WIT Month: Some Excellent Books from Scandinavia & The Baltics

August is Women in Translation (WIT) Month, and last week I wrote a post on some of my favourite reads from Japan, Korea & China. In today’s piece, I will focus on Scandinavia and The Baltics.

A CHANGE OF TIME by Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and discover meaning in life again. An exquisitely written novel.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS & OTHER STORIES by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved.

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with her. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. 

THE ANTARCTICA OF LOVE by Sara Stridsberg (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss. The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered. We follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife.

Thus, the narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.

The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing – prose that is haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty.

THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.

LOVE by Hanne Orstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter. Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so. Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. On that particular night, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.

Ørstavik infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gohril Gabrielsen (tr. John Irons)

I read The Looking Glass Sisters before I started my blog, so I haven’t written a full length review of it. As far as the basic plot goes, here’s the blurb:

“Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The younger needs nursing and the older keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…”

The novel is a dark, deeply unsettling tale of a tenuous sibling relationship, loneliness, isolation and the challenges of caregiving. It’s a first person narrative from the point of view of the unnamed handicapped sister, and it gradually becomes apparent that she could well be unreliable. For instance, we are shown instances of how her sister Ragna is cruel to her, but as readers we realize that the responsibility of looking after her sister coupled with her continuous demands has taken its toll on Ragna too. It begs the question – Who is really cruel to whom? I read The Looking Glass Sisters as soon as it was published (in 2015), and even all those years later, there are aspects of it that have stayed with me even today. It remains one of my favourite Peirene titles.

SOVIET MILK by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

The first in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series, 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.

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.

SHADOWS ON THE TUNDRA by Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

In those horrific days of the Second World War, Dalia and her family (mother and brother), along with a host of fellow Lithuanians were deported to Siberia to work in labour camps there. In a harsh and tough environment, where blizzards recurred often, the weather was bitingly cold, and where the living conditions were ghastly, Dalia survived that period on true grit, hope, and sheer willpower.

She wrote her memories on scraps of paper and buried them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They were not found until 1991, four years after her death. Shadows on the Tundra is the story that Dalia buried, and is the second book in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series.

Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

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
Peirene Press Edition (‘Home in Exile’ Series Book One)

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.