Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis (Peirene, 2018)
I’ve read a number of books published by Peirene (you can see them all in my virtual bookshelf), and I’ve enjoyed them all, but Soviet Milk was on an entirely different level for me. David Hebblethwaite has aptly described it as “a human story that refracts to illuminate a wider picture”, as Soviet rule is experienced through the eyes of three generations of women, two of them old enough to remember a time when “we had our own state and flag.” The story is told alternately from the points of view of the two younger women: the mother was born in 1944, just after Latvia was liberated from the Nazis, and the daughter in 1969, when Latvia was under Soviet rule. Though neither mother nor daughter is given a name, much of Soviet Milk is autobiographical: as a child, Ikstena left her grandparents’ home in Riga because her mother, a gynaecologist, clashed with Soviet bureaucracy and was sent to run a small rural clinic. Ikstena’s mother took her own life at the age of 54, shortly before the end of Soviet rule in Latvia. These difficult life experiences are recounted in Soviet Milk, and yet it is an exceptionally compassionate story of love, faith, and the ties that bind: in addition to the mother-daughter relationship, fictional female characters are woven into the narrative, always coming from the edges of society, and bringing warmth to the child’s lonely life. Margita Gailitis translates beautifully, her stark sentences containing all the pent-up rage and sorrow of the narrators without ever tipping over into melodrama or sentimentality.
Soviet Milk opens with the daughter reconstructing her birth in October 1969: her mother disappeared for five days immediately after giving birth, and came back with her milk having dried up. The original Latvian title of the novel translates as Mother’s Milk, and the importance of (non-)maternity and nurturing is key throughout. Bereft of her mother’s milk, the young girl is nurtured on Soviet narratives, and as her mother trains to be a doctor, “the smell of medicine and disinfectant replaced the smell of mother’s milk.” When the mother takes her turn to narrate, she too reconstructs her own birth in October 1944: Riga had just been liberated from the Nazis, and an epidemic of nasal typhoid fever was sweeping through the hospital, killing the newborn children. Her mother smuggled her out, and set off to Babīte in the outskirts of Riga, where they made a life for themselves in a small cottage. Yet maternal sacrifice is shown to have no effect: the grandmother recalls that “I exchanged my African fur coat for dried sugar beet. My jaw grew sore from chewing at those beets. There was nothing else. But they gave me milk to spare in my breasts. She sucked mother’s milk until she was three years old. She was a healthy, strong child. What happened to her?’” Angry and increasingly detached in the face of Soviet oppression, the mother feels no maternal love herself, and is likened to her daughter’s hamster, Bambi, whose looming presence Catherine Venner sums up as a foreshadowing of the mother’s existence and fate: “Trapped in his cage, Bambi yearns for freedom, eats his own children, and ultimately gives up on life.” The mother lives as if she were in a cage, the “Russian boot” over her head: she is monitored, forced to state that she does not believe in God and, like all those under Soviet rule, lives under censorship.
When the mother is befriended by Jesse, a big-hearted hermaphrodite who is as much of an outcast as she is, Jesse proudly brings the mother a portion of a book she has found (which, from the dialogue, it is clear is George Orwell’s 1984). The book is pivotal for both mother and daughter in different ways; the mother explains its importance to her in the following terms: “Who was this Winston who was asked about God just as I’d been asked on Engels Street before going to Leningrad? I read on. The whole dialogue sounded as if the speaker was standing right beside me, in my narrow room, as if he was describing my life right now.” If, for the mother, 1984 is a balm that makes her feel less alone, for the daughter it is an uninvited evil that has pulled her mother further away from her: “We could have had a lovely last summer together, if Jesse had not brought us that portion of book […] I hated this half-book wrapped in a calendar. It had stolen my last summer with my mother and led her even further into a fantasy world, away from life, the blooming garden and the balmy river.” Once again the daughter is left on the margins of her mother’s life: the mother can find solace in her work, and in banned books, but never in human relationships.
“to this muteness, this pain, this torn-out tongue, Ikstena gives back words, filling her mother’s mouth with the words she could never articulate during her life”
The great beauty in Ikstena’s work is in her ability to give voice to the mother as well as the child; given the autobiographical element, it must have been immensely difficult to write from the perspective of a mother unable to love her child, when you are that unloved child. The warmth and compassion with which Ikstena allows her mother to tell her story are truly remarkable. For example, on a cultural history trip, when Teacher Blūms shows the students a mute church bell with its tongue torn out, the young girl reflects later that the bell reminds her of her mother. And to this muteness, this pain, this torn-out tongue, Ikstena gives back words, filling her mother’s mouth with the words she could never articulate during her life. It is the daughter who must continually find the strength to keep her mother in the world, for the mother “always seemed to be striving to turn out her life’s light.” When the daughter can do no more for her mother, she gives her one final gift: a voice of her own to be able to say that she was trapped in “my Soviet cage, where I went on living without the courage to eat my child.” That Ikstena can not only acknowledge these painful realisations about her mother, but also connect her mother to life by giving her a voice in this beautiful novel, is extraordinary.
Ikstena’s story is moving enough in itself to have a profound effect on me, but there were also very personal reasons why it affected me so deeply. My step-grandfather was Latvian: he was conscripted into the German army at 16, could not return to Riga after the Second World War, and never saw his family again; he passed away in a small end-of-terrace house in Huddersfield in March 1989. As a child I didn’t know anything about Latvia, or find his accent odd (coming from a family whose main origins were Maltese, Arab and Greek, I grew up thinking it was normal that grandparents spoke English with different accents). As a twelve-year-old more concerned with the latest issue of Smash Hits than current affairs, I didn’t know in 1989 that the fall of the Berlin Wall had any resonance in Latvia; reading Soviet Milk almost thirty years later I wept for my Grandad, who missed the end of Soviet rule by just a few months. This personal connection is far from being the only reason I loved Soviet Milk, though. The characters demand connection and compassion by themselves: the mother who cannot find a place in a society she despises; the daughter who does not understand why she is not enough to make her mother happy; the grandmother who has seen enough atrocity and would prefer to just live and not think about sorrow. This is a truly great book: a beautiful account of Ikstena’s childhood, a stripped-bare narrative of love and loss, and a beacon for Latvian literature in translation.