Memory, History, And Family Roots in Latvia

Book review: Among the Living and the Dead, by Inara Verzemnieks

“This is why I had journeyed to my grandmother’s lost village, nestled at the edge of Latvia, which is itself nestled at the edge of Europe’s psychic north, south, east and west, or, as Pope Innocent III described it…’the edge of the known world’. 

Because I imagined, maybe, I might find her again in the old stories that still existed there. 

Maybe what I mean to say is that I hoped to see, as the writer Rebecca West put it, ‘what history meant in flesh and blood.'”

So begins Inara Verzemnieks’ dreamy, lyrical account of a series of returns to her familial roots in the old country, seeking to understand what her beloved grandmother left behind.

Raised by her grandparents in the United States, Inara grew up hearing her grandmother Livija’s stories about her home country of Latvia, and the family’s farm in the countryside. Livija’s sister Ausma still lives there with her husband. The sisters were separated for nearly fifty years, after Livija, her husband, and children finally succeeded in immigrating to the US.

Woven through these painfully honest, sometimes difficult family stories are Latvian fairytales and fables, anecdotes from the village in the present day, and stories from the past (whether true or false) that have become legend.

During her stays in Latvia, Inara gets to know her great aunt Ausma, who suffered but survived Siberian exile under Stalin. Ausma’s stories from this time are some of the book’s most powerful, calling up the horrifying but important Gulag accounts like Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind and Anne Applebaum’s definitive history Gulag. 

The book beautifully, smoothly makes connections between past and present, living and dead, and the choices and paths people took when presented with them. It’s a sad, wistful, but ultimately uplifting and hopeful account. I was moved to tears, in the best of ways. The emphasis that runs throughout every story and action of the unbroken, always unbreakable connection between those still here and those who have passed on was exquisite.

Interestingly, despite this being a memoir, Inara doesn’t structure the story entirely around herself. It was so artfully done, I didn’t even recognize it until the book was done. She uses a sensitive narrative voice, painting the most detailed, emotionally affecting pictures of life in the present and the past, stokes memory and imagination, yet though she’s often present in these stories, they’re more the stories of the dynamic worlds her family has inhabited, the lives they’ve led. It’s an incredible feat of storytelling.

“In the region of Latvia where my grandmother was raised, there are people who believe even to this day that the right words spoken in the right combination are a way of resurrecting what has been lost. Or, as an old man once asked me: Did I know that there were times when words could become more than words? … This was how my grandmother sounded when she spoke of her former home, the farm she had rebuilt from memory, like someone who believed that the structure of it could be protected, even saved, through her telling.”

Inara has a gift for words, and it’s no surprise that she wants to tell these stories, to put them in her own words and make sense of everything. Especially the space that remains after loss, in this case of her grandmother. It’s so relatable; everyone knows how painful it is to suffer the loss of a loved one, and the need to hold onto anything left of or linked to them, words or otherwise.

Telling an anecdote about someone working in a post traumatic stress clinic, she relates that nurses asked the patients when they slipped into another world mentally, losing their footing in reality: “‘Where are you right now?’ Not to remind the patients of where their bodies were, but to acknowledge that our memories are real places in which it is possible to become trapped.” It’s clear she loses herself similarly at times.

But her aim in these explorations is not only to learn but to let go. To make peace with what’s happened and what’s lost and continue to live despite pain and hurt that can never be fully healed or eradicated. It’s a universal goal of the living, it speaks to everyone.

Rifling through the remnants of her great-uncle’s home, Inara finds scraps of saved papers, newspapers, clippings, and poetry, among them these lines: “The time of hardship has ended – There are no tomorrows, only the voice of the wind. And a heart that will never again know pain, or cold.” Such a simple but poignant observation, that still acknowledges the simultaneous emptiness and relief felt by those who remain among the living.

And as she works through history, she works towards earning her own peace.

T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding”:
We die with the dying: 
See, they depart, and we go with them. 
We are born with the dead: 
See, they return, and bring us with them. 

Those lines resonated in my head after reading, still thinking about the line between living and dead, the door between the two worlds that never really closes as long as the living are still telling stories about the past and exploring history.

There has been so much written about the Second World War and its ever-ongoing ripple effects throughout Europe and far beyond, with no imaginable end to this genre. Ditto for memoirs and histories of war’s aftermath; the lives and adjustments of immigrants as well as their families left behind.

So it’s saying a lot to assert that here is a unique account, one that feels wholly fresh and surprising, that makes these oft-told stories and well-trodden concepts feel completely new.

Among the Living and the Dead:
A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe
by Inara Verzemnieks
published July 11, 2017 by W.W. Norton

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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