The following essay is the foreword to the latest edition of Flesh-Coloured Dominoes, a novel by Zigmunds Skujiņš, first published in Latvian in 1999, now translated by Kaija Sraumanis for Arcadia Books.
Foreword to Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Jelgava, lying just a short distance south of the Latvian capital Riga, once the seat of the Dukes of Courland as well as being a western outpost of the Russian Tsarist empire, has historically been something of a cultural crossroads. Whereas Riga became prosperous and culturally heterogeneous as a Baltic trading port, Jelgava, or Mitau as the Baltic German nobility used to call it, absorbed its cultural influences through its German aristocracy and gained its political power through the intermarriage of the Dukes of Courland and the Russian Romanov dynasty.
Into this rich and many-layered historical background the reader is plunged by this fascinating novel, which appeared in Latvian in 1999 under the title Miesas krāsas domino. Remarkably, its author, Zigmunds Skujiņš, was by then 72 years old, with a long literary career behind him. In this respect, and also in his love of rummaging in the byways of Baltic history, he is reminiscent of his Estonian contemporary Jaan Kross. Like him, and perhaps also like the so-called ‘magic realist’ writers of South America from the same generation, Skujiņš is able to make his central characters also the central players in curious events which enhance the luminous strangeness of their time-worn and neglect-encrusted physical surroundings. And adding to the magic – the child’s sense of wonder at all the treasures that can be discovered.
Skujiņš is a rare figure in Latvian literature in his willingness to delve deep into a wide range of times and places, in a variety of literary forms. Before considering his own career, it’s worth remembering that at the time this novel is partly set – the late eighteenth century – Latvia did not have an indigenous literature. And it did not have statehood either; the area which is the setting of this novel was then the Duchy of Courland, and its educated class was German speaking. Latvian was the spoken language of the peasantry. There was a kind of vernacular literacy, but only insofar as a peasant might learn his catechism to please an ‘enlightened’ German pastor. This backwater of German culture and Russian empire, home to an unenfranchised Baltic peasantry, becomes in this novel scene of extraordinary sideshows involving some of the more notorious characters of eighteenth-century European history, such as the charlatan Count Cagliostro.
Zigmunds Skujiņš was born in Riga, capital of the then independent Latvia, on 25 December 1926. He was educated there, but at the age of seventeen, during the war, he was taken to Germany, returning to Latvia at the end of the war. After a year at the Rozentāls School of Arts, he became a journalist, and was involved in the broadcast as well as the printed media, rising to become first chairman of the national Radio and Television Council.
Skujiņš is a writer who is equally at home in longer and shorter fiction – he has been prolific in both. His collections of stories began to appear in 1956 with Esmu dzimis bagāts (I was Born Rich). The collections that followed established a characteristic trend in his writing: the blurred lines between everyday reality and dreams or illusions, and they range over many times and places, and include Ciemiņšnoviņpasaules (A Visitor from Beyond, 1963), Zebras āda (The Skin of the Zebra, 1968), Balzams (Balsam, 1972), Uzbrukums vējdzirnavām (Attack on the Windmill, 1976), Sermuliņš uz asfalta un citi stāsti (A Stoat on the Pavement and Other Stories, 1980) and Abpus durvīm (On Both Sides of the Door, 1988). Some of his stories have been made into plays and even filmed, notably the novella Kolumbamazdēli (The Grandsons of Columbus).
In his longer fiction, such as the novel before you here, the author tends to develop broader themes: the contrast between youth and maturity: Formarina, 1953; Kailums (Nakedness, 1970), Jauna cilvēka memuāri (Memoirs of a Young Man, 1981, which has been translated into several languages); and later, as the author himself reached mature years, the reassessment of values that comes with age and experience: Sudrabotie mākoņi (Silvery Clouds, 1967) and Vīrietis labākajos gados (A Man in his Prime, 1974). But it was the novel Gulta ar zelta kāju (The Bed with the Golden Leg, 1984) that expanded the author’s canvas truly into the historical dimension. This novel ambitiously dealt with a dynasty, tracing the destiny of a single family over the course of a century.
From there it seems a logical progression to this present novel: with the perspective of history, Skujiņš strives to throw into relief the uniqueness of Latvian identity. What makes a person a Latvian? By this time the author had accumulated a body of work in several genres and styles, but even in his more mature years he has been anxious to remain a quester after new forms, and fears stagnation: ‘I’m most afraid that this novel has the smell of old age, which can easily happen at my age […] The most terrible thing is to go into an old-fashioned nostalgic twaddle,’ said Skujiņš in an interview published in the literary journal Grāmatu Apskats (1999, 6/7). His fear was unfounded; this novel has no trace of the smell of old age. Quite the contrary – the novel is very challenging. Some readers may be daunted by it, but as the critic Guntis Berelis said in a review of the book on its appearance, the voice of healthy common sense that is present in many places really is healthy, and not just the rumination of endless general platitudes. Berelis felt that this questing, restless and provocative work was perhaps Skujiņš’ best novel.
The title of the novel well describes the process of its creation. First there is the game of dominoes, whose pieces fit together by matching patterns. Some of the pieces in the domino set are events at the end of the eighteenth century, intertwined in an extravagant Rococo manner; others are events of the twentieth century. And some are universal: those concluding sections in which the plot lines come together, and it becomes clear why the novel jumps between and across the centuries. These sections also contain broader speculations, reinforcing the novel’s conceptual base. Some of these ‘dominoes’ may be read as separate short stories: for examples, the story of the funeral of Aspazija, the celebrated Latvian poetess (1865–1945), who was also the wife of Latvia’s national poet Rainis and who became something of a Latvian national institution in herself. Skujiņš had already dealt with this theme in an earlier story, ‘Satan’s Angel’, one of several semi- fictional reassessments of great Latvian literary figures of the past – but in this instance with a conscious sense of a game, as the domino pieces fall together revealing connections that were not immediately obvious. In this falling together of apparently unrelated connections, Skujiņš was applying a creative principle he had used in The Bed with the Golden Leg.
Another meaning of ‘dominoes’ refers to carnival costume. Yet, carnival costume in flesh colour isn’t distinguishable from real flesh. A mask is transformed into a face, a face into a mask (recalling Skujiņš’ earlier novel Nakedness). The author’s underlying implication is that history is sometimes reminiscentof a comic carnival, or even a ghostly one, for whose participants the masks are indistinguishable from faces. The roles enforced by society on the individual become part of their natural existence. Doubts arise about the nature of what is ‘real’. Sleight of hand with reality seems to be the extraordinary skill of one of the main characters in the novel, Cagliostro – was he a mage or just a charlatan? And who actually was the Pilot (the name by which Herberts Cukurs is unmasked in the novel), in whose character are united a servant of all the powers, a seeker of experiences, a shooter of Jews and a saviour of Jews? Seemingly disparate elements, the author suggests, go to make up the character of a Latvian – if such a nation really exists, he is suggesting, then it is an accidental blending of all kinds of bloodlines. In the twentieth century, the character of Jānis, of Japanese origin and with Oriental features, bears a passport that says ‘Latvian’. The eighteenth-century figure of von Brīgen bears exactly the face that our narrator sees in the mirror.
What parts is a person made of? This is a question to which the novel pays special attention, starting from the nightmarish versions of the eighteenth-century soldier, sewn together from two parts by the surgeon, so which is the ‘real’ identity of the person, the upper or the lower part? The question is then posed: does the whole nation lack an ‘upper part’? Skujiņš compels the reader to feel that it is history itself that poses these questions of identity. His gift lies in finding the illuminating anecdote from history, the little-known curious fact that throws light on history’s grotesque domino-game with individual and national identity. It is a challenge for the author to provide a plausible background to the implausible mystificator Cagliostro, for example, and he rises to this challenge. The novel begins with his arrival in Jelgava in 1779 (an event also related by another modern Latvian author, Marģeris Zariņš, in a short story). The author/narrator places one of his ancestors in the story as a witness to events. Mystification is also the predilection of this ancestor, Count Bartolomejs Ulste; it is part of the mystification process that the narrator has come into the world after a long chain of generations. Mystification is a great leveller; it is not the exclusive right of the rulers or the ruled. It is a universal principle in world history, and it is comparable to cobbling a person together from several parts.
Skujiņš unmasks several myths and mystifications but immediately builds new ones, including his own self. The biography of the narrator in the novel seems suspiciously close to the author’s biography. Are the differences and similarities between them to be taken seriously? Biographical veracity is interwoven with imaginative creation.
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is easy and pleasant reading (especially thanks to this sensitive and finely-nuanced translation by Kaija Straumanis), but it is not facile reading. Skujiņš’ assumption as a writer is that truth is stranger than fiction: the real events of history need little embellishment to seem to stretch the credulity of even an indulgent reader. The absurdities of history are here presented as the apparently random turns in a deadly serious game of dominoes: the apparent paradoxes are part of a logical structure at a higher level. The logical structure may be shaped solely by apparently impossible and at first glance incompatible paradoxes and absurdities. The arrival of Cagliostro in Riga in 2000 in the closing pages of the novel, again linking the centuries, seems to imply that the random operation of absurd events will continue into the future. Like dominoes being laid end to end to form a circuit, the pattern of history repeats itself.
As if to illustrate the capricious nature of the fall of history’s dominoes, in a preface to the 2009 edition of this novel (as volume 8 in his Collected Writings), the author relates how, shortly after its initial publication, he was contacted by a reader who indicated that he had evidence that the ramifications of the extraordinary transfer of the court of Louis XVIII of France and his retinue to Jelgava in the late eighteenth century may lead down, through a complex set of family histories, to the author’s own personal biography. Skujiņš digresses entertainingly on what is known of the families involved and their possible links between himself and the court of Louis. He has also been reliably informed, he says, that the greatest incidence of syphilis in Latvia for many generations after this ‘second Versailles’ period was concentrated precisely in Jelgava.
The intersection of a transferred French court, a charlatan from Sicily, and the local German aristocracy on the author’s home territory of Latvia at a particular point in history is piquant and fascinating in itself. But perhaps, for a writer of Skujiņš’ generation, there are further important signals from history. Up to the Second World War, when the author was in early youth, the ethnically German nobility formed the bedrock of the aristocracy in Latvia, though gradually waning in influence. Yet their life was swept away suddenly by the turmoil of the Second World War; Germans were no longer in the ascendancy, and new foreign masters swept in – the Russian occupiers who forcibly incorporated the still fledgling state into the Soviet Union.
In his later works, too, Skujiņš has continued to re-examine episodes from Latvian history. His novel Siržu zagļa uznāciens (Entry of the Thief of Hearts, 2001), embellishes the speculations about the life of the great Latvian dramatist and author Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863–1908). The same author is the subject of one of Skujiņš’ numerous plays, which have a habit of revisiting figures from Latvia’s past and throwing a new, semi-fictional light on them.
A word about the transliteration of non-Latvian (essentially Baltic German) names. It is a peculiarity of Latvian that all foreign names are re-spelled according to the rules of Latvian spelling; this is so that that names can be adapted to the Latvian case-ending and gender system. The original of this novel was no exception, so the question arose for the translator whether to render the German names according to more orthodox German spelling. As not all of the characters are real, the question of fidelity to an ‘original’ doesn’t always arise. So a compromise arrangement was reached between the author, the translator and the publisher. Other foreign names that are well-known from history, such as Cagliostro, are of course rendered in their familiar original form.
Teaching Fellow in Latvian language and literature
School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London
Zigmunds Skujins, one of the most renowned Latvian writers of the late twentieth century, was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1926. His work has been translated across Europe and several of his books have been made into films. He is the recipient of numerous Latvian and international literature awards, including a lifetime grant from the Latvian State Culture Capital Foundation.
Extract from Flesh-Coloured Dominoes, Zigmunds Skujiņš, translated by Kaija Sraumanis, Arcadia Books, London, 2019. Copyright © Zigmunds Skujiņš, 1999. Translation copyright © Kaija Sraumanis, 2014. Reproduced by permission of Arcadia Books.
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