Soviet MilkNora Ikstena
The literary bestseller that took the Baltics by storm now published for the first time in English.
This novel considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual. The central character in the story tries to follow her calling as a doctor. But then the state steps in. She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter. Banished to a village in the Latvian countryside, her sense of isolation increases. Will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga when political change begins to stir?
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
At first glance this novel depicts a troubled mother-daughter relationship set in the the Soviet-ruled Baltics between 1969 and 1989. Yet just beneath the surface lies something far more positive: the story of three generations of women, and the importance of a grandmother giving her granddaughter what her daughter is unable to provide – love, and the desire for life.
Written by Nora Ikstena.
Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis.
Home in Exile series
192pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Nora Ikstena was born in 1969 in Riga, Latvia. She studied at the University of Latvia before moving to New York. On her return to the Baltics she helped establish the Latvian Literature Centre. She published her first novel, Celebration of Life, in 1998 and has written over twenty books since. She has won numerous awards, such as the Order of the Three Stars for Services to Literature and the Baltic Assembly Prize. Soviet Milk, her most recent novel, won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award (LALIGABA) for Best Prose.
Margita Gailitis has translated some of Latvia’s finest poetry and prose into English, including Sandra Kalmiete’s With Dance Shoes in Sibirian Snows and Māra Zālīte’s Five Fingers. Soviet Milk is her first translation for Peirene Press.
‘A blistering Latvian bestseller… Soviet Milk powerfully evokes Latvia’s bitter history.’ Claire Armitstead, The Guardian
‘Soviet Milk paints a refreshingly nuanced picture of Latvia under Communist rule … reserved, devoid of over-dramatisation, and all the more powerful for it.’ Anna Aslanyan, The TLS
‘This could almost be Latvia itself talking, a small, fiercely proud nation now making a literary noise outside its borders that’s long overdue.’ Charlie Connelly, The New European
‘Every so often, you come across a book so beautiful that you ration the pages to extend it. Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is most certainly one of these.’ Catherine Venner, World Literature Today
‘Nora Ikstena’s fiction opens up new paths not only for Latvian literature in English translation but for English literature itself.’ Jeremy Davis, Dalkey Archive Press
‘Latvia is a country we have heard almost nothing about since its separation from the Soviet Union. Nora Ikstena is proving that Latvia is speaking in a bold and original voice.’ Rosie Goldsmith, broadcaster and reviewer
I don’t remember 15 October 1969. There are people
who swear they remember their birth. I don’t. It’s likely
that I was well positioned in my mother’s womb, because
the birth was normal. Not particularly long, or particularly
short, with the last contractions coming every
five minutes. My mother was twenty-five, young and
healthy. Her mental state, though, was not so healthy,
as I learned later.
I do remember, or at least I can picture, the golden,
tender calm of October, alternating with forebodings
of a long period of darkness. It’s a kind of boundary
month, at least in the climate of this latitude, where
seasons change slowly and autumn only gradually gives
way to winter.
Probably leaves were falling, and our bad-tempered
concierge raked them up in the courtyard. She had come
from Kyrgyzstan with her family and been allocated a flat
in our building at 20 Miçurina Street. Her slant-eyed little
girl sat on the windowsill, slurping borscht and cheerfully
inviting everyone into their home. The pre-war grandeur
of the flat had been modified to reflect the Kyrgyz woman’s
idea of beauty. The previous inhabitants, a Jewish family,
had abandoned the flat in 1941, when deportation to
Siberia saved them from having to wear yellow stars on
their backs a few months later, in Nazi-occupied Riga.
Now heavy rugs covered the parquet, the porcelain dishes
were filled with sunflower seeds and spittoons stood on
the piano lid. Times and religions had commingled. And
that’s how it was in the entire building, when I was carried
up to the thirteenth flat, carefully swaddled like a
chrysalis, as was the custom in those times.
Now and then I have a dream from which I awake feeling
sick. I’m clinging to my mother’s breast and trying
to suck on it. The breast is large, full of milk, but I can’t
get any out. I don’t see my mother, she doesn’t help me,
and I’m left to struggle with her breast on my own. Then
suddenly I succeed and a bitter, repulsive liquid spurts
into my mouth. I gag and wake with a start.
My mother was a young doctor. Perhaps she knew
that her milk would have caused more harm than good
to her child. How else to explain her disappearance from
home immediately after giving birth? She was missing
for five days. She returned with aching breasts. Her milk
had stopped flowing.
In despair, my grandmother fed me camomile tea for
two days. Then she went to the infant clinic. The suspicious
doctor berated her in Russian and insulted my
mother for abandoning me. But eventually he wrote out
a note authorizing her to receive infant formula for me.
During the twenty years I lived with my mother, I
wasn’t able to ask her why she had deprived me of her
breast. I wasn’t able to because I didn’t yet know that
she had. And it would have been an inappropriate question
because, as it turned out, the role of mother was to
I don’t remember 22 October 1944, but I can reconstruct
it. Riga has been liberated from the Nazis. Bombs have
shattered the maternity ward’s windows. It is damp and
cold, and the women who have just given birth helplessly
wrap themselves in their bloodied sheets. Exhausted nurses
and doctors are bundling up dead newborns and drinking
as they work. An epidemic that everyone is calling nasal
typhoid fever is raging through the hospital. Sounds of
wailing, bombs whistling in the air and, through the
windows, the smell of burning. My mother has sneaked
me out of the ward, bound to her chest, and is squirting
her milk into my nose. Pus, milk and blood together drip
from my tiny nose. I gag and breathe, gag and breathe.Then there is silence. A horse pulls a wagon on a sunny
autumnal road from Riga to Babīte in the outskirts. My
father stops several times to allow my mother to feed
me. I no longer gag but breathe calmly and greedily suck
my mother’s milk. In the Babīte Forest district we have a
lovely house, barely furnished and without a cradle, but
my mother makes up a bed for me in a suitcase.Each morning my father inspects his young spruce
trees. That’s what happens until Christmas, when a heavy
lorry full of soldiers roars in. They shout in a language my
parents don’t understand, then jump out and begin to fell
the young spruce trees. My father locks my mother and
me in the back room, where she hides me in the suitcase
with holes pierced in it so I can breathe. My father runs
out of the house, yelling, ‘Bastards, scoundrels!’ and trying
to save his spruce trees. The soldiers beat him until he
bleeds and throw him into the lorry with the hewn trees.
Then they search the house, banging at all the doors.
Holding her breath, my mother crouches in a wardrobe
in the locked room, holding the suitcase with me inside
it on her knees. The soldiers are ransacking the house,
the noise is horrendous. Finally, all grows quiet and we
listen to the sound of the engine as they drive away.Towards morning my mother climbs out of the wardrobe.
She feeds me, ties me to herself, dresses warmly and
heads back to Riga on foot. It is late evening when we
arrive at our flat on Tomsona Street, soon to be renamed
Miçurina Street. My mother is exhausted but she still has
to tape over the windows shattered by bombs during an
air raid. Otherwise we would both freeze.*I don’t know how my mother and grandmother dealt with
my mother’s disappearance at the time, but it was never
mentioned. Throughout my childhood the smell of medicine
and disinfectant replaced the fragrance of mother’s
milk. These chemicals would hang like a cloud around my
mother: there when she returned from exhausting night
duty at the maternity hospital; still there when, after long
hours of wakefulness, she caught up on sleep at home.
Her handbag was full of pills, ampoules and various
steel instruments. Later I recognized them as terrifying
gynaecologists’ instruments. It was a macabre world. If
my mother happened to be home at night, she would sit
up smoking and drinking coffee, bent over mountains
of lamplit medical books. Pinned above her desk were
diagrams of wombs, ovaries, pelvises and vaginas from
various angles and perspectives.My mother knew nothing of the world beyond. She
would pointedly close her door when the programme
Vremya – ‘Time’ – came on television, with lisping
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. She didn’t read the Riga’s Voice
newspaper, for which a long queue formed on the corner
of Gorky Street every evening. The lunchtime queue at
the meat and dairy shop was equally long. You could
buy the popular so-called doctor’s sausage and butter
there – but she had no idea of this domestic world. Yet
beside the mountains of medical textbooks lay a half-read
Moby-Dick. It spoke of her longing for a life of the mind
that remained beyond her grasp.I don’t remember Mother ever hugging me much, but
I remember her needle-pricked thigh, where she practiced
injections. I remember her in bed with blue lips the first
time she overdosed, possibly as part of some medical
experiment. I remember the smell of her dressing gown,
the odour of the bitter tincture given before she was
driven to the hospital. And I remember the corridor of
the maternity hospital where I was allowed to meet her
after night shifts. We would then head for an Aloja Street
café and eat solyanka soup and kupati sausages, and
she would add caffeine from an ampoule to her coffee.
I also remember how our street seemed frozen in time,
like a picture clipped from a different era and glued into
today. Only the elegant types frequenting the races at the
nearby hippodrome were missing. In their place, going
home or to work, heads bowed, other kinds of people
were hurrying towards Communism, their net bags filled
with humble supplies: long loaves, bottles of kefir milk
with bright green screw tops, laundry parcels wrapped
in grey paper and tied with string.
For Reading Groups
Get your brain in gear with our reading group questions:
1. At the beginning of the book the mother runs away right after her daughter is born. When she returns, she says she was afraid her milk would be poison to the baby. Why do you think this is?
2. How does the grandmother differ from her daughter and granddaughter? What sort of influence does the book portray her as having on them?
3. The hippodrome fire that takes place on page 25-26 is (for the most part) seen from the daughter’s perspective. It is unclear whether there are people in the building on not when it burns down. What does this scene say about the mother’s sanity, or is it a statement about conspiracy in the Soviet Union? If the latter, how so?
4. In what ways does the novel’s two central characters portray the Soviet Union as a dystopian state?
5. For the most part the book offers a sense of hopelessness on the part of the mother, in the face of the Soviet Union. However, at times she does attempt to subvert the system. How is this undertaken, and is it successful?
6. How does the perception and heresy surrounding the debate of God’s existence affect the central characters’ interactions?
7. What antagonism do the mother and daughter experience, and is it actual or perceived?
8. Pick a single scene as viewed from both the mother and daughter’s perspective. What differs between their views?
9. Discuss how the structure of the book enhances the reading quality of Soviet Milk.
10. What comparisons might be drawn between the relationship of the story’s two central women, and their relationship with the Socialist society they lives in? Is the destruction inherent in one relationship relative to the other?
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