not spend the next few months in hybernation with a stack of good books. TBT has chosen a list of local picks to get you started.

"Bearslayer"

By Andrejs Pumpurs,

Translated by Arthur Cropley

(self published)

"Lacplesis," or the "Bearslayer," was the third attempt by a Latvian to create a national epic, as the previous ones failed to catch on in the late 1800s. Andrejs Pumpurs finally put the epic to paper, and answered the German's long-held assertion that Latvians were not a people because they lacked a national legend. The Estonians also wrote an epic, "Kalevipoeg," or the son of Kalevala, the Finnish epic. In the "Bearslayer," the two mighty warriors meet up, fight, and then discover they have a common enemy - the hated German crusaders.

The "Bearslayer" is hard to find in English. One translation, completed by Rita Berzins in the late 1980s, is no longer in print. But this year, Australian professor Arthur Cropley has both translated and reworked the epic poem. It's quite an admirable feat, as Cropley only learned Latvian a few years ago.

The story recounts the brave tales of Bearslayer - half man, half bear warrior - who was given the name for ripping a bear in half. An image of this has been carved in stone at the base of the country's Freedom monument.

In heroic glory, the Bearslayer fights the Christian German invaders, spirits, and local traitors. Eventually the Germans send for a black knight, and the two end up in a dangerous face-off, good against evil, on Latvia's Staburags cliffs. In the end, both tumble into the Daugava below. As the story goes, the Latvian warrior would rise again along with his nation, when it shakes off the bounds of foreign occupation.

Cropley provides a very readable translation of the Lacplesis epic that is all but unknown to most English readers, and has made a valuable contribution to what is available in English of Latvian literature. (A.E.)

"Puppet Maker"

By P. M. Mason

(self published)

This is the typical 'expat returns to Latvia' story with all the essential themes: unravelling past mysteries, finding one's roots, self-identity, and the whole can of Baltic sardines. Yet 'Puppet Maker' weaves its storyline around these cliches in a quirky and at times humorous way.

It's a book you'd find among grocery-store novels - easy reading with a touch of cheese, sappy drama and a quickly developing plot. Once you get into it, the novel's quite an escapade of lost friends, painful memories, secrets revealed and relationships rekindled. And you actually might learn something about Latvian history along the way.

Arnis, a Latvian-born doctor burnt out with his occupation, decides at age 57 to leave his London home and begin a practice in Riga. But there's another motive - a deeper one. Arnis never knew his father, who disappeared when invading Russians tore their family apart in WWII. The only trace to his father's identity is a wooden puppet he lovingly carved before the war and some disclosed KGB files. Inspired by this priceless toy, Arnis sets out to close a chapter in his family's legacy. Soon, he and his aging mother find themselves retracing the steps of those deceased.

As this family mystery unravels, character after character is introduced. Although each personality brings along a new question mark - and some sweet laughs - the relationships become somewhat clumsy. This is the book's one weakness. Characters aren't portrayed with enough depth to sympathize with their emotions. Although temperaments flare, friendships strengthen and tears are shed, your eyes gloss over it all quickly, anxious to reach the next plot turn.

But this story wasn't written to win a Pulitzer. It was written to entertain, to remind, and to pay homage to those Latvians that suffered under the Soviet and German occupations. In this aim, it succeeds. (E.C.)

"Contemporary Lithuanian Artists: Jurate Mykolaityte"

(Lithuanian Artists' Association)

The Lithuanian Artists' Association has released a new entry to its series on Contemporary Lithuanian Artists, which introduces the Vilnius-based painter Jurate Mykolaityte.

An essay by art critic Ugne Dalinkeviciute precedes the fine collection of contemporary work. The critic vividly describes the settings in which the artist worked, the main themes of her work, and Uzupis, a unique bohemian-like neighborhood in Vilnius.

Although many refer to Mykolaityte as a surrealist, it's not quite right to impose mystical meanings on the objects she paints. In fact, everything in her art is more down to earth, down to actual memories from Uzupis.

Raised and based in this captivating neighborhood across the Vilnele River, the painter says her inclination to use monochromic canvases was largely determined by the murky light in her basement studio. Mykola-ityte paints Uzupis, though it's probably better not to capitalize 'Uzupis' because 'uzupis,' as locals say, is more a way of living than a location. The neighborhood has the power to sweep people away, especially those who live there.

Local art lovers who still recall Uzupis a decade ago, cannot but marvel at how precisely Mykolaityte has captured its spirit. Ghostly quarters emerge in her paintings. She paints an Uzupis that's separated from the Old Town not only by a river, but also by its "otherness" - a place governed entirely by its own laws. However, Uzupis is changing and "the town is no longer mine," says the artist.

The book is lushly illustrated: altogether there are nearly 60 works by Mykolaityte.

She portrays the town as a living organism, not just a collection of architectural cliches. The artist is not after innovations through theme or technique, but instead, she avoids energetic brushwork and vibrant colors as they would ruin the dreamy or reminiscent impression. Every detail matters, starting from the shape of doors, banisters, windows, and stairs. Mykolaityte's house interiors are full of ordinary items - beds, chairs, dressers 's but painted in an extraordinary way.

Art historians and students will find the book invaluable, and anyone else will find it fascinating. (M.S.)

"Estonian Folktales: The Heavenly Wedding"

Edited by Koostajad Piret Paar and Anne Turnpu

( Varrak Press).

This collection is a must-have. It is essential as much as funny, weird, practical and 'complete.' Despite being a small selection of this nation's available folk repertoire, the collection extemporizes 's in a very structured form - the Estonian way of being.

Estonian life has changed through the influx of media, economic necessities, and globalization, but the nation's core is vividly exposed and preserved for reference in these drops of narrative.

As Piret Paar argues, folktales need two processes to survive: to listen and to tell. Indeed, the best way to reflect on the core is to know, share and recount. For the past decade or so, Paar and others have been busy traveling through Estonia and organizing events in tandem with this aim. They try to be objectively true to the story, the storyteller and, when possible, to the place the story originated.

In these three-dozen stories or so, there is a pattern. Not only in the way the story is constructed (it is no secret that folk tales have a structural necessity and, no matter how much you change it, if these essential elements are there, the story still maintains folk-relevance) but also the way the book is tactically put together to represent almost every facet, sphere and cultural dimension of this nation.

These stories are not the whole answer, but surely a relevant part in understanding the most general needs of man with a focus on this country and its people. (R.M.)

"The Practice of Everyday Life"

Michelle de Certeau

(Univeristy of California Press)

This monumental book on the Post-Structuralist knowledge paradigm is now available in Estonian translation. It's surprising how strong the enterprise is for making internatonal accademic best-sellers available in this small but rich language. I am in no way capable of commenting on the level and the accuracy of such a transaltion, because translation is more than just linguistic equivalence, it is very much an attempt at a cultural one.

In this short but very provocative work, French theologian de Certeau tries his hand at defining the way people operate in cultural fields and how the weak resist. He is interested in the mundane, the everyday. His quasi-poetry touches on every facet of the human practice. De Certeau's ability to dwarf people who once towered above him in academia is almost disturbing. People like Bourdieu and Foucault are touched upon briefly and with wit. He inculcates their theorems into a practical and coherent logic that is direct, witty, elegant and necessary.

De Certeau is also very critical of the scientific epistemological practice. To this he says, "A few individuals, after having long considered themselves experts speaking a scientific language, have finally awoken from their slumbers and suddenly realized that for the last few moments they have been walking on air, like Felix the Cat in the old cartoons, far from the scientific ground. Though legitimized by scientific knowledge, their discourse is seen to have been no more than the ordinary language of tactical games between economic powers and symbolic authorities."

His astute analysis makes this book a good read that tantalizes the brain from the first aphorism. Take the challenge to discover the complexity of the mundane: the Practice of everyday life. (R.M.)

"With a Needle in the Heart"

(Garnelis Publishers)

"The Psychology of Extreme Traumati-sation: The Aftermath of Political Repression"

Edited by Danute Gailiene

For those interested in the darker side of history in Lithuania and the Baltics, the following books from the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania range from simple overview to in-depth technical analysis.

The first book, a joint project with Garnelis Publishers in Vilnius, is a bit old but deserves mention. "With a Needle in the Heart" is a collection of memoirs from former ghetto and concentration camp prisoners. Hundreds of stories have been recorded and collected here. This is an example of the kind of work sponsored by the center. Many of those who agreed to share their memories for this project have since passed away, leaving this work as a memorial.

"With a Needle in the Heart" lists deceased family members and friends, not just citizens of a particular town. Therefore, the novel carries a personal tone. At one point the book depicts children, during innocent play, imitating attempts by adults to smuggle food back into the ghetto and past the guards.

The style is straightforward, written in the victims' own words. Printed in both English and Lithuanian on the same page, this book may also serve as an excellent language learning resource.

The second book, "The Psychology of Extreme Traumatisation: The Aftermath of Political Repression" is the broadest in scope but, unfortunately, the least accessible. Edited by Danute Gailiene, this collection of articles includes research from various countries and covers the effects of both Soviet and Nazi repression. There is in-depth discussion of issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (with reference to the Vietnam War), suicide among aboriginal (colonized) peoples, and case studies of trauma sufferers being treated with Jungian psychotherapy.

The time period involved stretches from the Greek epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey, to 1889 when Oppenheim first coined the term "traumatic neurosis," to present day. On top of discussing the research, the book describes the societal and political climate that allows or hinders it, and mentions other issues like the payment of compensation to victims.

The articles are scientific studies, sometimes filled with tables of figures and highly technical debates of interest mostly to mental health workers. It was at times disconcerting to see sentences such as "with prisoners being subjected to an average of 3.6 forms of maltreatment." Though this book is primarily a serious psychology text, a great many issues of interest to an educated reader are discussed, and a great deal of information can be gleaned.

Taken together or separately, these and other works by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre will be a great help to those wishing to broaden their historical perspective. (T.H.)