Baltic Centenary of Independence: Baltic Books to Look Out for in 2018

Article published on March 2, 2018.

This year marks the centenary of Baltic independence and, in honour of the occasion, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will be the Market Focus at the 2018 London Book Fair.

“Located at the crossroads between Europe and Russia, the Baltic Countries – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – enjoy a rich and cosmopolitan literary history, complementing a fascinating contemporary cultural landscape. 2018 will be a year of celebration for these three countries as they celebrate a centenary of independence, and our Market Focus programme will be part of a wider cultural showcase. We are delighted to be working once again with our partners at the British Council and the Publishers Association, to deliver cultural and professional programmes showcasing the opportunities that the Baltic countries offer.” (Jacks Thomas, Director of The London Book Fair)

In anticipation of the event, we’d like to recommend some of the best Baltic books to look out for in 2018:

ESTONIA

The Death of the Perfect Sentence by Rein Raud (Vagabond Voices, 2017) – A political thriller set mainly in Estonia during the dying days of the Soviet Union, but also in Russia, Finland and Sweden. This sometimes wistful examination of how the Estonian Republic was reborn after a long hiatus speaks also of the courage and complex chemistry of those who pushed against a regime whose then weakness could not have been known to them.

Between Three Plagues by Jaan Kross (MacLehose Press, 2018) – Jaan Kross’ trilogy dramatises the life of the renowned Livonian Chronicler Balthasar Russow, whose greatest work described the effects of the Livonian War on the peasantry of what is now Estonia. Like Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, Russow is a diamond in the rough, a thoroughly modern man in an Early Modern world, rising from humble origins to greatness through wit and learning alone.

Days of Grace by Doris Kareva (Bloodaxe Books, 2018) – Spanning over forty years of Kareva’s poetic output, Days of Grace shows how the sustained depth and clarity of her poetry is founded in her ability to create ambiguity and suggest harmony at the same time, with a multiplicity of meanings generating the opposite of clarity: a form of hinting which at its most illuminating becomes utterly oracle-like.

I Loved a German by A. H. Lammsaare (Vagabond Voices, 2018) – The newly independent Estonia may be moving forward from its dark past, but not quickly enough for young lovers Oskar, an Estonian university student, and Erika, a Baltic German descended from a now defunct nobility. The old prejudices remain, and they are strong between the Baltic Germans and the Estonians who once worked on their estates. After meeting Erika’s grandfather to request her hand in marriage, Oskar questions the source of his love: is he merely a slave pining after his master? Does he really love Erika as a person, or is he subconsciously drawn to her ancestry and the dynamics of the old order?

LATVIA

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (Peirene Press, 2018) – This novel considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual. The central character in the story tries to follow her calling as a doctor. But then the state steps in. She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter. Banished to a village in the Latvian countryside, her sense of isolation increases. Will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga when political change begins to stir?

Green Crow by Kristīne Ulberga (Peter Owen, 2018) – Institutionalised in an asylum, a woman with a record of hallucinations commits her life story to paper. She records, from the age of six, her earliest memories of a drunken and abusive father, the strange men her mother introduced to repair the family, the imaginary forest to which she would run to safety, and, of course, the enormous talking green crow who appeared when she most needed him.

18 by Pauls Bankovskis (Vagabond Voice, 2018) – This is the story of a year and its far from unified people. Two different Latvias, almost a century apart, one looking uncertainly to the future and the other uncomprehendingly to the past, inhabit very different eras and use each other to inform their own actions.

LITHUANIA

Memoirs of a Life Cut Short by Ričardas Gavelis (Vagabond Voices, 2018) – Levas Ciparis, the anti-hero of this masterly critique of life in the late Soviet Union, is a man alone and he desperately wants to belong. He is obstructed in this quest by his own innocence and decency, which occasionally cause him to act with absurd inflexibility. In fact, the irresolvable tension between moral probity and necessary compromise is one of the many themes of this novel: “Yes, I truly did believe that if I took up the work of the Komsomol, I would, being an honest, sufficiently pure, persistent person, most certainly be capable of changing and enriching that community.”

The Fox on the Swing by Evelina Daciūtė (author) and Aušra Kiudulaitė (illustrator) (Thames and Hudson, 2018) – This hope-filled children’s book teaches young readers about family, happiness and friendship. It tells the story of Paul and the fox, whom he encounters one day when out buying bread for the family, and how their relationship begins, develops and shifts as life forces change on them both.

White Shroud by Antanas Škėma (Vagabond Books, 2018) – Drawing heavily on the author’s own refugee and immigrant experience, this psychological, stream-of-consciousness work tells the story of an émigré poet working as an elevator operator in a large New York hotel during the mid-1950s. Written from the perspective of a newcomer to an Anglophone country, it encourages readers to better understand the complexities of immigrant life.

Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis (Peter Owen, 2018) – Lithuania, 1941, Vincentas has made a Faustian pact with an SS officer: in exchange for his own safety and that of his Jewish lover, Judita, he will take photographs – ‘make art’ – of the mass killings of Jews in the villages and forests of his occupied homeland. Learning of the pact that has kept her safe for so long, a disgusted Judita returns to her husband, surrendering herself to the ghetto, leaving Vincentas alone and trapped in his horrifying work.

Many of these titles will be reviewed on Nudge in the forthcoming weeks.

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