Ilze Stikane



Autobiographic prose, in which the author tells his own childhood story, is a peculiar genre characteristic of Latvian literature from its very start, and here belong portrayals, stories and novels. Almost each Latvian writer usually when reaching a mature age, has wanted to turn to and has also written childhood memories.

Books of childhood memories have already appeared since the beginning of Latvian literature in the 19th century, the first being the unfinished story Līvu Ādams (“Liiv Adam”) by Jēkabs Zvaigznīte in the year 1870. It was followed by others, and up to the year 1945 there appeared works of 12 noteworthy writers, among them several vast cycles of portrayals (Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš’  Baltā grāmata (“The white book”, 1921)), novels (Valdis’ Staburaga bērni (“The children of Staburags”, 1895)), trilogies (Dievs, Daba, Darbs (“God, Nature, Work”) by Anna Brigadere, Pastariņa triloģija (“Pastarinsh’ trilogy”) by Ernests Birznieks – Upītis).

After World War Two the literature of childhood memories splits into two branches just as the whole Latvian literature - 1) Latvian literature in occupied Latvia and 2) Latvian literature in exile. For a long time in Soviet Latvia no book was published on childhood memories - probably it was because the ideology of soviet occupation considered rooting up the past unwelcome. It is paradoxical that the first published book of childhood memories was Zaļā grāmata (“The green book”, 1950) written by J. Jaunsudrabiņš, who lived in exile. But this event is connected with a particular policy of the occupation rule – the attempts to allure this remarkable and beloved writer to return to his Motherland. The first book published in Latvia at that time was stories of childhood memories Kad strazdi svelpj (“When thrushes whistle”) by Jānis Kalniņš (it appeared only in the year 1968!), then books appeared one after another up to the year 2007, approximately works of 28 writers. At the same time books of childhood memories (up to the year 1991) are written in exile, later in the Diaspora, all in all books of 25 writers up to the year 2007.

Thus we can speak about approximately 65 books of childhood memories written by Latvian writers. It is difficult to name the exact number of the books because it is impossible to draw a strict border-line to the notion of ‘CHILDHOOD MEMORIES’. (Up to what age? It is clear that adolescent age should be also included in this notion, but the question is what to do with sketches of youth memories?  Besides, it is not always easy to say that the author has written about his own childhood.

These are books reflect the history of the family and the kin, and the impact of the state system, the conditions, wars, revolutions and other great political events on the lives of separate families and individuals. The books mainly concentrate on the lives and fates of families. The traditional approach of Latvian literature is realistic and psychological depiction of people in events – it brightly depicts actual time and space. However, there are books written in another manner, which seem to be interesting with their oddity.

How do writers feel childhood? The majority of books describe childhood memories, despite the family’s poverty, their hard work, hard political collisions, as an idyllically happy time, depicted with an attitude of light nostalgia. In many books of childhood memories (by J. Jaunsudrabiņš, A. Brigadere, E. Birznieks – Upītis, Marianna Ieviņa, Dzidra Zeberiņa, Aleksandrs Pelēcis, Viks, Māris Rungulis, etc.) prevails an optimistic mood, joy of living and activity. It is a retrospection of one’s wonderful childhood as the initial stage of the way to achievements. Only some Latvian writers (Rainis, Vizma Belševics, Lalita Muižniece, Agnese Nesaule) feel childhood and youth differently – with nostalgia with a tragic tinge: “…childhood is not an idyll, as it is always said to be. It is a hard and very sensitive time. Still more painful is youth.” [Belševica 1998]. Sometimes this feeling of childhood and youth as being a painful, even tragic time is based on interior – psychological – factors (V. Belševica’s  trilogy Bille (1995), Bille dzīvo tālāk (“Bille goes on living”, 1996) and Billes skaistā jaunība (“Bille’s wonderful youth”, 1999), sometimes it is based more on external conditions – the echoes of  the tragic past events (L. Muižniece’s Pēdas (“Footprints”, 1975), A. Nesaule’s Sieviete dzintarā (“Woman in amber”, 1997)) or during the hard conditions of the times of soviet occupation (Gundega Repše’s  Alvas kliedziens (“Tin’s shriek”, 2002)).

In every book a child comes to meet the reader – with his voice, smile, dislikes, conviction, and love. There are more boys than girls as the main characters because in Latvian literature there have always been more men-writers than women-writers, only at the end of the 20th century the proportion changed (but young writers do not write childhood memories yet!).

The child in the book addresses the reader. It is through the child in the book that the author exposes himself, his world outlook, feelings and evaluations. Sometimes this child speaks using adults’ vocabulary or the adult speaks with the child’s mouth (the implied author). Quite often the child’s speech is interrupted by the adult’s remarks, explanations and conceptions. Thus, we can say the image of the child is quite peculiar - it is a combination of the child and the adult, and it is why such books can’t be easily put on the shelf of only children’s literature or on the shelf only for adults’ literature. These books arouse adults’ interest, too, because everyone can find in them a reproduction of the world corresponding to his own experience, understanding and wishes.

The child’s, the protagonist’s, feeling of the world first of all is determined by the author from the angle of his point of view by putting in the foreground one or another time-place component – time or space. By all means it is particular time and particular space. In part of the books in the centre of attention is brought forward time, the epoch, the past as history, e.g. V. Belševica emphasises it in the dedication of the book by saying that the book could be as well called “When the grandmother was small..” [Belševica 1995: 3]. The depicted historical period in the books of childhood memories in Latvian literature is from the first part of the 19th century to the 70’s of the 20th century - ‘the newest’ memories are about the 70’s of the 20th century.

Sometimes along the concreteness of the ere appears also a mythical feeling of time: “The happy time when one had everything and there was no need to envy anyone! When horses and gentlemen and peasants drank from one and the same bucket…” (Aleksandrs Pelēcis  Puiciska dvēsele (“A boyish soul”, 1990)). [Pelēcis 1990: 198]. A concrete date becomes nonessential when speaking about greater, human truths and values beyond times, about the time of the creation of man, the outset and the foundation.

There is an essential and characteristic feeling that childhood world is special space, PLACE – the roots, home, the Motherland, Latvia. This is what Dzidra Zeberiņa said in the dedication of the book Kad es maza biju (“When I was small”, 1969): “To my country, where freely will grow birches, wood sorrel, edible boletus, sorrel, cat’s feet, butterfly orchids and people – even such like me” [Zeberiņa 1969: 5].

A significant part of the structure of the plot becomes the child’s feeling of belonging to a definite environment - to concrete space in concrete time (the nature, people, the society).

It is interesting that in the books of childhood memories written in Latvia in the second half of the 20th century the authors have more accentuated THAT TIME, while SPACE – THAT PLACE, HOME, THE MOTHERLAND are more emphasized in the books of childhood memories written in emigration.

In the books of childhood memories is strongly expressed one’s awareness of home, the Motherland  as values, emphasis is also put on patriotism as a value. The books of childhood memories show that the mentality of the Latvians holds them tight to this country, the people, the language. Memories keep them back from becoming and being citizens of the world ( i.e. cosmopolites).

In all the books of childhood memories one of the most essential values of the childhood world is the family. It is mainly described in a positive aspect. Many nice words can be read about the parents, the kin, harmony in the family, support (in memories by J. Jaunsudrabiņš, A. Brigadere, E. Birznieks-Upītis , in exile – V. Pelēcis, M. Ieviņa, Arnolds Apse, etc.). However, not only harmonious and friendly relations are depicted, which only testifies to it that there is real diversity and complexity in life. In V. Belševica’s trilogy we can follow up the moulding of a personality, the growth of self- respect, the ability to rise after humiliations, to overcome the inferiority complex, imposed by the family. The depiction of such sharp experience is seldom met in Latvian books of childhood memories. The girl’s optimism surprises and enchants. The adult reader realizes the disastrous influence of poverty and starts thinking about the strength and weakness of love. It is the author’s – the adult’s – truth of her vision and attitude when showing this ruthless life. There is a very clearly expressed sense of reality, the desire to show how it was in reality, to show how  poor people lived in the suburbs. It is the girl – Bille - who experiences all the events and who despite everything and to the surprise of all is able to wake up every morning with a hope. [Radzobe 1995: 23].

The child of the books of childhood memories is first of all characterized as being natural and true. The child’s sprightly and observant eye at once notices everything that is false, untrue and falsified. The child’s attitude often finds its expression in inner speech (interior monologues), in which we hear his definite, independent, very often very categorical, judgements and evaluations of life phenomena. The child gives a very sensitive and critical evaluation of the processes going on around, keenly sensing falsehood, lies, pretence or buffoonery. It is meaningful that it is the adults’ world that the children meet them first of all, and they disassociate from it. (V. Belševica’s Bille, Dz. Zeberiņa’s Kad es maza biju (“When I was small”)).

Many children of the books of childhood memories are made attractive with their resoluteness, enterprise and courage.

School brings new colours and feelings in the child’s life. The attitude to learning is generally positive. Almost in all the books of childhood memories education, intellectual labour are perceives as indisputable values, a means of further development, a way to achievements  and the future.

In books of childhood memories the image of the child stands in strict positions of harmonizing the ties between man and the nature. By showing the close relations between the child and the nature the author acknowledge the unity of man and the nature as a value. In the majority of the books of childhood memories the way from the country to town is viewed as development, progress from the simple, stable but comparatively low basis of existence forward, higher, to education. Only in few of the books the attitude is just the opposite – the contrast between the town and the country unmistakably is made in order to underline the artlessness of the country (the town girl is quite sure that everything in the country is better, even actual parties are real only in the country. (Dz. Zeberiņa’s Kad es maza biju (“When I was small”))

An essential constituent part of childhood emotional world is laughter and humour. They bring liveliness and colour in art, too. The books are made attractive for both children and adults. The authors achieve a comic effect with the help of the language, a witty situation and interesting colourful characters. However, quite often humour is addressed to the adult reader, because it can be understood only in a wider or narrower context. In this way the child in the book as if ‘winks’ just at the grown-up reader.

In the books of childhood memories the child’s character to a certain extent is revealed in his language. The personality is best perceived through his personified inner speech (interior monologues) and train of thought. The children characters are depicted lively, their world outlook corresponding to their developmental age stage.

The books of childhood memories in Latvian literature, mainly by real psychologically putting the child in the centre, in concrete time and space,  give a vast and diverse picture of the age, which fascinates with the scent of the truthfulness of life. In the image of the child are joined two – the child and ‘he’ as the adult – who by turns or one through the other address the reader telling him about a particular world – both concrete and sometimes also with a mythic meaning – as one’s roots, home,  the Motherland, which is the foundation needed for the moulding of man. The return to one’s childhood is the clarification of one’s ‘history’ and consequently, a way to the awareness of one’s identity. The idealization of the past life, especially in exile literature, connected with the acknowledgement of traditional values – the family, the nature, education, patriotism, many moral traits, and the intonation of nostalgia, does not surprise us. For many writers the childhood world seems superior to everything.      

Ilze Stikane, Latvia

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen 2008
1.    Belševica V. (1995) Bille. R.: Jumava.
2.    Belševica V. (1998) Smagā gargabalā // Diena, 26.sept.
3.    Pelēcis A. (1990) Puisiska dvēsele. Rīga: Liesma.
4.    Radzobe S. (1995) Politiska grāmata // Grāmatu Apskats. Nr.18.
5.    Zeberiņa Dz.(1969) Kad es maza biju. [Ņujorka]: Grāmatu Draugs.