The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas

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Edition: Noir Press, 2018, 175 pages.

The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas, translated by Marija Marcinkute, is a short story collection published by Noir Press, a small UK publisher that focuses on bringing contemporary Lithuanian literature in translation to the English reading audience. I first came across their books when I was putting together my list of Baltic fiction in translation, and I was very excited to check out their latest release: a short story collection by Lithuanian-Ukrainian author Jaroslavas Melnikas.

I’m happy to report that this book did not disappoint. Based on my reading experience, most short story collections turn out to be a mixed bag, with some high and low points, but, in the case of this collection, I was pleasantly surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed all 8 of these stories that generally follow protagonists, who are preoccupied with some existential or philosophical dilemma. For example, the title story, The Last Day, presents a version of the world in which everyone can find out the exact date of their death, and the story explores how this knowledge might affect people’s lives and relationships.

My favourite story in the collection was definitely The Grand Piano Room. I don’t want to give too much away, but it read like a Soviet man’s daydream/nightmare, a surreal and clever allegory of communal living during the Soviet era. I don’t know if that was the author’s intention, but that was my interpretation of this bizarre story. It felt like I was witnessing the gradual disintegration of the protagonist’s dream life, and, consequently, his mental state, when confronted with reality. It’s a very effective and darkly humorous story that also serves as a great example of one of the aspects that I enjoyed the most in this collection; Melnikas does not spell things out for the reader but leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Many of these stories examine the theme of identity, and the layers of self-deception that people construct to deal with, or escape, the realities of everyday life.

Another major theme in this collection is the concept of fate. Some of the narrators in these stories are searching for some higher purpose in life, however, they seem to be more inclined to put their lives in the hands of someone else (be it God, or some other entity, or just another person) instead of taking responsibility for the course of their lives. The most notable example of this is the narrator in On The Road, who is willing to follow mysterious instructions that tell him to go to various places, without providing a clear reason why, because he feels that these “missions” give him an important purpose in life.

The last and longest story in the collection, It Never Ends, is a haunting story about a man, who starts to frequent an old cinema that is showing an avant-garde film about the life of a girl named Liz that, supposedly, never ends. Here again, we meet a narrator who is searching for some purpose in life in all the wrong places. At the cinema, he develops an unsettling relationship with another regular audience member, a very strange young woman, who is just called “the scarecrow”. I’m still not sure that I understood everything that happened in this story, but it will stay with me for quite some time.

Overall, The Last Day is a compelling, unsettling and insightful short story collection that definitely deserves much more attention. If you enjoy stories that inspire you to think about life from a philosophical perspective, I highly recommend you give this collection a try!

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Purge by Sofi Oksanen

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Edition: Atlantic Books, 2018, 400 pages.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers, was the June pick for the Distracted by Books reading group on Goodreads. Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian author, who is best known for her novel When the Doves Disappeared (translated by Lola Rogers), and, in her fiction, she often explores the complex 20th-century history of Estonia, particularly focusing on the period when Estonia was under Communist control.

Jumping between two time periods – the 90s, shortly after the collapse the USSR, and the 50s, during the time of the Soviet Republic of Estonia – Purge is a story of two women who, to some extent and for different reasons, are living on the fringes of society. The novel starts off in 1992, when Aliide Truu, an older woman living alone in the Estonian countryside, finds a young girl in her front yard one day and decides to help her. We soon find out that Zara is a young sex-trafficking victim, who was taken to Germany with promises of a better life. She manages to escape her captors, and finds shelter at Aliide’s house, even though Aliide is highly suspicious that her arrival may be more than just purely coincidental.

As the story unfolds, we see that both women are very complex, resilient, and flawed characters, and there’s a creeping sense that you can’t trust neither of them, perfectly reflecting the time period when these events are taking place. The book vividly captures the atmosphere of Estonia (as well as the other two Baltic States) in the 1990s and the chaos that followed the collapse of the USSR. All three Baltic States finally regained their independence and were going through major changes to dismantle the structures of the old Soviet regime and regain their identity. As shown in the book, some people managed to quickly exploit the uncertainty of those turbulent times, and seize the various opportunities to get rich quickly, often through illegal means. At the same time, other people found themselves lost and unable to adapt to the fundamental changes that were happening in the country.

Similarly, the sections of the book set during the time of the Soviet Republic of Estonia manage to capture the constant sense of suspicion, fear and distrust that had poisoned the hearts of regular people, since anyone, from their neighbours, friends, co-workers, and even family members, could turn out to be an informant. Purge provides a window into the life of Estonians during the Soviet regime, and it’s an excellent exploration of how interpersonal relationships are affected when caught up in major historical changes. The book also illustrates the fundamental conflicts that remain unresolved and continue to divide the people of Estonia even today. I found that, in essence, the book seeks to find an answer to the question: “Can you ever free yourself from your past memories and decisions?”

A gritty and thought-provoking read, perfect for the upcoming Women in Translation month in August!

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Beginner’s Guide To Baltic Literature

Baltic_states_flag_map.svgIn 2018, all three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – mark the 100th anniversary of their declaration of independence, so, in celebration of the centenary, I decided to put together this beginner’s guide to Baltic literature to highlight some fiction (as well as some non-fiction) from all three Baltic States that is currently available in English translation. I hope the following list of titles will give you some ideas on where to start your journey of discovering Baltic literature.

I’m also planning on updating this list from time to time to make sure that it includes the newest releases.

Links to the full list of books by country (with descriptions):


Estonia

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The Czar’s Madman by Jaan Kross
Translated by Anselm Hollo
Published by The Harvill Press, 2001

Diary of a Blood Donor by Mati Unt
Translated by Ants Eert
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2008

Brecht at Night by Mati Unt
Translated by Eric Dickens
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2009

Purge by Sofi Oksanen
Translated by Lola Rogers
Published by Grove Press, 2010

The Same River by Jaan Kaplinski
Translated by Susan Wilson
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2011

Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2014

The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk
Translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Grove Press, 2015

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen
Translated by Lola Rogers
Published by Knopf, 2015

The Cavemen Chronicle by Mihkel Mutt 
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2015

The Saviour of Lasnamäe by Mari Saat
Translated by Susan Wilson
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2015

The Brother by Rein Raud
Translated by Adam Cullen

Published by Open Letter Books, 2016

The Ropewalker: Between Three Plagues Volume I by Jaan Kross
Translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher
Published by MacLehose Press, 2016

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church by Indrek Hargla 
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2016

The Beauty of History by Viivi Luik
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Published by Norvik Press, 2016

The Sweepstakes of Love by Toomas Vint
Translated by Matthew Hyde
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2016

The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal
Translated by Matthew Hyde

Published by Pushkin Press, 2017

The Inner Immigrant by Mihkel Mutt
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2017

Reconstruction by Rein Raud
Translated by Adam Cullen

Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2017

The Death Of The Perfect Sentence by Rein Raud
Translated by Matthew Hyde

Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2018

I Loved A German by A. H. Tammsaare
Translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

The Misadventures of the New Satan by A. H. Tammsaare
Translated by Olga Shartze
Published by Norvik Press, 2018

Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory by Ilmar Taska
Translated by Christopher Moseley
Published by Norvik Press, 2018

Hanuman’s Travels by Andrei Ivanov
Translated by Matthew Hyde
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

Days of Grace: Selected Poems by Doris Kareva
Translated by Miriam McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov
Published by Bloodaxe Books, 2018

On the Edge of a Sword by Kristiina Ehin
Translated by Ilmar Lehtpere
Published by Arc Publications, 2018

Toomas Nipernaadi by August Gailit
Translated by Eva Finch, Jason Finch
Published by Dedalus Books, 2018

Everyone’s the Smartest by Contra, illustrated by Ulla Saar
Translated by Kätlin Kaldmaa & Charlotte Geater
Published by The Emma Press, 2018

The Rules of Bird Hunting by Eeva Park
Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Baltic Belles: The Dedalus Book of Estonian Women’s Literature, edited by Elle-Mari Talivee
Translated by Adam Cullen, Jason & Eva Finch
Published by Dedalus Books, 2019


Latvia

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The Cage by Alberts Bels
Translated by Ojars Kratins
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 1990

High Tide by Inga Ābele
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Published by Open Letter Books, 2013

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Published by Arcadia Books, 2014

Come to Me by Kārlis Vērdiņš
Translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Arc Publications, 2014

Five Fingers by Māra Zālīte
Translated by Margita Gailitis
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2017

One House For All by Inese Zandere, illustrated by Juris Petraskevics
Translated by Sabīne Ozola and adapted by Lawrence Schimel
Published by Book Island, 2017

The Noisy Classroom
by Ieva Flamingo, illustrated by Vivianna Maria Staņislavska

Translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by The Emma Press, 2017

The Secret Box by Daina Tabūna
Translated by Jayde Will
Published by The Emma Press, 2017

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena
Translated by Margita Gailitis
Published by Peirene Press, 2018

18 by Pauls Bankovskis
Translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

The Green Crow by Kristīne Ulberga
Translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2018

Doom 94 by Jānis Joņevs
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Published by Wrecking Ball Press, 2018

The Book of Riga, edited by Becca Parkinson & Eva EglajaKristsone
Translated by Kaija Straumanis, Suzanne McQuade, Uldis Balodis, Ieva Lešinska, Mārta Ziemelis and Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by Comma Press, 2018

30 Questions People Don’t Ask: Selected Poems by Inga Gaile
Translated by Ieva Lešinska
Published by Pleiades Press, 2018

In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis
Translated by Uldis Balodis
Published by Momentum Books, 2018

Dog Town by Luīze Pastore, illustrated by Reinis Pētersons
Translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Published by Firefly Press, 2018

The Book of Clouds
by Juris Kronbergs, illustrated by Anete Melece

Translated by Māra Rozīte & Richard O’Brien
Published by The Emma Press, 2018

Queen of Seagulls
by Rūta Briede

Translated by Elīna Brasliņa
Published by The Emma Press, 2018

All I Have Is Words by Knuts Skujenieks
Translated by Margita Gailitis
Published by Guernica Editions, 2018

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks
Published by Pushkin Press, 2018

Narcoses by Madara Gruntmane
Translated by Marta Ziemelis
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Beasts by Krišjānis Zeļģis

Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Phenomena
by Eduards Aivars

Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Insomnia
by Alberts Bels

Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Nakedness by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Translated by Uldis Balodis
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2019


Lithuania

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Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis 
Translated by Elizabeth Novickas
Published by Open Letter Books, 2009

Tūla by Jurgis Kunčinas
Translated by Elizabeth Novickas
Published by Pica Pica Press, 2016

Breathing Into Marble by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė
Translated by Marija Marcinkute
Published by Noir Press, 2016

The Easiest by Rasa Aškinytė
Translated by Jura Avizienis
Published by Noir Press, 2017

Shtetl Love Song by Grigory Kanovich
Translated by Elliot Cohen
Published by Noir Press, 2017

Memoirs of a Life Cut Short by Ričardas Gavelis
Translated by Jayde Will
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

The Music Teacher by Renata Šerelytė
Translated by Marija Marcinkute
Published by Noir Press, 2018

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė
Translated by Delija Valiukenas
Published by Peirene Press, 2018

White Shroud by Antanas Škėma
Translated by Karla Gruodis
Published by Vagabond Voices, 2018

The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas
Translated by Marija Marcinkute
Published by Noir Press, 2018

Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis
Translated by Karla Gruodis
Published by Peter Owen Publishers, 2018

The Fox on the Swing by Evelina Daciutè, illustrated by Aušra Kiudulaite
Published by Thames & Hudson, 2018

The Moon is a Pill by Aušra Kaziliūnaitė
Translated by Rimas Uzgiris
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

Now I Understand by Marius Burokas
Translated by Rimas Uzgiris
Published by Parthian Books, 2019

In The Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Šlepikas
Translated by Romas Kinka
Published by Oneworld Publications, 2019