This short book by a well-known Latvian writer is on Reading Matters’ list of favorite books by women in translation. It is told through two narrative voices, a mother born in 1944, and her daughter born in 1969, alternating in short sections. The mother’s lifespan is roughly the same as the Soviet Union’s domination of Latvia, 1944-45 ending in 1989-90 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Three women who have important roles in this tale are never given a name; the grandmother, the mother and the daughter. The mother, a brilliant woman who becomes a doctor specializing in gynecology, is oppressed by the Soviet state, and fails to thrive. Her daughter becomes the caretaker after the two of them leave Riga so that the mother can work in a clinic in the countryside. She returns to the comfort of her grandmother’s home as often as she can. I should say that the unnamed step grandfather is also a supportive family member.
The effect of the oppression of the individual, as well as the country of Latvia by the “Soviet lice” is well illustrated here. Occasionally it’s garden variety misogyny that the mother cannot cope with, but her depression, alcohol, and pill use are aggravated by the Soviet political oppression. After her daughter is born, she does not feed her milk and disappears for five days because she cannot bear having her child experience the life of oppression.
The daughter muses about her mother’s pregnancy:
I picture my mother not as a medical student in Soviet Latvia carrying an unwanted baby in the grey Riga autumn but instead with a bandanna tied around her forehead, her fat tummy half-bared in that parallel world where freedom reigns and The Who are singing at Woodstock. In spite of the historical impossibility, there was something of the flower child in my mother.
The daughter recounts the story of her hamster Bambi who loves to escape his cage and run around her room. After he eats his offspring, she despises him, and asked her mother why he ate his children. “‘Probably he was saving them from being caged,’ Mother said, and hugged me tightly. She was trembling all over, and her heart was beating violently. I hugged her back equally tightly.”
When a much loved “subversive” teacher takes the class to an old church in the countryside, he points out that the mute church bell “had its tongue torn out.” He asked the daughter what it made her think of. “That bell reminds me of my mother.” Later she explains to her mother that “…it seems to me that someone has stolen your joy in life. They’ve torn it out of you like that bell’s clapper. And you can’t ring any more–just like the bell.”
The oppression of the beautiful Latvia is a theme; the mother says, “Riga seemed like a dishonoured young girl, her head hung low in the tranquil, late-December air.”
The mother’s ability in her gynecological work is important to the story; while a medical student in Leningrad, she helps a woman get pregnant, fertilizing her with her husband’s sperm, a practice unknown at the time. The husband is physically abusive and the mother injures him; for this she is expelled from school and can only practice in a small clinic in the countryside.
She appears to be able to diagnose problems intuitively and is unfailingly kind and attentive to her patients’ needs. One patient she encounters has “small man’s body with a woman’s crotch.” Her examination reveals that Jesse is partly a woman, but internally, partly a man. Jesse sees herself as a woman but the mother cannot change anything without hormone therapy available only in Leningrad that might have helped her on a path to becoming a woman. Jesse becomes devoted to helping the mother for her respectful and kind attention and they remain friends.
Jesse finds part of a book that she brings to the mother who becomes obsessed and thrown into depression by it. The book is referred to by the name Winston; it turns out the book is 1984 and Winston is the protagonist of that book. Not surprising that the mother identifies with him.
Nora Ikstena, Soviet Milk, trans. Margita Gailitis, Peirene Press, 2018, 192 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from Amazon.