Talking to a Dutch master

  • 2015-01-08
  • By Will Mawhood and Klaas van der Pol

The Dutch travel writer Jan Brokken has, in a literary career spanning thirty years, written books about a number of exotic and far-off places, including West Africa, the Dutch Caribbean, Indonesia and China, winning acclaim for his adventurous attitude and sensitive style. But it’s his most recent book that concerns us at The Baltic Times: this book, Baltic Souls (Baltische Zielen in Dutch), which was published in 2010, takes on the history of our region through a series of portraits of famous people from this part of the world, including amongst a number of others, the Latvian bookseller, Janis Roze; Estonian classical musician, Arvo Part and the writer and historian Hannah Arendt, who was originally from Kaliningrad (or Konigsberg, as it was then called). Brokken manages to weave together their personal stories, and assessments of the art that many of his souls created, with the tumultuous historical events that have affected the region throughout the last few hundred years.

On publication, Baltic Souls received widespread critical acclaim in the Netherlands and Belgium (as well as Italy and France, where it was subsequently published), as was expected for a book by Brokken; what was perhaps less expected was that such an apparently uncommercial book would become a bestseller – but it has, going through numerous pressings in the last few years, and sparking a wave of tourism from the Netherlands and other countries from readers keen to see the places they have read about. So if you’ve recently come across any Dutch tourists with a surprising interest in visiting the Janis Roze chain of bookshops, now you’ll know why.

Jan was in the Baltics in December for a successful promotional tour. The readings, which took place in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, were mesmerising events, alternating Jan’s readings of selected extracts from the book with renditions of classical works by Baltic composers. We caught up with Jan recently to ask him just why he finds the region so fascinating.

Most of your previous works have dealt with Africa and the Caribbean. Was it a great adjustment to write about a region so different in almost every respect as the Baltics?

After many years abroad I returned to The Netherlands and wrote a book about my friend Youri Egorov, a Russian concert pianist who escaped the Soviet Union and found freedom in Amsterdam. That was the prelude to Baltic Souls.
Knowing Youri I learned about what had happened in the Eastern Bloc countries and I became familiar with Baltic musicians such as Gidon Kremer, Philip Hirschhorn and Mischa Maisky.
Of course, after so many years in the tropics, the dark world up north intrigued me greatly, and I soon found out that cold from the outside can mean warm from the inside. I quickly felt at home in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.

Both in the evening that I attended in Riga, and in the book itself, I noticed a great deal of importance placed on music; during your lecture tours, you interspersed reading from Baltic Souls with performances of pieces by composers of the region. The protest movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Baltics was, of course, called the Singing Revolution, and the region has also been home to figures you write about such as Arvo Part and Gidon Kremer, about whom you write; is the focus on music a reflection of personal interest, or do you see this as being key to an understanding of the Baltic region?
Music plays an important role in a country’s heritage. Lots of things change but music is passed through from generation to generation. Music often characterises a country, it comes from the heart. Especially in the Baltic countries, music has been a way to express sentiments. Composers such as Arvo Part and Peteris Vasks used music to oppose the atheistic and materialistic Soviet ideology. Listening to Arvo Part you immediately recognise him in his compositions. This effect can only be attributed to the biggest composers. Part’s choice of religious and spiritual music cannot be seen apart from the context in which it was created. I think Credo (1968) was written to oppose the atheistic and materialistic Soviet Ideology. Petris Vasks did the same thing but found the inspiration for his music much more in nature.
Above that there is this enormous outstanding singing culture. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were long forbidden to speak or write in their own language. Singing preserved Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from disappearance. It is a bit like The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin.

In the majority of your stories in Baltic Souls artists and their art play a leading role. Could you tell us why you chose to tell so many of your stories in Baltic Souls through this particular way?
Artists escape today’s thinking because they are constantly searching for fundamental values. In their works of art artists are often inspired by their childhood and life experience. Focusing on artists soon enough family histories appeared with big contrasts such as the father and son Kremer, and mother and son Kacew [the surname of the Lithuanian-Jewish writer Romain Gary, to whom Brokken devotes a chapter]. A long chapter in Baltic Souls is about the Estonian family Von Wrangel – they were no artists. Another chapter deals with the Lithuanian Loreta, who became a victim in the revolution of 1991. The final chapter is about the traitor Simm [Herman Simm, an Estonian security officer alleged to have been passing information to Russia] to prove that the Russians still stick their nose in Baltic business. It is by no means a book just about artists but rather about a mental climate. Every time I play a CD from Arvo Part, Heino Eller, Veljo Tormis, Lepo Summera, Erkki-Sven Turr, M.K. Ciurliones or Jurgis Gaizauskas, I know immediately: this is Baltic. But how to explain this?  

Serious, deep, unmistakeably tragic. But not tearful, never pathetic. Dignified. Proud but not vain – knowing your identity. Cold on the outside, warm on the inside. Compelling but still able to be self-mockery.  

A Latvian woman asked me: “How often have you visited the Baltic countries?” I counted: about fourteen times. She looked frightened and replied: “I can’t imagine that gave you much pleasure.” I had to laugh out loud.
On your website, you state the lectures in all three Baltic states were a great success.  One person who attended commented: ‘You taught me more about my own culture than my teachers did in school’. Is this a sentiment you encounter often?

I hear that more often, yes, also from Baltic people who emigrated to Western Europe. I understand why. Most of you are still thinking: ”Let’s forget about the past as soon as possible.” The same thing happened to us after the Second World War. Until the day that we started to ask ourselves what had really happened and how it all began.
A day after the lecture in Tallinn, a man approached me. He was quite upset. He did not know that before the start of World War Two half of Vilnius’s population had been Jewish. He also had not known the fact that Vilnius had once been called the Jerusalem of the North.  “They never told me this at school”, he said, somewhat annoyed. He went to school in the seventies and eighties. He still blames The Soviets for this.  

Do you think an outsider can get across stories about the Baltics – many of which are rather grim stories – better than, for example, a local writer?
I do not represent the sentiments, the memories or views belonging to a certain group of the population. About a local writer, it will quickly be said that he is a Latvian, a Russian Latvian, a Jewish Latvian, a German Baltic Latvian, a Jew emigrated from the Ukraine to Lithuania. My interest concerns all souls, no matter where they are from or what religion they practice. I am not looking for justification, I am looking for stories that teach us about human existence. It does matter that I am from a small country and not from the United States or China. Being Dutch I know what it feels like to be looked down upon just because of the fact that millions of people don’t share your language or culture.

I was interested to see that you included a chapter dealing with Hannah Arendt, a native of Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad), which has gone from being, in many ways, the centre of German culture, thought and identity to an almost completely Russified city? Do you believe that this city can be thought of as part of the Baltic region, in a way that nearby cities such as Gdansk, for example, can’t?
The local language of Konigsberg was Old Prussian, a Baltic language that had more similarities with Latvian than with German and died out in the 19th century. Konigsberg was the centre of the North-East. All Estonian and Latvian priests studied at the theology faculty of Konigsberg. Its influence must have been felt throughout the smallest village of Livonia or Courland.
Thanks to Kant, Konigsberg became the city of the Enlightenment, thanks to Herder (originally from Riga) it became the cradle of the Romantic movement. The Germans have appropriated all this, but the origin is Baltic.
I think Hannah Arendt is Baltic for two reasons. She firmly believes that one should stand up for one’s own religion, opinion or identity. Be self-conscious and don’t lapse into victim mentality. Her other philosophy is that of fidelity: when I have said ‘yes’ to someone in can not say ‘no’ anymore. A majestic definition of friendship, shared destiny and love. In the family histories I describe this often came across: absolute solidarity in barren times. Writing Baltic Souls taught me that family and language can pull you through when you have lost everything.

You mentioned that the book has done unusually well in commercial terms in the Netherlands and Belgium and has already gone through several printings. A book about three countries often seen as obscure and uninteresting doesn’t seem like the most obvious candidate for a bestseller. What do you think is at the root of its success?
My editor never thought he would have to print fifteen editions and would sell 60,000 copies. Even in Italy the publisher was surprised: three reprints in six weeks for Anime Baltiche [Baltic Souls’s Italian title]. I think readers in Western and Southern Europe are very curious about the history of countries they don’t know much about. In addition we see a David versus Goliath effect. Small, brave and smart David has always been very popular. Goliath, in which we recognise Russia, is regarded with contempt. Since last summer – the Crimea, East Ukraine, the shooting down of the MH17 (with 198 Dutch citizens on board) – interest in the book has grown even faster. But Baltic Souls is interesting in a complete different way: thousands of readers travel through the Baltics with this book as their guide. Reading it as a travel guide or out of curiosity about these unknown countries, areas and people in the North. The great thing is they all return enthusiastic.  

Although Baltic Souls has been translated into French and Italian, most of our readers will still be unable to read it. Are there any plans for it to be translated into English (or into Estonian, Lithuanian or Latvian)
I am in contact with Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian publishers; the market is relatively small but they look forward to it. Especially in Lithuania, people are dealing with their past. I really hope to find a publisher very soon: a translation would please so many people.

In Western Europe, there is a tendency, even among educated people, to see the Baltics as “little Russias,” whereas actually these are, historically at least, one of Europe’s true melting pots, influenced by German, Russian, Scandinavian, Polish and Jewish culture but also with their own national cultures – which are quite distinctive from all of the surrounding larger powers. What was your initial perception of the idiosyncrasies of the different countries and do you feel this will change in the future? Did you feel that there was a real “Baltic identity” distinguishing the region from the surrounding countries?
Of course countries with many different cultures are influenced by their inhabitants and in this area also by the countries that have occupied them in the past. There are many similarities between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: the countries have a shared history of occupation and they also share their mentality. Still, I believe the countries are individually strong enough to show the world their own identity. To gather these countries under a common flag of “Little Russias” seems totally ridiculous to me.
In a way the countries are a trinity. We only have to remember August 23rd 1989. Two million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians formed a human chain spanning 600 kilometres through all the three countries. This “Baltic Way” is deeply rooted in the collective memories. If an invasion ever became a threat I am sure the Baltics would join forces once again.
Looking to the future, I see each Baltic country as an individual state, but the three of them together forming a strong and healthy trinity that should be cherished like a healthy child.