This book is not for the faint-hearted. It invites and compels the reader to embark on a journey of self-awareness and reconciliation, chunks of unpalatable history, fragments of lives and stories that span decades and continents. Those couple of hundred pages are massive. And in the middle of all that are the dead, separated by fate and powers that be, yet tying the living together worse than a chain.
I could compare this to the unforgettable Short Timers by Hasford, but then again, I will not. This book takes the storytelling a little further. It could also be compared, in its creative non-fictionness to the Klūgu mūks by Ābele, but the scope is much broader.
Among the living and the dead is the first non-fiction in my experience that deals with the issue of the two Latvian exiles in a most balanced way.
The composition is, let’s say, fragmented epic. There are names, places, more names and events that do not follow linearly, but also are not as confusing as some of the Eddas. A family separated by PTBs. Struggling to be. Breathing, living, dying. As simple as it sounds, nothing is simple in this story. By the small things, behind them, within them, are the greater things: wars and PTSD, the losses and the gains of a whole nation a little bit lost in the time-space of other nations. And one motif recurring, looping through the many facets of the story – once a year, the dead come home.
Those dead inside come home, too. To slowly revive (isn’t it interesting how ‘reborn’ cannot be used in the active voice at all?) or bear grudges, or if all is well and slow enough, to reconcile with the other dead.
The author has done her research in the history of the Eastern (Siberia) exile, and her own family history, and other histories. The bibliography is a testimony to that. She has also used her research to make the stories tantalizingly juicy, packed with details that are recognisable, yet universal. It is like watching a magic entity to grow out of the simplest of things, grow and take over all of the reader’s imagination. In this sense, this is a book to be on the reading lists of What Is Latvian, alongside Skalbe, and Čaks, and Čaklais or Ziedonis or Upīts. If all the latter have to be translated and explained and explained, then this book tells the story in English, using the means of English, to be understood by strangers.
This brings me to the downpoint. If this book be translated into Latvian, it will have to be rewritten in places, making it less global and more home. As a translator, I was wondering in places, what would I do, how local would I make the story? Especially given the geography*. There are moments I hear the broken intonations, the clicking, the words that literary Latvian has not.
The little boy poking the slowly dying carp in the secret bath-tub with the best of intentions to help it revive, I guess, is one of the strongest horrible images of the emptiness and uselessness of pain and suffering I will probably ever meet in my way. Ever. It is much stronger than the whole story of Those who walk away from Omelas. Which is the strongest story in the realm.
It made me cry in my sleep, for whatever unknown unconscious reason. I hope not for too long, as a headache is not my favourite state of mind.
This is a great exile narrative. It does not tell of how to become a president of a nation or a great leader. This is a story of reconciliation and finding of one’s self in the great net of souls. There are very few presidents of nations, you know. But there are countless selves, unheard people who now have a story. And that, my friends, is pure magic.
*I have the uneasy feeling that my ancestral home and the ancestral home in the story are within the same parish.