A suicide attempt, staged to attract as much attention as possible, from the top of St. Peter’s Church, quickly evolves into an outlandish and absurd televised spectacle…
When a PA is invited into her boss’s office one day to observe a protest unfold, just as he predicts, in the streets below, she begins to suspect his powers of foresight might extend beyond mere business matters…
Finally moving into the house of her dreams, on the island of Ķīpsala, a single mother discovers a strange affinity with the previous occupant…
All these stories feature in The Book of Riga, recently published by Manchester-based Comma Press, as part of their “Reading the City” series, which give a glimpse into the lives of different world cities via short stories written by locals. Riga is represented by the stories of a number of well-known Latvian writers, including Pauls Bankovskis, Gundega Repše and Sven Kuzmins.
Deep Baltic shares the introduction to the volume by Eva Eglāja-Kristsone, which shows how the different stories included in The Book of Riga highlight a number of very different districts of the city. We also include an extract from one of the featured stories, “The Birds of Ķīpsala Island” by Dace Rukšāne, which takes as its setting an island in the River Daugava with a reputation for bohemianism and eccentricity.
Riga is a city of legends, myths and stories. Take, for instance, the story of Great Kristaps, passed down from one generation to the next, and retold in many different ways. According to one version, once upon a time, on the bank of the River Daugava, there lived a very strong man who made his living carrying people across the river on his back. One night a little boy approached him and asked him to carry him over. Although the weather was stormy, the man picked up the child and began carrying him across the river. With each step, the man found that the child was becoming heavier until by midstream only with the greatest of effort could he make it to shore. They say that Kristaps was rewarded with a heap of money that he used to buy all of Riga. At that time, the town was so small a wolf could run through it without being disturbed. Since then the city of Riga has grown rapidly, and likewise the stories about it and its people will never cease to spread.
The Daugava River is the line that divides Riga between the old stone spires and busy city centre on the right bank, and the creaking wooden houses and new glass towers on the left bank. The symbolism of the Daugava in the history of Riga and Latvia is so important it is known as the River of Destiny and Mother Daugava. Both banks are marked by five bridges, historical places, and objects, which feature prominently in the stories that follow, where they offer a physical and spiritual mapping of the city. The heart and soul of Latvia’s capital city is Old Riga, where there are magnificent sights, historical landmarks and ancient architecture to see.
What is interesting though is that those stories set in Old Riga do not reflect the image of the city offered in tourist brochures, which paint the city with a particular atmosphere of romanticism and fascinating Hanseatic, Art Deco architecture. At the core of many of the stories featured in this anthology is an individual and social outrage. Prose writer Juris Zvirgzdiņš, in his story ‘The Hare’s Declaration’, presents Old Riga as a place of action – a man who’s lost his job decides to end his life conspicuously. He wanders through Riga looking for the right spot and, in the end, chooses the tower of St. Peter’s Church, so as to be closer to the golden rooster weathervane and to God. St. Peter’s Church is Riga’s tallest church with a tower offering a breathtaking view of the red roofs of the Old Town, as well as the more modern part of the city, Riga Bay and the Daugava River, with its large port. From the bell tower of St. Peter’s Church, a popular Latvian folksong ‘Riga dimd’ (‘Riga resounds’) is played five times a day:
Riga resounds, Riga resounds
Who made Riga so resound?
Not far from this Church is Riga Castle, which is the current workplace of the President of Latvia. After being freed from the Soviet yoke and gaining independence, Latvia became a part of the European Union; international investors and entrepreneurs moved to the city, transforming this part of Riga into a bustling metropolis. Sven Kuzmins’ story ‘The Shakes’ gives an insight into the mind of a Swedish businessman, Jenson, who has a Latvian secretary working in his office in Old Riga. One day Jenson wants to share with his secretary an interesting and regular occurrence he has observed. Initially she doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary in what he shows her – just cobbled pavement, shops, restaurants, the Castle Square. But then a small group appears shouting slogans and waving placards in the direction of the Castle; the people are calling for change.
The centre of Riga is no less beautiful than the Old Town, although it is a city centre of contrasts and underlying tension. Brīvības Iela or ‘Freedom Street’ is Riga’s main thoroughfare; in different historical periods it was named after the Russian Tsar Alexander II, Lenin, and once even named after Hitler. Andra Neiburga’s story takes the form of a flashback from the beginning of the twentieth century when, just a short distance from the Esplanade and the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, on one side of Brīvības Iela stood an old wooden house. Neiburga’s story harks back to the time of its former inhabitants; a time when there were more than 30 cinemas across the city, including Splendid Palace which stands on this same street today. Its classical architectural masterpieces also appear in Arno Jundze’s story ‘Killing Mrs Cecilia Bochs’, exploring another phenomenon from the 1990s – the reclamation of newly privatised, former Soviet property after Latvia regained independence, and the controversial stories behind it.
Aleksandra Čaka Iela is a street running parallel to Brīvības Street and has its own distinctive atmosphere and stories of revelry. Kristīne Želve, in her story ‘The Girl Who Cut My Hair’, tells us of a neighbour who thinks he is a legend because he tells everyone that, as a boy, he had seen the poet Aleksandrs Čaks (a canonical poet from the 1930s). Maybe it was just his romantic imagination, prompted or inspired by the street’s namesake.
This nostalgic atmosphere also pervades Gundega Repše’s story ‘Westside Garden’ which takes us out of the city centre, through the Ziedonis, Latgale and Vērmane Gardens, the Brothers and Rainis Cemeteries – beautiful, green spaces on the right bank of the Daugava – the settings for rose gardens, and summer theatres with outdoor seating. The story takes place in Mežaparks (Kaiserwald Forest) which is often called the ‘lungs of Riga’.
One of the most important buildings in Riga is situated on the left bank, the new Latvian National Library – known locally as ‘The Castle of Light’ or ‘The Glass Mountain’. It is among the greatest cultural projects of the twenty-first century in Latvia. The symbolism and design of the building reference two iconic Latvian cultural metaphors. The first invokes a legend in which a great Castle of Light sank when the Latvian people were oppressed by several great powers, but then, from the depths of darkness, rose up again to free the Latvian nation. The second reference lies in the building’s silhouette, being reminiscent of the legendary Glass Mountain, at the top of which a princess waits for her saviour – or at least someone brave enough to climb that high. Ilze Jansone, in her story ‘Wonderful New Latvia’, ironically reveals some alternative stories about the library and its design.
‘The Birds of Kīpsala Island’ by Dace Rukšāne explores an island on the left bank of the Daugava. Ķīpsala is known for being a quiet place, resplendent with flora and fauna, modern and historical houses and narrow, romantic streets. The people and birds that live there all see themselves as islanders though they are only half a kilometre from Old Riga.
Vilis Lācītis uses the character of a writer, Spalvums, to explore another part of the left bank, called Āgenskalns, which is renowned for being the preserved wooden heart of Riga and a popular and eco-friendly place for creative people to live.
In ‘The Night Shift’, Pauls Bankovskis takes us to a darker part of Riga’s history, retelling an urban legend about a blue bus in Riga that kidnaps children and takes them away to the forest, never to be seen again. The story is most likely based on the massacre of Riga’s Jews in Rumbula Forest in 1941: Jewish citizens were taken to the forest in bluish-grey transit buses. But in Bankovskis’ story this was a route 3 bus from Bolderāja, a neighbourhood of Riga with a majority non-Latvian population, and this time the victims are the ticket conductors.
In 1837, shortly before leaving Berlin for Riga, the famous German composer Richard Wagner wrote to his wife: ‘Riga is described to me as the nicest place in the world, especially when it comes to earning money…’ The years that followed proved quite fruitful for him, from a creative point of view, though ultimately he had to leave due to unpaid bills and debts. Despite this, Riga is sometimes is called ‘Wagner’s city’, and it has its stories about Wagner, just as Wagner did about Riga. The same could be said for everyone who lives and visits the city, and what follows is merely a selection of these. And as Kuzmin’s ‘The Shakes’ notes, there is a special attachment between every writer and this city:
‘Riga is just Riga, nothing out of the ordinary.’
‘Maybe you just didn’t notice, didn’t pay any attention. It can be that way, too.’
‘It can be that way, too’ is the key phrase; there are many sides to Riga which its citizens walk past every day, sides that may or may not be being photographed by the tourists. Almost every single corner of Riga has its own story and The Book of Riga offers some of them up, and will hopefully lead you to many more.
“The Birds of Ķīpsala Island” by Dace Rukšāne
THE CUCKOO’S NEST
I had fallen in love with Ķīpsala Island back when I was really small. I used to ride across the newly built suspension bridge and go off on lone forays into the island’s scrublands, through the shabby houses with rickety fencing round their gardens filled with stray animals. I would set off along its coastline, finding puddles from which I would fish out dragonfly larvae to store in jars, so I could watch them hatch. I wandered along cobbled streets and through mudbanks, along sandy paths and tarmacked squares, tripping across grassy meadows and dog-fouled tracks. I chatted to harmless old winos and shared cigarettes with exhausted, fierce young women, but would always beat a hasty retreat as soon as I caught sight of any drunken youngsters in the distance.
I used to take my first boyfriends there to kiss, talk and knock back a drink or two from my hip flask. When I started to have boyfriends with cars, we would go to the remote roads and lanes of Ķīpsala, again because, unlike Zaķusala Island and the hippodrome jungle, the police never made an appearance there. Later, officers in patrol cars used to ask for a tenner in return for not reporting acts of public indecency.
The cover of a famous Latvian novel featured a picture of a graffiti-smothered brick wall in Ķīpsala, bearing slogans like ‘Ķīpsala is a land of winos. Just lie back and soak up the booze.’ Below, another hand had scrawled, ‘It’s an island of love, too.’ And you could just make out ‘Ķīpsala is a force!’ daubed in Russian alongside it. Everything the graffiti said was true. I searched all over the island for the house featured in the story, but never found it. There are no such shrubs on that island in bloom, no such house to be found.
This made me feel both disappointed and delighted in equal measure. It meant that writers gabbled nonsense just like everyone else, and that most tear-jerkers were therefore probably no more than the fruit of someone’s fervid imagination. In reality, life is not that harsh, it really isn’t. Of course, it also follows that no one in real life is as happy, as witty, or as capable of making sound judgements, as characters in fiction.
It might be said that a writer could turn my own situation into some kind of soppy drama featuring a woman who has suffered endlessly with rotten men at her side. On the other hand, I could also be portrayed as a mean old cow. In fact, everything was quite simple the first time round. And the second. My first husband picked me up, all tender and innocent, threw me into his lair and kept me there. I only ever saw him late at night and sometimes not at all. When I got pregnant, he threw me out, because, as it transpired, he was actually infertile. To avoid comparisons with movie plots, I will add that it was neither the pool cleaner, the plumber or the floor waxer. Just an old classmate of mine who didn’t find it so very difficult to talk to me. Over the three previous years, he had been the only one to go beyond small talk. I couldn’t invite any of my girlfriends back to the lair. Not unless I wanted them to be so envious they would end up wishing me ill.
My second child was stolen, too, if I can put it that way. I fell madly in love. I chose the most common and maybe only available option, just as lonely women with a child often do – a happily married man. The sort with whom there isn’t the smallest glimmer of hope. He was so handsome, so clever, so kind, so healthy, so faithful to his wife that I resolved that a genetic combination such as ours shouldn’t be passed up. You have to grab at miracles like these when they come along; there’s so much rubbish floating about, so much genetic material gone wrong. My son came out perfectly calculated, planned and completely anonymous. His father still has no idea of his existence. I have only told one girlfriend about him (in case something happens to me). So long as she never lets the cat out of the bag in a sudden surge of emotion, his father will never know. I’ll tell my son when he is sixteen. Or maybe eighteen. Then he can decide for himself.
I had received a good education before my children were born and found a good job when I was expecting my first child. My first husband turned out to be quite a decent type and didn’t leave me totally without means. He told me I deserved it ‘for the years I had devoted to our marriage’ and ‘because he had been at home so rarely.’ I almost regret that my first child doesn’t have his genes – such nobleness is quite uncommon these days; I should have immortalised it.
My girlfriends dream of living in all kinds of other places – Mežaparks, Jūrmala, Tenerife, even London – whereas I’ve been dreaming of living on Ķīpsala Island for as long as I can remember, even though there wasn’t really anywhere to live on it back then; the whole place was falling apart. Nowadays, you have quite a lot of choice. Some people are moving in, some are leaving to find somewhere better, some can’t make their mortgage repayments. Two weeks ago, I was on my usual rounds of Ķīpsala with my little ones, studying the notices on the houses: For Sale, For Rent, For Sale, For Rent.
I’ve managed to realise most of my dreams – a daughter, a son, a job, money, friends too. I even go windsurfing sometimes. It seems that now is the right time to fulfil my wish of living on Ķīpsala Island. The main thing is to get moved into a place and get on with living there – better still if it is cheap. Then I will look around, take stock and decide where to settle down for good. The cheapest solution would no doubt be the row of semi-detached houses. That sort of home would be quite acceptable – a small yard, a quiet street for the little ones to play out in, enough space in the garage for the car and a surfboard.
After checking out the houses on offer from the outside, I choose the one which seems to have the most decent yard. I call on the neighbours and ask what it’s like living there. In one house they are incredibly kind, inviting me in and showing me the layout, pointing out that it’s much the same as the house on offer. Although, the tenants there were apparently quite out of their minds, especially the woman (‘probably an artist’). At times she got dressed up like a bird, at others like a scarecrow. She used to run around the island like a headless chicken, singing loudly at night and not making friends with any of the neighbours. It was said she spent more time at the bar than at the stove. The barman must have had something to do with it. Nothing stays a secret here on the island. The husband, quite a run-of-the-mill sort of man, had probably just had enough and threw her out of the house. And not quietly, but with the sort of shouting and yelling that they simply weren’t used to round here. All quite unacceptable. He had grabbed hold of her from behind, dragged her right across the yard and shoved her out of the gate. Then, he had thrown all her clothes, bags, brushes, an easel, suitcases, flowerpots and even some chairs over the fence. Mad as a hatter. Shouting the whole time; some of it in English, some of it in French and the occasional German, too. The poor creature would have spent the whole night sitting by the fence if it hadn’t been for us, her closest neighbours, taking her in. We made her some tea, dropped some valerian extract in her mouth, leant her our phone to call her sister. Her old man had smashed hers to pieces on the concrete pavement. We had heard something about her expecting a child. Not her husband’s, more likely than not, if that’s how it ended up. All this happened two weeks ago. Look, you can still see bits of broken clay all over the place; must be from those flowerpots. She was very good with anthuriums.
Not long later, I key in the number from the sign on the wall of the house. The landlord and I set up a meeting.
‘Why so cheap?’ I ask, already at the gate.
‘I haven’t had time to give it a going over. It’s exactly as the previous tenants left it. I’m just not up to it.’
‘Is it really that bad? You don’t usually get complete and utter pigs as tenants in this part of town.’
‘Why don’t you go see for yourself. I am lucky to have found you! The old tenants just ran away as fast as they could, without so much as a by-your-leave, but look, I already have a new tenant to replace them! I’d already resigned myself to losing six-months’ rent. You know, these days me and my wife’s pensions… Tell you what, if you do it up yourself, I could let you live here rent-free for the first two months…’
I go in. Entrance hall, kitchen, living room. All quite normal, clean, even fresh feeling. I give the owner an inquisitive look.
‘Go upstairs,’ he says, sitting down on the bottom stair.
I go up to the first floor. There it is. The artist’s room. Her nest. It’s thronging with birds, floor to ceiling. Birds on the walls, birds on the floor, the entire ceiling is covered with birds. There are native grey ones as well as bright, exotic ones: swans and martins, wrens and orioles, quails, ruffs, hoopoes and baldicoots, not to mention goldfinches, Eurasian tree creepers, hedge sparrows and finches. Gathered together from all over, pampered and assembled in one little den. Every one of them cherished and nursed, each one in its own place. It will take a week or more to survey and name them. It will take half a lifetime to get to know them all.
‘I’m taking the house,’ I tell the landlord. ‘It’s almost as if it’s been waiting for my children and me all this time.’
Dace Rukšāne-Ščipčinska (born 1969) is a Latvian writer and journalist. After finishing high school, she studied Medicine and Biology and additionally participated in the SOURCES Script 2 Development Workshop in Vienna. Rukšāne became well-known in 2002 for her novel The Little Affair (Romaniņš) that touched upon the subject of female sexuality. It was followed by Bedtime Stories of Beatrice, and Why Were You Crying?, as well as several articles devoted to intimate subject matters and relationships. During the 1990s Rukšāne wrote poetry, and in the early 2000s several of her plays were staged in various theatres in Latvia. Her novels have been published in Germany and Denmark. In 2002, Rukšāne became a regular contributor to a weekly column in Sestdiena magazine. From 2004 to 2012 she was editor-in-chief of Lillit magazine.
“The Birds of Ķīpsala Island” translated from Latvian by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
All images credit Will Mawhood unless otherwise specified
The Book of Riga, featuring this story and eight others, is available now from Comma Press
© with the authors, translators and Comma Press, 2018. All rights reserved.