New Welsh Review

Insomnia

Albert Bels, translator (from Latvian), Jayde Will

Lee Tisdale admires a novella, published complete with its own censorship history, satirising Soviet rule in Latvia

PUBLISHED ON: 30/06/20

CATEGORY: Reviews

TAGS: Baltic States, Eastern Europe, Soviet, censorship, historical, humour, international, novella, satire, translation

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Alberts Bels’ accessible and compelling novella Insomnia depicts Soviet-era Latvia through the eyes of Mr Eduards Dārziņš. This man allows a fleeing woman, Dina, to stay the night in his apartment. We don’t initially know from what danger Dina is escaping. Woven between visions (from Dārziņš’ imagination) are snippets of information, slowly presented by Bels, which slowly increase our knowledge of this woman’s identity. When initially offered a bath, Dina strips completely in front of Mr Dārziņš and has to be told how to lock the bathroom door. The sexual references are plentiful, and eventually we learn that she is a prostitute who has escaped attempted sexual assault. Despite his claims of wanting no involvement with other people, our narrator Dārziņš becomes rather attached to his new lodger as they drive around, gathering her belongings. Eventually they get exceedinglyclose to one another.

The events of Dārziņš’ fantasies find correlation with the oddities of Soviet rule, particularly restrictions on freedom. Mr Dārziņš dreams of himself into a thirteenth-century scene involving the crusading Brothers of the Sword’s conversion of the Baltic Pagans:

 

What is freedom actually? A word. This word will be banned in every land. If someone writes ‘Let Freedom Live!’ on the walls, they will be sent to the gallows at once because ‘there is already freedom in our land’.

 

Dārziņš also dreams of himself in Nazi-occupied Latvia during the Second World War. In further satire of Soviet colonial expansion, foreign occupation and consequent the loss of freedom resonates in the novella. Commenting on the impact of such historical events is obviously a classic dissident satirical method of addressing current issues with Soviet rule, acting as a shield against claims of the novel being propaganda.

Insomnia was originally published in 1987 (following repeated delays by censors), and did not appear in its uncensored form until 2003. The book’s preface, ‘The opinion of the Literary-Scientific Expert Commission’, has particular comedic poignance but is part of the title’s own publication history. This preface, a facsimile of the historical-legal record, makes several claims that the novella is anti-communist/Soviet propaganda, and as a result attempts to justify the banning of the book. One instance accuses Bels of saying, ‘The Latvian Youth is nationally-minded and propagates anti-Semitic ideas, and is against communism.’One must wonder about the influences on the children (once the opportunity to be heard around the world arises) when the Soviet authority continues to exert its power to silence their voices.

Overall, despite feeling a little starved of narrative, I rather enjoyed reading this great insight into Soviet rule in Latvia.

 

 

Lee Tisdale is a reviewer-in-residence in a project in partnership with Aberystwyth University.