A few years ago, for reasons that are hard, even now, to explain, I felt compelled to learn everything I could about Latvia. How it started was like this: I read an amazing short story “Regeneration” written by a brilliant young writer, Pauls Toutonghi. His use of language and his writing style was like no one else’s I had seen. In the contributor’s bio I read that he was Latvian and that in his own words, this accounted for his lyric register and style. I thought, MY God. I’ve got to read more of anything written by Latvians and/or about Latvia. I found Agate Netuslis’ memoir Woman in Amber. I read it in one sitting. The next day I rushed to the bookstore, this quest for all things Latvian pushing my feet straight to the “help” desk. “How hard would it be to find books about Latvia written by Latvians? Also, how hard is it to find a good Latvian-English dictionary?” I asked the woman working behind the desk.
The woman’s eyes lit up. “It’s not hard—not too terribly hard. Just expensive,” she said. “But, may I ask, WHY do you want these things?”
I had been bitten by the Latvian bug. It was like falling in love, it just happened, though I could in no way explain why, I tried to.
She pointed to her name tag, which read ‘Dace.’ I’m Latvian,” she said. “And nobody comes in here asking for anything about Latvia. This is so exciting!”
By the end of that week, Dace had combed through her personal library and loaded me up with her family’s history books.
The more I read the more I realized how little I knew about this part of the world. Even so, I sensed there was so much more than what history books could tell me. I wanted to know what Latvia looked like in different seasons, how Latvians ring in a new year or celebrate a new birth, which kind of beer would be voted best in an informal poll. I knew that I needed to see Latvia for myself.
My family was dubious about my plan. I had a long and thoroughly established tradition of becoming lost. “You don’t speak Latvian and the Russian you speak is SO bad!” My mother said. “How will you get along?”
Another impossible question, and so I answered the only way I knew how: with a smile and a shrug. A few months later, there I was at the Riga airport, standing at the baggage claim area, my luggage at my feet and a bus schedule unfolded in my hands. I had already been a little lost on the tarmac in Sweden when a very tall man with snow white hair came to my aid.
“You look lost again,” a voice said. I turned. This same very tall man with snow white hair stood beside me.
“I might be,” I admitted. “I’m looking for the #22 express.” I squinted at the bus schedule.
He didn’t look at the schedule. “Well, I’m rather an important person,” he said. “Some people from the ministry of culture are here with a car. Perhaps we can give you a ride to wherever you need to go.”
Outside the airport a car was waiting. I climbed into the back seat and the man sat beside me. “I’m Juris Kronbergs, by the way,” he said. “I write poetry, among other things. What do you do?”
“I’m usually too lost to know what to do.” I said. “No really. -- I’m exploring,” I said. “I want to learn everything I can about Latvia.”
Juris looked very intently at me. I had the sense that I had just been taken on as his project. “If you really want to learn about Latvia, there are some people I could introduce you to.”
True to his word, Juris had arranged a series of interviews. The first would take place in Salaspils with his dear friend, Knuts Skujenieks, and Knuts’ wife, Inta. The bus ride from Riga to Salaspils is not a long journey, just long enough for Juris to brief me about his good friend Knuts’ history. For seven years Knuts was kept in a Soviet prison camp. “He was sent there for having in his possession an Encyclopedia Britannica. Never mind that anybody could go to the library and read volumes of the encyclopedia. It was such a stupid case—everybody said so, even the prosecutor assigned to his case.
You should know that Amnesty International offered to take his case and he would have gotten out two years earlier. But Knuts refused their offer. He felt that accepting help would have meant he was admitting he’d done something wrong. But, I’ll let Knuts tell his story.” We stepped off the bus. Juris looked at his watch. “It’s 10:20. We’d better buy some vodka. For Knuts. He can’t drink wine on account of his stomach.”
When Knuts greeted us, his entire face lit up. While Inta set the table, Knuts gave us a tour of his house, a beautiful home: wood floors, large wooden beams, wood ceilings. A spinning wheel sat beneath the stairwell. Bright red Geraniums bloomed near the windows. And this in December. “Inta’s talented.” Knuts said, leading us up the rough hewn stairs to his loft where he typically works. He pointed to his desk where there were a few papers, a pen. “I’m old-fashioned. I don’t use a computer.
I’m too old to learn. But I’ve got everything else I need—just the essentials, really.” Knuts nodded to his books. There must be over three thousand books throughout this house. But his comment prompted the question: for a serious writer what were the essential books?
“Good dictionaries—in all sorts of languages. And poetry. You must have as much poetry as possible!”
Inta called us down to the table where she had laid out chicken in aspic, lamprey, spicy pickled pumpkin salad, black bread, cheese. The pumpkin she grew in the garden, of course. Inta filled shot glasses full of bison grass vodka. Knuts made a toast and we downed our shots. Inta refilled our glasses. Juris toasted and again we drained our glasses. Inta passed the bottle. I feared if I didn’t whip out my little notebook and start asking questions soon, the Interview would be scuttled before it started.
“How did you survive your time in the prison camp? Is there a recipe for survival?” I asked--a ridiculously awkward question, but I knew I would never meet another man like Knuts.
“Poetry,” Knuts said without hesitation.
Everyday Knuts wrote poems, which he somehow managed to smuggle out of camp. They’d been married for just eight months when he was taken. Writing letters and composing those poems were how, Knuts said, he maintained his sanity. By the time he was released he had written over 1,000 poems.
Just how he got those letters and poems out I suppose is a subject for another interview, perhaps for Knuts’ next book. For now, Knuts was content on delivering the other half of his recipe for survival: humor. Specifically, making jokes. And chairs.
Knuts’ forced labor job at the gulag was to make furniture. “These kinds of chairs nobody would ever want to sit on,” Knuts laughed. “They were terrible! Most of the time we were only pretending to work. We call this ‘stretching rubber.’”
Juris jogged my elbow. “Write that down in your notebook.”
“We told jokes while we worked. Allow me to demonstrate, this one comes from ‘Radio Yerevan’: What’s the difference between capitalism and communism?”
Juris supplied the answer: “In capitalism man exploits man, in communism it’s the other way around.”
“They couldn’t break my spirit,” Knuts added. “I understood their system and I laughed at it.
They couldn’t abide humor, you know.”
Again Inta refilled our glasses. We’d emptied the bottle of bison grass vodka and were already halfway through the red pepper and honey vodka, a specialty of Ukraine. My handwriting had turned to pure chicken scratches and I was having a hard time keeping up with the toasting, especially with Inta.
“Your problem is that you lack discipline.” Juris observed. “You haven’t been training properly.”
“No,” Knuts drained his glass. “They could never break my spirit. When I finally got out and returned home, the KGB would call me in every now and then for what they’d call ‘friendly chats.’”
“’Are you afraid of us?’ They’d asked. ‘No,’ I’d laugh. ‘Why should I be? I’ve been there and back, what more can you do to me?’” Knuts laughed. “And this is why they thought I was a dangerous man. They could not break me.”
What struck me was Knuts’ candor, his willingness to tell his story. And his heart. He didn’t hate the Soviets, not then, or now. As he told about the indignities, the hardship, there was no vitriol or resentment. He hated regimes, he hated systems that sought to crush thought and imagination. He hated their absurd rhetoric. But he didn’t hate people. That was his strength.
On the way out the door, Knuts left me with a gift: a book of jokes -- of course.