Monday, March 11, 2019

The Seed of a Nation


Our narrators do not give away their names. Separated almost by a century in time, each of them drafts their story encompassing historical and political, as well as national awakening. Personal philosophical musings and broodings form part of their identity, and these reflections are the morals of the time they have lived.

Our first narrator along with other family members spends holidays in a country house, which they have to tidy up during each visit. While getting rid of useless items they happen upon a digital camera in their grandfather's coat. After they return to the city they go through the memory card of the camera, only to find out photographs of places taken at unusual angles with blurry humanoid figures appearing, and also a video from which nothing particular could be deciphered. But what is also mysterious is that grandfather couldn't have taken them. This sets the novel into an enigma.


The other part is the journal written between 1917-18 by a Latvian soldier. After the German invasion of capital Riga the narrator soldier1 (unnamed) and his friends are seemingly hopeless. The army has been called upon to retreat. The soldier decides to desert his command. While the civilians, Bolsheviks and the Latvian army are moving away from the capital he endeavors to trace his own path and destiny. What follows is his adventurous journey on foot to Valka. The soldier has closely observed and understood the power and politics looming in the region, where the dream of being an independent state has been hindered by Bolsheviks and German interests, falling prey to one after another occupation. In his lengthy travel he encounters with Miss K, Soloist M2 and with other locals that incite varied self-contemplations. Hiding through detours and forests from the revolutionary units, the soldier manages to reach Kokkenhof but soon is captured by army horsemen, suspected of being a deserter or a German spy. He's rescued by his friend Tidrikis.

1.    I could be simply Someone or, even better, Something, for there were way too many like me in these chaotic times and – I am sure of it – there will be in generations to come.

2.    "I am citizen of the world… I have no interest in politics. I have to sing where they pay me. It doesn't matter whether it's the Russians or the Germans, for we Latvians do not own anything, not even the ground on we presently stand. All we can do is allow ourselves to be tossed about by others. Our history is not our own, but dictated by others. What can we desire, what can we hope for?..."

His next station (at Valmiere) is at his mother's aunt Madame B who is inclined to spirituality and theosophy, and has esoteric, exotic and extravagant features. But his relief for a shelter and food comes at a price—having to listen to her theories on War and its outcome. When Madame B offers him a smoke he soon falls to a trance. Following Madame B's letter his next visit is to a sanatorium where he engages with Dr. Mezulis3 in a thoughtful conversation on free will and freedom of trees and inanimate objects. After his stay and escape from Valka in the backdrop of Bolsheviks taking reign over territory and official positions determining fate of the Latvian sentiments and killing those not in their favor undermining the surge for Latvian Independence, he flees to Dorpat (Now known as Tartu, Estonia).

3.    "Don't get me wrong… I have no intention of denying the existence of free will. In my opinion, it has simply been accorded too much significance – either by getting too attached to it or, as it often happens, denying that it exists at all…"

After meeting Alberts and other friends in Moscow, his moral is boosted, and hope for Independence is kindled again. Taking advantage of Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, together they are able to manoeuver the Latvian Riflemen loyal to Bolsheviks, channeling them out of Latvia. But soon they are found out by Cheka, and thus go into hiding to an estate of Prince G. This provides the soldier4 to continue his philosophical inquiries with a likeminded friend Fyodor. And, after he embarks on a secret mission to his roots again many clouds are lifted before he witnesses a long awaited dream come true. Meanwhile his reflections on hatred, death, dreams, memory, war and time5 fill the story with novelty and greater latitude to understanding.

4.    … I have always believed that our inner world, like the one surrounding us, is full of things that are currently inexplicable and incomprehensible to the human mind. And who knows – perhaps there really exists an all-embracing element, soul or spirit, which man can, for the time being, sense as a barely perceptible draft or glance.

5.    What if time turned out to be not a linear segment or a vector but a vertical pierced through space, which is stacked layer upon layer – like pancakes or more precisely, rings of an onion or a tree?

Something as a footnote put in-between the journal leaps and glides through time and memorizes things of contrasting outcome—often death and destruction of those whom and what the soldier knows. Several references are made to the connection between trees, existence and inheritance in the further adventures, encounters and escape of the soldier, and the search of another narrator wanting to solve the mystery of the photographs. This makes us understand the need for change, that beliefs are prone to change all forming the background in the creation of an Independent Nation, what it means to have a state & sovereignty and reflections on people and characters of a nation on the cusp of change—there is no question one cannot raise, no answers one cannot question.


The Story embodied with political consciousness and national history depicts what it takes to form a state, forces required to hold people together, nostalgia of places that form memories, rediscovered truths and revisited hope, pathos emanating from war and exile, strange feeling of having one's own nation, excitement or even embarrassment in seeing the impossible happen and renewed concept of identity6 today.

6.    The ethnic identity and a sense of belonging to a state, which in our case seems to simultaneously be and not be  at the basis of our national identity, I have always considered similarly unavoidable. You are like a tree. Wherever you are planted or wherever you ended up as a seed, you have to grow.

The Journal captures the traces of occupied Latvia. Hopelessness and nationalist feeling for independence waning and growing throughout the period, some favored Bolsheviks in their resistance against German forces, while wanting to get rid of both. We sense the tragedy of having to fall victim to outsider's dominance and ensuing cultural and moral dissolution during the war. The novel is full of ideas meandering philosophical scope. History as well as personal gushes shaping an identity; War entering a slit of common experience producing fringes of crisis; Man bereft of identity, unable to hold onto a peaceful way of believing people and nationhood; Feeling that we're losing depths and meaning to existence as a whole; Human progress with sufficient questionable answers—these are some of the ideas we come across.

Written as a part of the historical novel series We. Latvia. The 20th Century, 18 explores the theme of war, independence and experiment with ideas. The afterword by the author provides rich significance to the story and the form, on how we see the contemporary world built on so many crisis and resistance.

Author: Pauls Bankovskis
Translator: Ieva LeŇ°inska
Publisher: Vagabond Voices
Page Count: 179
Price: $ 22.28


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Coming Soon...

The Tree Stump: An Arabic Historical Novel by Samiha Khrais Translated from the Arabic by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari