The Book of Riga is a collection of ten short stories written by Latvian authors and set in the country’s capital city. It opens with a history of the region written by a former president. As I am unfamiliar with the background and local culture, such information was of interest, although at times I still struggled to place each of the stories within the time-frame intended.
The authors write with a distinctive, Baltic voice yet their themes are universal. They explore the frustration protagonists feel at family, particularly the older generation with their undeviating demands and expectations.
In The Girl Who Cut My Hair a group of young people indulge in what they consider meaningful discussions whilst polishing their personal vanities and youthful if frivolous preoccupations.
“We were virgins with condoms in our handbags.
Our parents had not read either Freud or Henry Miller, absolutely not.
We were always at the ready – what if life should suddenly start?”
Westside Garden revolves around a place once owned by a wealthy family, now subdivided but still housing an elderly relic of that era. The events narrated differ between the lived experience and what is recalled with the benefit of hindsight and shared reminiscences. Sexual encounters are described as a sometimes necessary irritant. The women are still expected to adhere to a standard of presentation and behaviour.
“don’t fool around with slacks and bobbed haircuts, but act like a real woman.”
In The Birds of Kipsala Island, new build homes in the city housing young families and professionals are evocatively described
“like lockers in a gym changing room”
Within the changes imposed on the historic city, a creative community seek out places were they may indulge their conceits together. Self defined artists and intellectuals eventually realise
“no one in real life is as happy, as witty, or as capable of making sound judgements, as characters in fiction.”
The Shakes is set in an office where a successful businessman observes an increase in street demonstrations and tries to see into the future using history and detailed reasoning. In trying to draw his assistant into his endeavour he risks being seen as unhinged. She too feels something out of kilter in the air but prefers to perpetuate, while she can, the comfort of accepted roles and routines.
A White Jacket With Gold Buttons offers a picture of a writer’s hubris yet sensitivity to criticism, particularly from a rival he refuses to rate.
“Writing is, in a sense, close to psychoanalysis: the power of the written word comes exactly from the fact that an author spits out his most hidden feelings, without the shiny veneer that comes from pretending.”
The collection finishes with a supernatural tale, The Night Shift, that could be a metaphor for the realities of life, and inevitability of death.
The writing throughout presents with a distinctive cadence that is somewhat mordant yet arresting in the themes explored and characters developed. The city shines through as a beguiling survivor of its history, adapting whilst retaining its hold on certain citizens and visitors. I had never before considered visiting Riga. After reading this collection, I am tempted.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.