As a helpless sentimentalist, I tend to hunt for unique keepsakes to commemorate new countries or places I visit. While some destinations present obvious choices for souvenirs (e.g. amber jewelry from Gdansk or babouche slippers from Morocco) others can be trickier. In order to avoid the pitfall of aimlessly venturing into a tacky souvenir shop in the desperate effort to secure a much-needed trinket, I have recently begun seeking out local literature. By touring bookshops during my travels and reading tales set in the country I have visited, I am able to satisfy both my cultural and bookish curiosity.
In Riga, this quest led me to Valters un Rapa – a relatively big bookshop at the edge of the old town. The staff spoke limited English but led me to a shelf with translated works. There I picked up a wonderful collection of Latvian fairytales.
This hardback is of great quality and contains dreamlike drawings bringing each story to life. The stories themselves recall the familiar structure, plot devices and motifs of the typical fairy tale: magic and enchantment; multiple, interweaving plots; valiant quests; the granting of three wishes.
The book’s introduction and afterward aim to contextualise the stories, situating each tale in the wider folklore tradition and giving a brief overview of Latvian folk tale collection. These additions make it a particularly interesting read for anyone interested in folklore and comparative literature.
At the Museum of Occupation, I bought a second, very different book about Latvia:
Dear God, How I wanted to live is the memoir of a young Latvian girl who was sent to Siberia with her family during the Second World War. Her diary and the simple language it is written in offer a raw, candid look at life in Stalin’s gulags. Ruta’s story is utterly moving, her courage and openness humbling. Throughout the book, the horrors she recounts are juxtaposed with her appreciation of Siberia’s natural landscapes. This ability to not only see but to celebrate beauty amidst overwhelming despair is a powerful ode to the human spirit. Honouring this child’s courage and remembering the tragic fate suffered by thousands of Latvians make this a necessary read.
While the book on Latvian fairytales emphasises Latvia’s celebration of their folklore heritage which I learnt about during our free walking tour in Riga, Ruta’s memoir pushed me to confront the harsh realities Latvians had to live through in the 1940s. Together, these entirely different literary works provided additional lenses through which I could grasp Latvia’s history and traditions.