“Riga is a city of legends, myths, and stories.” says The Book of Riga’s introduction, going on to tell the story of a mythical creature which emerges from the water every hundred years to ask if Riga is complete. Should the residents feel that they are no longer striving for growth and prosperity, Riga will disappear, engulfed by the water.
Latvia as a country is young (it celebrates its centenary this year), but Riga has a long history, summarised in the foreword by former president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. She explains that although the city’s demographics were drastically altered by the events of the last century, ‘Riga remains a multi-ethnic, multilingual city’. It’s also a dynamic and creative one with a lively arts scene for such a small country. The ten stories in The Book of Riga, the latest in the Comma Press series (joining cities such as Tokyo, Dakar and Rio), showcase these attributes.
In the opening story, ‘The Hare’s Declaration’, a potential tragedy veers off into a media spectacle. Hot on its heels comes ‘The Birds of Kıpsala Island’, a hazy, tense-jumping, unreliable tale of emancipation (I think). In ‘The Shakes’, a Swedish businessman and his assistant drink wine while spying on a demonstration, secure in the knowledge that it will not turn violent because ‘Latvians are not like that’. After a few days of tension everything dies down and they go back to work.
Then it’s time for some history, which apparently is a common preoccupation of contemporary Latvian writing. ‘Westside Garden’ is a mad romp through the 1900s, careering between narrators and through time; flowers being the only point of consistency. ‘Killing Mrs Cecilia Bochs’ tells one family’s experience of independence, while ‘Wonderful New Latvia’ is narrated by a librarian in the wonderful new National Library.
‘The Girl who Cut my Hair’ is a funny, slightly experimental meditation on growing up, and ‘A White Jacket with Gold Buttons’ is a dryly humorous satire of a slightly bitter writer. The final story in the collection, ‘The Night Shift’, is a folklore-esque tale about a ticket collector on public transport who bravely steps up to an unknown fate. Parallels could be drawn with Riga’s positivity in the face of a future which, due to geographic circumstances, remains persistently a little bit insecure. The stories display the creative range of Latvia’s contemporary writing, with several of the writers seen here in English for the first time.
Any Cop?: A quirky and varied literary reflection of a city trying to make peace with a traumatic past and striving to define its own future.