I always wait for a new Peirene Press title to be released. Peirene’s mantra is to publish the best of contemporary European literature and these come in the form of novellas, which when compelling can be devoured in a couple of sittings. A couple of years ago, three of their titles made it to my Best of the Year list.
For 2018, the theme is ‘Home in Exile’ and once again I found a winner in the first book in the series Soviet Milk.
Soviet Milk is a poignant tale of a mother and her daughter and the difficult life they are forced to live in Latvia, which is under Soviet occupation. It explores the notion of motherhood, oppression, the freedom to choose one’s calling in life and the frustration of living in exile.
The novel is set over a period of time – from 1944 to the fall of the Berlin Wall – and is narrated in the first person and alternates between the central character (the mother) and her daughter. The characters are not named and to us they are referred to as the mother, the daughter and the grandmother.
Here’s how it begins, it is the daughter talking:
I don’t remember 15 October 1969. There are people who swear they remember their birth. I don’t. It’s likely that I was well positioned in my mother’s womb, because the birth was normal. Not particularly long, or particularly short, with the last contractions coming every five minutes. My mother was twenty-five, young and healthy. Her mental state, though, was not so healthy, as I learned later.
And then we hear from her mother:
I don’t remember 2 October 1944, but I can reconstruct it. Riga has been liberated from the Nazis. Bombs have shattered the maternity ward’s windows. It is damp and cold, and the women who have just given birth helplessly wrap themselves in their bloodied sheets. Exhausted nurses and doctors are bundling up dead newborns and drinking as they work. An epidemic that everyone is calling nasal typhoid fever is raging through the hospital. Sounds of wailing, bombs whistling in the air and, through the windows, the smell of burning. My mother has sneaked me out of the ward, bound to her chest, and is squirting her milk into my nose.
The mother’s life is chaotic right from the start. When she is very young, a group of soldiers suddenly arrive and start destroying her father’s spruce trees. When he protests, he is taken away, never to be seen for a while. The grandmother manages to hide in the cupboard with the mother and saves them both. Later with no news of the grandfather, the grandmother marries again. The mother now has a stepfather.
The mother, meanwhile, grows up to become a brilliant doctor working in the maternity hospital. But, she is a rebel and never really adjusts to life under Soviet rule with its rules, restrictions and set ways of doing things. She feels trapped and claustrophobic.
There is an incident where she meets a young woman stuck in an abusive marriage, but who is desperately trying to conceive. Using groundbreaking techniques (which we know today as IVF), the mother manages to impregnate the woman.
And yet, despite her intelligence, and her ability to experiment and excel, there is no recognition for the mother in her profession. On the contrary, her intellectual endeavors are always thwarted.
Later, when circumstances force her to commit murder, she is banished to the countryside and forced to eke out a living, working in an ambulatory centre there.
The daughter, meanwhile, tries to copes with her mother’s erratic moods. She adjusts to life under Soviet rule better somehow and ironically ends up being the one taking care of her mother.
But mother and daughter have their good moments too.
Sometimes she (the mother) would come home unexpectedly early, roast a crackling chicken and bake a delicious apple cake. We would eat while the dog waited under the table for tasty morsels. My mother would tell me strange stories, things no one had ever told me before. She said that we had once been free.
Clearly, both of them share a strange bond. We get a glimpse of this right at the beginning when the daughter is a baby. The mother refuses to breast feed her and instead disappears for five days. It is the mother’s way of rebelling against the State. She does not want to feed her baby with milk that is poisoned by the State.
Throughout the story, milk is a recurring theme. There is the title of course. And then the mother’s refusal to breastfeed her baby. And then later, the daughter grows up to be lactose-intolerant and the mere smell of milk nauseates her.
Despite her mother’s moods, and descent into depression, the daughter is more positive and pragmatic as she goes about her life. She also finds relief in the strong attachment she shares with her grandmother and step grandfather. Yet, her beliefs in the State are tested when under the tutelage of a brilliant teacher, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of knowledge and ideas.
Soviet Milk then is a very powerful and touching novella about the debilitating impact of occupation.
The mother, in particular, is yearning for freedom…
…there was something of the flower child in my mother. She wasn’t afraid of experimenting with herself and spend periods in a haze – whether through the use of some substance or thanks to her refusal to countenance the place and time in which she was fated to be alive. I remember her once, drunk on wine and high in a field of dandelions by the hippodrome, where the horses no longer raced. For her the hippodrome was evidence of some other, carefree and unfettered life. She ran through the dandelions like a young mare, and I skipped alongside getting under her feet.
She has what it takes to forge ahead in her chosen profession but is stalled at every turn. She feels isolated not just physically – from her family who loves her – but also mentally. There seems to be no way out.
Soviet Milk also focuses on the relationship between the three generation of women – the grandmother, the mother and the daughter. As the mother gradually sinks into depression, the daughter comes to rely on her grandmother for love and the desire for life.
This is another strong novella from the Peirene stable, and a cracking start for the 2018 ‘Home in Exile’ series.
Translation credits from the Latvian go to Margita Gailitis.