AuthorLams, Ojars
PositionNarrating Migration and Diaspora - "The Mushroom Testament: The Black Balts Among Celts" by Laima Muktupavela and "Stroika with a London View" by Vilis Lacitis - Critical essay
  1. Introduction

    The present day Latvian diaspora is quite heterogeneous, representing a mix of types and professions: top artists, athletes, EU and other officials, executives of international companies, and a large mass of low-income migrants, mostly unskilled workers, seekers of a better life, i.e. better economic and social conditions.Some of these individuals find themselves at the very lowest step of the social and economic hierarchy and therefore are part of the social group once referred to by George Orwell (in his 1933 novel Down and Out in Paris and

    London) (Orwell 2001) as 'down-and-out', i.e. a marginalized social group that must struggle for survival. This group echoes the motif of social exclusion in literature and is the material that is most reflected upon in contemporary Latvian migrant narratives. This article consists of a comparative case-study of two novels written by two important Latvian writers, Vilis Lacitis (born in 1975) and Laima Muktupavela (born in 1962), foundational to the new tradition of Latvian migration literature. The focus of the novels is the migration within Europe that could be characterized as bridging the divides created by the once unshakeable Iron Curtain.

  2. Theoretical and methodological framework

    The plots of the novels by Lacitis and Muktupavela unfold against the backdrop of intersecting cultural spaces that is typical of intercultural literature. We take 'intercultural literature', a fluid and dynamic concept, as an umbrella term to account for some aspects of exile, migrant, Gastarbeiter literature. Intercultural literature always creates new discourses and touch upon identity issues and so do exile, migrant and Gastarbeiter narratives, but the latter mostly limit themselves to purely reflecting on the migrant experiences in the host country. The former involves a dialogue between two or more cultures and some degree of synthesis between them (Chiellino 2000). In some ways intercultural literature resembles the so-called Bruckenliteratur (literature that functions as a bridge between two or more cultures) introduced by Zafer Senocak (Senocak 1986:66) in that it creates an intermediary space of new knowledge which enables the reader to redefine the world. The cultural identity of both communities and individuals, as Michael Hofmann cogently asserts, is indeed always in progress, never accomplished; it constitutes a temporary result of unstoppable processes (Hofmann 2007:11). The new Latvian migrant literature is different from the old classical examples of the migrant narratives in that they took place within Europe and were published in exile after World War II. The notion 'classical migrant literature' is genetically related to exile and migration experiences that can be traced back to the first half of the 19th century when various writers fused their exile and migration experience into a new Weltanschauung (Victor Hugo, Madame de Stael, Heinrich Heine and others); Georg Brandes, a Danish literary scholar, develops the notion of literary current and posits the existence of a separate 'emigrant literature' (Brandes 1906, Danish original in 1872). Brandes emphasized that " emigre [---] inevitably belongs to the opposition" but they were not necessarily exiles ("yet were not exiles") while classical Latvian migration literature (1945-1991) is always exile literature created by the authors who left Latvia after World War II, dreading the reprisals of the returning Soviet occupants. The characters of the new migrant literature preserve their links and bonds with the country of origin and frequently travel back. Its target audience is the readers back home rather than the readership in the host countries. However, the novels are translated and are available for a larger readership interested in contemporary migration tales.

    Intercultural literature relates to imagology, i.e. the image of the other in literary space and its relation to the self-image of the authors of the narratives. It also deals with the perspectives of power and dominance and in this regard partly overlaps with topics of interest for post-colonial and subaltern studies. The conceptualization of the conflicts arising from cultural experiences, strivings for integration and the ensuing setbacks generate experience that could be analyzed in terms of trauma studies.

    Intercultural literature can but does not have to be born in a transnational context. 'Transnationalism' relates to movements across state boundaries, for instance, movement of ideas, data, capital, services and people. Intercultural literatures can exist within the boundaries of single multiethnic states, such as Switzerland, Russia, the USA and the Baltic States. With the advent of globalization one could argue that world literatures are increasingly intercultural, as cultures do not exist in isolation and defy a static, illusory essentialism of some purely homogenous cultural values, customs, beliefs and practices. There are countless intracultural differences within a single nation, the same applies to other constructions, such as group and community identities. Homi K. Bhabha asserts that "the very concepts of homogenous national cultures, the consensual or contiguous transmission of historical traditions, or 'organic' ethic communities--as the grounds of cultural comparativism--are in the process of profound redefinition" (Bhabha 1994:7).

    Migrant literature can thus be interpreted and viewed in a number of ways. This study takes into account the above approaches of academic enquiry.

  3. Vilis Lacltis and Laima Muktupavela, the most significant authors of contemporary Latvian migration literature

    Even though the Latvian diaspora develops quickly and has reached a considerable size (more than 370,000 Latvians abroad, according to a source of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia (Latvijas diaspora pasaule), the reflection on the issue of migration in literature is less dynamic than for instance in Lithuania and Poland (Laurusaite 2008). But Lacltis and Muktupavela are salient and striking forerunners of this literary genre in Latvia. The texts of both authors share several features: (1) they are debut novels which immediately made their authors popular and established them as writers; their subsequent work also touches upon other topics but the migration motif is always present; (2) both tell their story in the 1 (st) person and are autobiographical; (3) both reflect the experience of the lowest social classes (down-and-out) thus "posing" as the voice of the subaltern. Despite the shared common ground, the texts also present significant differences: (1) one novel is told by a man, the other is told by a woman--the narrators' world outlook is conditioned by their gender which entails variations in attitudes toward language, customs, traditions, etc.; (2) they possibly belong to different generations but the Soviet heritage plays an important role in both of them, albeit to a variable degree; (3) their attitude toward migration experience is very dissimilar--the narrator constructed by Lacitis is quite open-minded vis-a-vis the new challenges while Muktupavela's narrative voice is fearful and conservative which is reflected in the construction of their novels: Lacitis offers the shuttle (circular) migration model while Muktupavela offers a one-off migration enterprise and commences her narrative with a home-coming scene; (4) the attitude toward migration experience is also reflected in the principles of the composition of the novels: Muktupavela a single year that stands for a closed cycle. She adopts the ring composition and presents her migration experience in retrospective manner; her narrator also constantly revisits her memories about her previous life in Latvia. Her interaction with the new reality abroad is frequently 'signified' with Latvian cultural signs (names of various writers, literary characters, folklore, home dialect). Lacitis' fictional work extends over several years; the first time is recounted in a great detail (by days), then his time spans enlarge, there are temporal gaps. As time goes by, the narrator is becoming increasingly involved with the new reality: when he returns to London after a short break in Latvia, he feels very much welcomed in London, his home is now there. For Lacitis's narrator, memories are also...

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