Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Theorizing Latvian Lives: The Quest for Identity

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Theorizing Latvian Lives: The Quest for Identity

Article excerpt

Life stories form the core of this article. Their central position was dictated by the insistence of my informants who transformed a modest research project on neurasthenia into one which addressed fundamental problems of violence and destiny.(1) My research was carried out between 1992 and 1993 when the euphoria of independence united Latvians in a common cause. It seemed as though floodgates to the past had burst open. Wherever I turned I encountered stories of the past so powerful and compelling that it was difficult to know whether they were pursuing me or I them. Each spoke of an individual life and yet rested on a common structure. My argument in this article is that the similarities between these life histories derive both from Latvian history and from membership of a symbolic and textual community. The collective nature of these narratives derives from several sources. Undeniably, narratives reflect similar experiences. However, in so far as they claim testimonial status, these stories assume a responsibility for representing Latvian destiny generally. Thus individuals frame their accounts as typical of other Latvian lives. Since 1990 extensive publication of the lives of deportees and prisoners has unwittingly provided literary models of story-telling. Finally, but not least, stories and histories familiar from childhood listenings and readings are borrowed to create coherence.

Such borrowings have historical precedents. The National Awakening of the 1860s had as one of its goals the rehabilitation of Latvian peasant identity and Latvian literature was central to this project. Whereas literature had earlier been a distinguishing feature of the Baltic Germans, the pastoral literature of the second half of the nineteenth century rehabilitated and ennobled the Latvian peasant. The collection and publication of folk songs or dainas begun in the 1870s by Krisjans Barons consolidated national identity.(2) Their classification according to the life cycle facilitated their role as identity markers and they have come to be seen as holy texts which express and sustain Latvian identity. Smith maintains that '[p]eople - a given community - make a text into a scripture, or keep it a scripture, by treating it in a certain way' (1993: 18). In Latvia the dainas were elevated to scriptural status through annual song festivals and through their use in life cycle rituals. It is in this quasi-religious sense that Latvians form a textual community.

Narratives of lives bring together the past, present and future. Bearing in mind Richards's emphasis on metaphor as 'a borrowing between and intercourse of thoughts, a transaction between contexts' (1936: 94), we can see how such temporal juxtapositions might promote metaphor. More simply, distancing in time and space gives scope to imagination. My encounter with life stories in Latvia encompassed violent and terrible events that occurred between forty and fifty years ago, the circumstances of my encounter, the setting of the narration and my informants' anxieties and hopes about the future. In the course of this temporal shifting, narrators drew upon other stories and fragments of stories to help translate a brutal chronicle into a meaningful story. Thus coherence was constructed not only internally by the relationship of different elements of the narrative to each other, but also by relating the personal narrative to other shared narratives. Thus these Latvian life stories can be read both for their literal and metaphorical truths.

Autobiographical context

My fieldwork in Latvia was a return to the country of my birth and was certainly perceived by my informants as a search for roots. I was six months old when I left Latvia. My mother and grandmother, along with some 200,000 other Latvians, fled to the West in October 1944. We managed to board a fishing boat in Liepaja as Soviet troops advanced towards the coast of Kurzeme. After four years in refugee camps in Germany we eventually arrived in England in January 1949. …

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