When I got my hands on The Book of Riga I must say, I was pretty damn excited. I had already read The Book of Tokyo by the same publisher because of my personal interest in all things Japan, and I loved it. Reading about Tokyo wasn’t so much about discovery, and more about (metaphorically) going back to a place I know and enjoy. Riga, however, is blurry and foreign in my mind – even though I grew up on the other side of the Baltic Sea and have a hefty amount of Baltic heritage, I know nothing about the city. In other words, I went into reading this book with both high expectations from my last read of the series and with curiosity, eager to learn of a place I knew so little of.
The book opens with a foreword from Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, sixth president of Latvia (1999-2007). She tells the reader of a legend about Riga. It’s about a mythical creature that appears out of the Daugava River every hundred years and asks the first inhabitant he sees if Riga is complete. If the person asked answers ‘no’, the creature goes back into the river, not to be seen for another hundred years. If the person says ‘yes’, the entire city will go down with the creature into the waters, wiped off the face of the earth. This legend stands as a metaphor for the history of Riga that follows in the foreword; the wars, the occupations, the epidemics, the rises and falls. What Vīķe-Freiberga seems to be saying is that Riga will never be “complete”, but rather ever-changing.
The first story of the book, ‘The Hare’s Declaration’ by Juris Zvirgzdiņš, is about a man who loses his job, his house, his wife and his children, and decides to kill himself. He decides he should do it from the tower of St. Peter’s Church, and gathers some supplies before heading up to the tower’s viewing platform. There he stays for days, becoming a spectacle; he gets ten minutes of CNN live broadcasting every day and has his meals cooked by two of the top chefs in the city. All of this while up on the viewing platform. The story takes an unexpected, and mythical, turn when a Sami woman appears at the platform. It’s an interesting choice of opening piece for the collection, because it’s set on a viewpoint; the reader’s first glimpse of Riga is from above. It’s almost as if we’re given a literal overview of the city before diving in closer in the rest of the stories.
Nostalgia runs like Daugava River through the entirety of the collection; sometimes further away than others, but always present. The stories that had nostalgia at the heart were the ones I found myself most drawn to. ‘The Birds of Ķīpsala Island’ is one of those. It concerns two women – one looking to buy a house on Ķīpsala Island, and one who used to live in said house. It is a story that deals with confinement and discontent, and the very human struggle to want something better. ‘The Westside Garden’, however, was by far my favourite piece. Like ‘The Birds of Ķīpsala Island’ it is strongly nostalgic. It is, essentially, a story about our connection to the past. The narration alternates between Mrs Pempere (Berta), who grew up in the house and its garden, and Veronika, who has moved in as Mrs Pempere rents the empty rooms of the house to a handful of people. The two women act as representatives of current time and the past. Mrs Pempere represents the past, and we are thus led through her life as it has proceeded, starting when she was just a child. Veronika would represent current time, and we follow primarily her love life as she meets Herbert, a man she starts a relationship with, but ultimately doesn’t love. I was blown away by Repše’s descriptive language; I can smell the house, see the yellow light that filters through the old curtains, and hear the gates as they creak in the wind. The two viewpoint characters work incredibly well together, and make for a powerful combination. As I finished reading it, I almost felt as if I’d known them, and that I, too, had once lived in a house with a west side garden.
The level of strangeness featured in most of the stories tied in very well with the connection between Riga and the mythical that Vīķe-Freiberga established in the foreword with her legend. None of the stories ventured outside of magic realism at the most, but nearly all of them featured some kind of twist, turning reality on its head ever so slightly. ‘The Night Shift’ by Pauls Bankovskis was one of them. It is a story about a ticket collector, working on a route where, approximately once a month, people disappear with one of the buses… never to be seen again. The story itself claims that “the story was most likely based on the massacre of Riga’s Jews in Rumbula Forest in 1941” (Bankovskis, 114). In ‘The Night Shift’, however, only ticket collectors seem to disappear, and there are never any bodies found. The ticket collectors seem to have many theories about the bus; that it’s purgatory, aliens, even a shape-shifter. Because of how the disappearances work, there is an order within the team – the person who started working with them most recently is the first on to step on the bus. That way only newcomers risk getting stuck on the bus, because as soon as you step on it, it’s too late.
I think that the concept of this book, short stories rooted in the same place, works so well because of the nature of short stories. I’ve been shown glimpses of Riga through the lens of several characters and their perspective creators. Even though it is a collection of fiction, I have tapped into what could have been people of Riga: old, young, privileged, and unfortunate. I have visited the Castle of Light, the bustling streets of Old Town and the quiet, picturesque residential streets of Kipsala Island. I went into reading this book with high expectations, weary because of how that usually leads to disappointment. However, when I finished the last pages of The Book of Riga I breathed that familiar sigh of content, pleased.