Alberts Bels is one of the most acclaimed Latvian writers of the modern era. His formally inventive novel Insomnia, written in the late ’60s when his homeland was under Soviet occupation, follows the thoughts and experiences of a detached young man, touching on taboo themes such as the dilapidated and cramped communal flats where much of the population lived, as well as alcoholism and prostitution, reflecting the meaninglessness, anomie and developing consumer culture that characterised that period of Latvia’s history. In a similar way to Bels’ contemporary, the Estonian writer Jaan Kross, some of the social critique in the book is partially masked by being presented as historical analogy, as the action shifts periodically from Soviet Riga to 12th-century Latvia at the time Christian crusaders were attempting to conquer the territory, and the years the country spent under Nazi occupation during World War II.
Bels had received acclaim for his first few novels and stories, but the reaction to Insomnia was sharply different. Although it was never officially banned, it was rejected by a series of publishers and the process stalled, despite Bels achieving international fame for his subsequent novel The Cage. Bels says that he received threats to his life from the KGB, writing in 2002 that “[i]n the middle of the summer of 1971, it was uncivilised police officers that came and sat down at a table in Līgo Café, where I was having lunch. The older one was over fifty, and the younger one around thirty. The younger one was a real gorilla, tall, wide shoulders, menacing. Only the older one spoke. He explained to me in no uncertain terms how my life would end and what would happen to my family if I ever attempted to publish the anti-Soviet novel with the title of Insomnia.” A censored version was eventually published in Latvian in 1987, as perestroika brought greater freedoms throughout the Soviet Union, but only in 2003 did Bels’ original manuscript see the light of day.
As translator Jayde Will puts it in his introduction: “Much in the spirit of novels of the time, such as Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, Bels shows how people simply tried to survive by being, living in a parallel world in their mind, which was the only place they could live freely.” Deep Baltic presents an extract from Insomnia, as well as the “Conclusion of the Expert Committee”, who were assigned with assessing the novel and its political and social views after a criminal case was initiated against Bels in 1971.
After going on holiday I had sworn to myself to not think about work; I swore to not try to solve some problem connected with work. Throughout the year I was yoked to my work, though my heart hungered for rest. The world of numbers and iron logic is awfully dispiriting. Work, I told myself, work, that sounds horrible. When I even just imagined work, I trembled in fear. Work! It sounds absurd. Work had been turned into some sort of cult, some sort of perversion. Everyone is occupied with the glorification of work everywhere, and most of all those who themselves don’t do a damn thing. From every wall of my home the invitation to work stares at me, an invitation to beat my head against work, although my brains splatter against the wall. I turn on the television, the newscaster shouts right in my face – work, you bastard! The moment is not far off anymore when they will start to glorify work on the wall of the men’s room. Work? But after all, work is necessary for a person’s life, something sacred, just as necessary as sleep, just as much as air. But do we glorify sleep? We will sleep, comrades, we will sleep strengthened, prolonging your life, snoring, lightly wheezing. We will sleep on couches, in nickel-plated beds, we will sleep on seaweed mattresses, foldable cots, in the worst case we will sleep in sleeping bags or on plank beds and, if there won’t be anywhere at all to sleep, then in stations, haystacks or the drier foots of hills on the side of the road. We will sleep, comrades!
I have slept horribly the last few years, quite horribly, since I started thinking less about my career and my work, and since I began thinking more about life, about other people. I sleep horribly, quite horribly, but for the time being insomnia doesn’t seem to be influencing my working abilities. At night, when sleep has escaped somewhere in space, I dream about a small airplane, which belongs to me alone. I could go flying for a few hours, make the most daring loops, ride above the very tops of the blue spruce forests of Dundaga or also zigzag along the Gauja River, the crazy river, so the edges of the wheels would be dunked in the water. However, that’s all nonsense, I will never have an airplane; who will let me purchase a little tiny airplane for myself? My friend Pāvels Fjodorovičs told me:
‘If you really want one, you could build a little plane lickety split.’
‘You see,’ he continued, ‘it’s quite hard to obtain something through official channels, bureaucrats are sitting almost everywhere, and, if there aren’t any respective sanctions then it’s fine. But if you come to me at the factory not as an economist but, let’s say, as a private person and say: ‘Pāvels Fjodorovičs, I really need an airplane motor, couldn’t you help me out, you know, we could drink some black balsam, and think of some options!’’
Who knows, maybe I really could find such a motor. But you would pour some black balsam and talk more.
‘Pāvels Fjodorovičs, maybe you have a friend that would have, let’s say, an airplane wing? Let’s drink and think about it!’
Who knows, maybe I’d find such a friend, and with time and patience you’d have a little airplane, and you could go visit, well, you already know who, and say:
‘Jan Janovičs (or how do you Latvians call one another, when you speak in your own language?), let’s say, Jan Janovičs, couldn’t you perhaps allocate me a little, tiny piece of airfield, because you see, I already have an airplane!
And I’m telling you, it would fly like an angel, we could go for a ride!’
Pāvels Fjodorovičs had a point, and I gradually began to understand that it was just due to my lack of enterprise that I was sitting without an airplane, I began to understand that it was only due to my lack of enterprise I was not sleeping at night, dreaming about having a small, tiny airplane which I could use to fly back in time, seven hundred or seven hundred and fifty years in the past, then when I would start to touch down, I could see where my unlived life was left, my unvanquished struggle, where my great love was left, and slowly, slowly I remember everything, a horse is galloping, a trail of dust curling behind the riders and I think that everything will be ok, everything will turn out right.
We, the undersigned, the expert commission in the following composition: Professor of the Faculty of Philology of the P. Stučka Latvian State University and Doctor of Philological Sciences – KRAULIŅŠ Kārlis, son of Jānis, Director of the Department of Party History of the Riga Polytechnic Institute, associate professor, and candidate of historical sciences HIMELREIHS Ludis, son of Pēteris, Senior Lecturer of the Department of Scientific Communism of the Riga Polytechnic Institute ĶĪLIS Arvīds, son of Jānis, and Director of the Latvian SSR General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press RAMUTE Vilma, daughter of Kārlis, on the grounds of the decision of 9 March 1971 by the Latvian SSR Prosecution Office Investigator of Especially Serious Cases Com. KAĶĪTIS regarding the carrying out of the commission’s legal literary scientific investigation – carried out a literary scientific investigation of the novel Insomnia by Alberts Bels over the period from 10 March 1971 to 15 April, 1971 and concluded that A. Bels’s novel Insomnia is not written in a realistic style, but a modern one, using allegorical and symbolistic expression, shaping the characters established with a subtext of rather varied interpretations. Achieving a fully adequate understanding of the book is also encumbered by the fact that the author has not developed the work to completion in an artistic sense, which is why the novel contains numerous ambiguities, and in many cases it is impossible to find logically understandable answers to the questions that are touched upon.
In general we must say, that in Bels’s novel Insomnia there are no artistically-portrayed characters, just a few phrases, which often are stated in the form of nightmares or gossip.
The novel Insomnia, even if we do not take into account its anti-Soviet mood and stance, possesses no artistic quality of any kind. In reality it is not a novel, but a pamphlet hostile towards Soviet rule.
However, the ambiguities in A. Bels’s novel Insomnia are not so great that it would be impossible to provide answers to the questions of the Prosecution Office of the Latvian SSR.
The opinion of the Literary-Scientific Expert Commission
1. In A. Bels’s novel Insomnia it is intended to portray life in Latvia under the conditions of Soviet rule, in other words our days. This is proved by the fact that on p. 56 it is said, that the main protagonist Edgars DĀRZIŅŠ’ childhood friend, who is a Hitlerite soldier Hansis, who falls as the German army is retreating from Latvian territory, has already been lying ‘with the spirits’ for 20 years (so the event takes place around 1964). The novel’s protagonist Edgars DĀRZIŅŠ after the Great Patriotic War stays in the countryside for a time and works on a collective farm (p. 50). Also p. 94 and p. 95 tells about the developing of the collective farm’s centre into farms (undoubtedly, with irony and sarcasm). What is more, in the novel there is a conversation about how already for more than twenty years careerists in the Latvian art world have been glorifying Soviet rule (p. 85), and many other examples.
2. The content of A. Bels’s Insomnia is certainly ideologically harmful, because in it the Soviet state and societal order is slandered and disparaged, where both their foundations as well as separate aspects of Soviet life are mocked.
The novel Insomnia is saturated with an open and insolent tone from beginning to end. Thus, on p. 26 of the novel, the author states the following:
‘In all lands, regardless of the societal order, the prisons are full, murderers and criminals rule nations…’
On the same p. 26 and also p. 27 with leaving for a time, allegedly, to be alone – ‘within my four walls’, the author made the following conclusion:
‘Between my four walls I can feel like an absolute ruler. I can dare to hang any sort of picture with an orangutan on it on the wall and worship it, burning essential oils before it. I can dare to dance the most dreadful dances naked and boil my fellow countrymen in a cauldron. I can dare to demolish any economic and political system…’
Further on the author expresses that he could do nothing and sleep, but ‘…I need to reawaken, I need to reawaken, because otherwise I will live my life just as empty, as I have lived it up till now, and I won’t have an excuse.’ (p. 27).
With open mocking about Soviet rule, the following is stated on p. 85 of the novel:
‘The exhibition was boring. Gray. Pale. There was just one theme in a few variations that was in play – ah, how good we have it finally, finally we have Soviet rule. And then they drone on, our loving rule, that longed-for rule, like for a girl.’
This and other anti-Soviet attacks on the foundations of the socialist order, and its derision are used by the author in many other places. For instance, on p. 127 – ‘…our social incubator worked at full force…’ . The author targets in particular the essence of ‘freedom’ without making any sort of difference between that which is bourgeois and that which is socialist in some places. The following is said on p. 100:
‘What is freedom actually? A word. This word will be banned in every land. If someone writes ‘Let Freedom Live!’ on the wall, they will be sent to the gallows at once…’
Whereas on p. 57 the author once again attacks the socialist society, just this time that we eat everything up and that is why we must take our last things to the pawn shop, and once again – ‘…freedom, you can’t eat, otherwise we’d start on that too.’
3. In his novel, Alberts Bels scoffs at the Soviet people, their achievements in building communism, the moral and political maturity of the Soviet person is slandered, often even openly ridicules him disrespectfully, which once again shows the novel’s anti-Soviet nature. On pp. 39-40 of this novel it is written:
‘I am the best person in the world, the richest, the most socially insured… I can be treated at a polyclinic for free (… I know very well, that I already paid for it earlier, as I was healthy).
…I live in a resolute family of brothers, I together with my other brothers are united by a set of interests and goals, I am a tireless city worker, I carry the flag of socialist competition held high, I have a long-term goal – communism, I hold to the course of the victorious October, look, that’s how I am, the statistical average. That’s how I look at myself from the pages of magazines, from the columns of articles and reports… I am a superman. I am the best. I am the mightiest. Soon I will roar like a diesel engine, I will stomp the ground like an elephant, I will streak by like a supersonic fighter jet. Why do I need to clothe myself, eat, love? Why? I am so mighty. Let me be clothed, fed, loved! I, a person that’s roaring, a person that can pat himself on the back, a person that’s winning, a person going somewhere!
I have all possible freedoms, the freedom of gathering, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, I have all possible rights, the right to work, the right to holidays, I have everything, the only thing that falls to me is to produce, produce and once again produce, what falls to me is to become the very richest, the most cosmic, what falls to me is to simply produce.
I am a great cast iron founder and biggest caster of lies in the world… I have milked more milk, laid more eggs, hatched more chicks. But am I passionate about it? Are those numbers beckoning me forward?
At least I can be open with myself, I can admit the fears to myself…’
4. The author often strongly ridicules socialist labour. The topic of work is interweaved throughout the entire novel with an anti-Soviet point of view. Thus, the oldest daughter of Dračūns, the neighbour of the novel’s protagonist, who works in a factory of the Latvian SSR, is compared to a ‘Soviet slave, a workhorse.’ The author writes:
‘…Dračūns’s older daughter worked in a factory at the stamping press, she pushed a worktable pedal more than one thousand times during the day with her right leg, which is why she slept like a rock at night, and the blood vessels of her right leg showed up on her skin like a strange, secret pattern, Dračūns’s older daughter was a true Soviet slave, a workhorse, who pulled the state into communism…’ (p. 84)
Whereas on pp. 62 and 63 the work of a Soviet person is interpreted only as production, as the decay of a person’s spiritual strength. On p. 63 and p. 64 the Soviet state and society is shown as a mechanical work machine, which demands only that they work:
‘I must work. I must work. No question’ (p. 63)
‘…the state had received my work, but would then also take the flesh of my flesh?’ (p. 63)
On p. 28 the protagonist of the novel says:
‘Work, I told myself, work, that sounds horrible. When I even just imagined work, I trembled in fear. Work! It sounds absurd. Work had been turned into some sort of cult, some sort of perversion. Everyone is occupied with the glorification of work everywhere and most of all those, who themselves don’t do a damn thing, from every wall of my home the invitation to work stares at me, an invitation to beat my head against work, although my brains splatter against the wall. I turn on the television, the newscaster shouts right in my face – work, you bastard!’
On p. 105 the novel’s protagonist DĀRZIŅŠ in his inner monologue, in other words in a conversation with himself, speaks about the fact that we ‘sell work, buy things,’ … ‘we sell our arms, legs, brains, we sell our time …we sell our desire, our nerves, we sell our health, we buy things… because the more things we’ll have, the sunnier our future will be, we must produce, we must hurry to buy more, to sell, to wait, to wait, when finally we will be swimming in prosperity, carpets, cars, champagnes’ … ‘everything mixes together, everything changes, owners become things, things before owners, we toppled the tsar and God, we raise up things, things…’
Here one of the most characteristic tendencies of A. Bels’s novel can be clearly observed: to degrade the Soviet person, show him as a slave of things, who wants only to acclimatise, strives only for material well-being, but disparages a spiritual culture.
5. What rings throughout A. Bels’s novel Insomnia, with a greater or lesser emphasis, is the thought about the discreditation of workers of Soviet institutions, where they are shown as ignoramuses, devoid of feeling, who are interested only in that a person works, would be a thing, an obedient screw (‘because only then is their rule iron-clad, if no one sticks their nose in the door of those in command.’) (p. 97).
This discreditation is clearly manifested, when the author depicts the life of a morally lost girl and her stay at the Riga Railway Station.
‘The militia would check documents every hour, asking the traditional question ‘Where are you travelling?’ the slow-witted officers not understanding that she wasn’t travelling anywhere. She wanted to sleep at night in a waiting area meant for passengers travelling long distances… however the railway gods and militia gods came at midnight, checking the documents of each that found themselves in this paradise, where it reeked of sausages, rye bread and foreign people…’ (pp. 17-18)
6. From what is cited in numerous places written by A. Bels and other examples, one must make the conclusion, that the author scoffs at the friendship of Soviet nations, and propagates bourgeois nationalist, anti-communist views. For instance, the aforementioned concept ‘foreign nations’ that was emphasised on p. 18, as well as the broad irony on pp. 39-40 (‘I live in a resolute family of brothers, I together with my other brothers are united by a set of interests and goals…’).
In order to show that the Latvian youth is nationally-minded and propagates anti-Semitic ideas, and is against Communism, the author describes a gathering of former schoolmates, involving the use of spirituous liquids, in the following way:
‘…and the merriment came out in full force, and the song ‘Here, where the pine forests sway.’ …
‘Then Jānis suddenly belted out ‘Merry Boys Are Shooting Jews on the Shores of the Gauja Again!’ and everyone laughed… he continued singing ‘there’s only one gun, but a whole slew of Jews!’ and Valters shouted ‘throw the Jews in the fire,’ almost all of us were Komsomol Youth, but no one told him to stop, everyone was drunk, laughing, some sang along, and then Valters once again shouted ‘Jews and communists in the fire!’… ‘Yes, communists in the fire, are there any communists here?’ It seemed like a joke to everyone, and those, who saw that he was serious, pretended not to hear him, and he seriously shouted it, it was all so wonderfully merry there, I had no intention of standing up, I wasn’t even a Komsomol Youth, maybe I was going to make a horrible scene, but those novices were going too far, I got up and yelled ‘I am a communist!’ and Valters howled… pointing at me with his finger he spilled cognac on and saying ‘moron!’ (pp. 86-87)
7. After the aforementioned account about A. Bels’s novel Insomnia one must make the following conclusion, that Soviet rule is not cherished by the Latvian nation, that an entire class of Communist Youth are nationally-minded, that Soviet rule in Latvia is bound with a ‘foreign nation’, that Soviet rule has turned the Latvian nation into a ‘work horse’, into a thing, that the nation is broken, that it is not in their interests anymore.
Without a doubt, the novel Insomnia in its metaphorical and literal sense sounds like an anti-Soviet work, which could be understood as an invitation to fight against Soviet rule.
Professor of the Faculty of Philology of the P. Stučka Latvian State University, Doctor of Philological Sciences (K. KRAULIŅŠ)
Director of the Department of Party History of the Riga Polytechnic Institute, Associate professor, Candidate of Historical Sciences (L. HIMELREIHS)
Senior Lecturer of the Department of Scientific Communism of the Riga Polytechnic Institute (A. ĶĪLIS)
Director of the Latvian SSR General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press (V. RAMUTE)
Header image – map of the Latvian SSR, published in 1940 [Public Domain]
Translated from Latvian by Jayde Will. Insomnia is available now in English translation from Parthian Books.
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