by Nora Ikstena
translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis
Peirene Press, 2018
Soviet Milk is the first in Peirene’s 2018-series ‘Home in Exile’. Two additional titles, And the Wind Sees All by Icelandic author Guđmundur Andri Thorsson and the Lithuanian novel Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiutė will be released later this year.
Set in Latvia during the 1980s, the last decade of the Soviet rule, the novel shows the crushing impact the oppressive regime has on the lives of three unnamed women: grandmother, mother and daughter. The story of the three women is told in short, poignant vignettes, alternating in perspective from the mother, born at the end of World War II and her daughter, born twenty-five years later, in 1969.
At first, the mother - a gifted young doctor with a promising career in gynecology - seems to be able to cope with the Soviet regime and she is even granted a scholarship to study in Leningrad. But after she attacks a Russian “war hero” for beating up his wife, she is subsequently banished from Riga to a small village in rural Latvia where she runs a dilapidated ambulatory health care center. Deprived of her professional future, she feels “trapped in the white heat of the inferno” and her work is the only thing keeping thoughts of suicide at bay:
At the end of July the ambulatory center was closed for a month. I began a long, lonely, senseless time. I lay naked in my shadow-filled room, trying to kill the nights and the days.
Even books can’t provide comfort anymore:
I couldn’t read. Letters followed one another forming sentences. Sliding past my eyes, my thoughts which lingered elsewhere.
Despite missing her grandparents, the daughter, who accompanies the mother into the rural exile, might be able to enjoy the quiet country life – going “mushrooming”, having evening strolls along the river – but her happiness is displaced by her fear for her mother’s deteriorating physical and mental health:
And I thought about this endless land sea and sky, of which eve a fingernail’s worth of dirt was denied her. About the grapes, which she would never pluck from an arbour over her head. About the sound of the crotal bells, which, which she would not hear, and about the love-filled air, which she would not breathe.
The men of the family are largely absent in the novel. We never learn who the daughter’s father is and the grandfather is arrested when he tries to prevent Soviet soldiers from cutting his spruce trees. (The grandmother then quickly replaces him with a “step-grandfather”.) Instead, the book features an array of outcasts - among others: a devout Orthodox Christian, a hermaphrodite and a dissident teacher – whose appearance in the book only heightens the sense of isolation, of ‘not belonging’, that runs through the novel.
As the title of the novel suggests, milk is the recurring image in Ikstena’s book, serving not only as a metaphor for the communist ideology the women are forced to swallow but also highlighting the disrupted relationship between mother and daughter. (The original Latvian title, Mātes piens, translates as ‘Mother’s milk’). Afraid of poisoning her daughter with her “bitter milk”, the mother disappears for several days after her daughter’s birth, leaving the child in the care of the grandmother who feeds the newborn with chamomile tea. The daughter subsequently develops a virulent allergy to milk and is unable to drink the milk provided to the children at school.
Even though the milk-imagery is a bit repetitive and sometimes comes across too heavy-handed, it aptly illuminates the political message of the book. But politics aside, the novel’s emotional core revolves around the mother’s longing for a better life and the daughter’s inability to save her. And Ikstena succeeds in making their pain palpable and real.
Britta Böhler is a German-born author and former law professor. She has published literary fiction and a series of crime novels as well as various non fiction books about real life criminal cases. Her internationally acclaimed novel about Thomas Mann (English translation: The Decision) has been translated into eight languages. She lives in Amsterdam and Cologne and she writes in German, English and Dutch. For more information: www.brittaboehler.com