Latvian literature is very rich at the moment," says Dace Sparāne-Freimane, director and editor-in-chief of Dienas Grāmata, one of Latvia's leading literary publishing houses. "The industry can be conservative, with translations of commercial American titles, but that is not us." Instead, she says, Dienas is a bit "quixotic" and is intent on the "promotion of national literature."
To wit, the company, which was founded in 2005, has become known internationally for publishing novels in a series called We. Latvia. The 20th Century, in which each book chronicles a decade or period of Latvian history. The titles are diverse in both subject matter and tone. For example, Kristīne Ulberga's novel Tur (There) is about Latvia's 1980s hippie movement, and Māris Bērziņš's Svina garša (the Taste of Lead) addresses Latvia's role in the Holocaust. Regardless of subject or period, these novels are written such that they offer a contemporary commentary on history.
"This is a huge series, with 13 titles, the last of which is being published in April," says Sparāne-Freimane. Several titles have already become bestsellers, including Pauls Bankovskis's 18, which is about the moment of Latvia's independence. Andra Manfelde's Virsnieku sievas (the Officers' Wives), about the intersection of Latvian and Russian lives during the 1970s, sold 10,000 copies, says Sparāne-Freimane.
But the book that has resonated most with readers is Mātes piens (Soviet Milk) by Nora Ikstena. The book focuses on the lives of three generations of women, shifting between the 1940s, around the time of Latvia's liberation from Nazi occupation by the Soviets, and the 1970s and 1980s. In the novel, after a controversy exiles her from St. Petersburg, a Latvian gynecologist is dispatched to run a clinic in a rural area; her daughter, named Ikstena, who was heretofore being raised by her grandmother, is sent to live with her mother. The relationship between the three women is fraught as they struggle within the Soviet system, which looms ominously in the background, shaping events. "It is autobiographical. It is very much my mother's story and my own," says Ikstena, who also says she used many real-life people as characters, some without even changing their names.
The book has sold 20,000 copies in Latvia, a significant number. "The unique thing is that this novel, as well several others in the We. Latvia. The 20th Century series, has reached younger readers," says Sparāne-Freimane, who credits the contemporary language in the books with making their sometimes difficult and distant subjects more accessible.
Ikstena will be Latvia's featured Author of the Day at the London Book Fair. She is one of a quartet of writers representing the country; joining her are Inga Ābele, author of Duna (Dune), also in the We. Latvia. The 20th Century series, and the bestseller High Tide (published in English by Open Letter); children's and middle-grade author Luīze Pastore; and the poet Kārlis Vērdiņš.
The fair will provide the unique opportunity for English-language readers to experience Latvian literature firsthand, which Sparāne-Freimane hopes will result in more translations. "Right now, the countries that have the best relationship with Latvian literature are Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia," she says. "They are small, poor countries that pay for an entire translation with a grant they might get. The challenge for others, and for publishing in general, is money."
Asked whether there are any misperceptions about Latvian literary life that she would like to clear up in London, Sparāne-Freimane asks, in response, "How can there be any misperceptions if there are no perceptions?" She says, "I think that is what we would like to clear up. We'd like there to be a perception. Authors always complain, asking why we [publishers] are not extolling [Latvian literature] now. But for us publishers, talking is difficult, just like it is for writers."
Sparāne-Freimane then pauses a moment and says, "Okay, let me try to create a perception. ‘Latvia is a small, wonderful world, one that is still mysterious, waiting to be discovered by the reader.' That should be enough."