‘What was really important could only be spoken about between the lines’
Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian authors reflect on how their history has influenced their literature as they celebrate the centenary of their independent republics
Kristina Sabaliauskaite: do not be surprised that the Irish poet and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan makes a cameo appearance in my Silva Rerum IV novel as he was an ardent supporter of the Lithuanian-Polish cause
Janis Jonevs: We’ve gone through the difficulties of oppression and now we face the difficulties of freedom
Rein Raud: Being knowledgeable about sophisticated domestic literature was the second characteristic of a managing adult beside the ability to put out fires at home
Lithuania, the most southern country of the Baltics trio, has more in common culturally with Poland – through several centuries of shared statehood, forming Commonwealth of Both Nations in 1569-1795. This union of Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was one of the largest empires in Europe. Lithuanian cultural identity was based on history from the beginning, starting with the theory of descent from the ancient Roman: allegedly, a Roman general Palemon has escaped Nero’s terror, settling in Lithuania with 500 noble Roman families, thus starting the local dynasties.
Most probably this legend was intended to gain some prestige, as in fact Lithuanians were the last pagans of Europe. However, it had a cultural impact: starting with the admiration for Roman law (the Commonwealth was a republic with a senate and democratically elected kings) and all things classical – Latin as the lingua franca of the early statehood (our first international literary bestseller was the Latin poem by Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski), Baroque architecture as the DNA of Lithuanian cities. Though for a few centuries the language of nobility and therefore culture was Polish, the first poem written in Lithuanian in the 18th century was in a classical hexameter.
Intense Russification aimed to destroy the nation: Lithuanians reacted by smuggling Lithuanian books in and secretly teaching children, in ways not dissimilar to Irish hedge schools
Lithuania cannot escape that its literature and language were shaped by its dramatic history – from the imperialists to the oppressed, and to freedom again. Tsarist occupation after the Commonwealth partitions of 1795 was an endurance test. The repressions and intense Russification aimed to destroy the proud nation: Catholic churches were converted to Orthodox, the Latin alphabet, press and education in Lithuanian language banned for almost 50 years. Lithuanians reacted by smuggling Lithuanian books in and secretly teaching children – in ways not dissimilar to Irish hedge schools. Literature and history helped to preserve identity until the occasion to revive an independent Lithuanian state occurred in 1918.
The flourishing was brief – the second World War II brought the Soviet occupation, which targeted “class enemies” – the educated people. Lithuanian language was permitted, but not freedom of content: there was complete censorship. Once again Western books were smuggled, dissident literature was published. Lithuania re- emerged in 1991, reclaiming independence and starting the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the last 30 years we finally have the freedom to explore our past without censorship and therefore now we have an abundance of historical novels, memoirs and essays that reflect on the history or traumas of the past.
In my quartet of historical novels, Silva Rerum, I explore the period that both tsarist and Soviet occupiers attempted to erase from Lithuanian memory – the 17th and 18th centuries, the period of power, magnificence, refined culture and exotic beauty. Exploring the history in literature sometimes brings fascinating revelations and interconnections. Hence do not be surprised that the Irish poet and playwright, the Theatre Royal, Drury director and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan makes a cameo appearance in my Silva Rerum IV novel as he was both an ardent supporter of the Lithuanian-Polish cause during the times of partitions and a personal acquaintance of the novel’s main character. Knowing the history through literature sometimes makes the world smaller – in a positive way of shared human stories.
Kristina Sabaliauskaite is a writer and art historian whose four-part historic novel series Silva Rerum is a long-term number-one international bestseller in Lithuania
When you drive around in Estonian countryside, it is mostly forests, rarely houses. Sometimes it happens that you pass by a sign announcing what village you have just entered, for example Vihasoo (The Swamp of Hatred) or Korjuse (The Corpse’s Place). These names are illustrative, though both these villages actually exist on the way to my country house. If you then continue for a mile or so, there is the bus stop with the same name, and after another mile you see a sign saying that you are leaving the place. All the houses are scattered around, with lots of distance between them. Any village that has a shop and a pub is already something of a metropolis – somewhere you don’t go to too often. Too many people. Too noisy. And you would probably get into an argument.
Thus it is no wonder that Estonians are considered stubborn, pragmatic individualists, although this does not necessarily mean a closed mindset. Estonia is to a large extent also defined by the sea with its many islands, and Estonian sailors have made it to foreign shores since time immemorial. And they were often quick enough to pick up what was good there, and bring it back home – if it fit their world. But as an Estonian, you never talk about your problems, you only solve them. So if there is a fire, you put it out yourself, as it were, since nothing much would remain of your house by the time your neighbours get there to help you. It’s just you and nature, the feelings toward which are the only sense of sacred that we have.
High rates of early literacy are probably the only good thing Protestant Christianity has given to our culture. Luckily we never really went in for the religious stuff
This strong stress on self-reliance is also why literature has been the main form of artistic self-expression for Estonians through ages – you can do it yourself. First practiced in various forms of folklore, it evolved in works by individual authors since the beginning of the 19th century, with the gradual rise of urban culture. High rates of early literacy are probably the only good thing Protestant Christianity has given to our culture. This was because you were supposed to read your own Bible. And luckily we never really went in for the religious stuff. Yet the same kind of seriousness with which the peasants delved into their heavy reading duty on Sundays has still persisted in the attitude we have toward books to this day. Under the Soviet occupation, this is what kept the culture alive. There was a bookshelf in every household, and being knowledgeable about sophisticated domestic literature was the second characteristic of a managing adult beside the ability to put out fires at home. After all, what was really important could only be spoken about between the lines.
This was the situation in which I started to write myself. A sensitivity to history has informed my work as a matter of course. But as someone who likes to sit by the sea and gaze into distance I also like to unite imaginary and faraway worlds into new wholes that speak to me, to play with genre conventions and – as a true individualist – to rebel a bit against that seriousness with which we are supposed to take the written word.
Rein Raud is an Estonian novelist, poet and essayist whose most recent novel, The Death of the Perfect Sentence, was published in English by Vagabond Voices
I was 11 years old when the “history” ended, so I didn’t see much of it. Reading was my world with thrilling adventures and far peregrinations to unbelievable places. I understood that I was born in the most boring country in the world (even worse, in the most boring city of that country). Not the biggest, not the smallest. No mountains, no lions, no earthquakes.
Soon my literary journeys were not only in space, but also in time – and I discovered that my country had not always been quite so boring. Latvia’s history was over abundant with the greatest-scale military campaigns, with decades of all types of resistance. But this history had ended, the Soviet so-called state collapsed when I was a child though, naturally, most of the books I read were still written before the occupation ended. As I read this Latvian literature, I wondered about the importance it had: under the Russian Empire it was the birth of national pride; then under Soviet power our literature was an arm of resistance, our field of battles, treasons and Aesopian manoeuvres. I read and envied these poets who were by definition heroes or traitors, never lukewarm. In fact, it’s thanks to these repressive obstacles that Latvian literature developed some serious subtext skills. Our audience became used to reading so attentively, and a lot.
How wonderful it sounded to be unpublished under Soviets. Being unpublished because of being original and nonconformist. How sad it sounds to be unpublished now
I guess these times were too long. No, I’m pretty sure they were. When I decided to move to the other side of the stage – from reader to writer – I couldn’t really imagine what to write about. It was easy for the oppressed, but with freedom our literature had somehow lost a big part of its importance. Readers turned to others’ problems. The time of identical home libraries and buying every Latvian author’s book was over. The new time arrived with some complications. How wonderful it sounded to be unpublished under Soviets. Like Uldis Berzinš. Being unpublished because of being original and nonconformist. How sad it sounds to be unpublished now. Young girls don’t see writers as martyrs any more. Or else, how can a writer be witty without a censure? Now words are just words again. Writers are not heroes any more, just writers.
It took me about 15 years to accept that my times were legendary and my city is worth a novel. We’ve gone through the difficulties of oppression and now we face the difficulties of freedom. There are quite a few dangers. We risk writing nothing but the history of sufferings. We risk becoming ubi sunt writers. But we have to make generations after us say – what unbelievable people there were before us.
Janis Jonevs is considered one Latvia’s most exciting emerging talents and his debut novel Doom 94 will be published by Wrecking Ball in summer 2018, translated by Kaija Strautmanis