Monday, September 29, 2008

The Last Bend and Lienas Iela

On 9 October, 1944, my mother fled Riga by train with her parents and younger brother. She was seventeen years old and on the journey to the port of Liepāja, which took them three days, met a young man who gave her a book called Pēdējais Pagrieziens, which translates as The Last Bend or The Last Turn. My mother can’t remember the name of the young man, but they became fond of each other during their few days on the train together and corresponded for a while after parting in either Liepāja or Gdansk (how this was possible during the war I have no idea!). The book given to my mother was a romantic novel about racing car drivers and had been translated into Latvian, presumably from English. She enjoyed it very much and thinks it was written by Jack London, the famous author of White Fang. She also remembers that the young man who gave it to her carried with him a large sack which was full of books. Her family had one suitcase and a box of food with them, but this unknown young man was fleeing the country with a small library.

I am determined to try and find The Last Bend here in Riga. While the book itself may not be of any great literary merit, the title strikes me as being uncannily symbolic. I go to the National Library of Latvia in Elizabeth Street, where I spent ten days last year installing an artwork called SPOGULIS (mirror) on the ground floor windows. I register, am given a library card and then I see the Librarian. I ask about The Last Bend and explain the story of why I am trying to find it. The Librarian is incredibly helpful - she searches the online catalogue, gives me the card catalogue with all the Jack London entries and searches a range of online bibliographies. She tries various combinations of the title – perhaps my mother has remembered it incorrectly? Of course, this is a possibility and I also begin to suspect that she may have got the author wrong and that the book is not written by Jack London.

The Librarian takes my email address and phone number and sends me to the 5th floor to see another Librarian who may be able to help. I'm given a pass and make my way up the dark stairs. The lino is ancient and brown and the walls are painted to resemble wallpaper in brown tones with dark floral borders. There are old lifts with metal grills on every floor, corridors lined with closed doors or card catalogues, and on one level, beautiful stained glass windows. Earlier this year, the date was set for the opening of the brand new National Library of Latvia, called Gaismu Pils, The Castle of Light, which is scheduled to open on Latvian Independence Day on 18 November 2012. The building will be white and is shaped like a triangle pointing towards the heavens.

I reach the fifth floor and really have no idea where to go – I don’t understand the signs on the doors and how they correlate to the slip of paper I’ve been given - but I ask someone and find the right Librarian, who again is extremely helpful. She searches various hard copy bibliographies but is unable to find The Last Bend. She takes my details and says she will email me. I really don’t hold out much hope for finding the book.

I meet Armīns Ozoliņš at Osiris Café - he's the artist who helped me install SPOGULIS last year - and we walk to Krāsotāja (Painter) Street to a digital graphics company called Magnum TI who may be able to print some large scale images for me. About 200 metres before we get to Magnum, I notice a tree-lined street that goes off to the right with some rather dilapidated wooden buildings on the corner. This is nothing unusual in Riga – as you move further away from the centre of the city, the buildings tend to be less renovated and are more reminiscent of Soviet times. For some reason I feel oddly drawn to the view down this particular street and make a mental note that I should take a photograph next time I go by.

The Magnum company don’t have the particular fabric I wanted in stock and so I decide to get one image only, rather than three, printed on a different quality fabric as an experiment. I’m worried that the printing will be too glossy but I’m also keen to see one of the images at full scale. We do a deal and then Armīns takes me to a nearby Antique Bookstore where I might be able to find The Last Bend. We have to walk past that street I was drawn to earlier and for some reason I am once again struck by the buildings and the view.

The Antique Bookshop has a complete set of Jack London novels and short stories published in 1938, but The Last Bend is not amongst them. Either my mother has the title wrong or the author. I am almost tempted to buy the entire set of books just in case, but decide to wait for news from the library instead. I do buy about 10 journals from the 1920s, 30s and 40s and a novel about Emilija Benjamins, who ran the Estate my mother lived on near Kandava in the 1930s.

When I get back to the flat, there is an email from the library – they have found The Last Bend! I am stunned because I really didn’t think they would be able to trace it. The title is correct but the author is not Jack London – it’s H Richter - and it was published in 1944.

The next day I go to the library to see the book. I have to go to the third floor this time where I hand in a slip of paper with the book’s call number. It will take about half an hour to retrieve and I patiently wait in a reading room on the 5th floor. When I return the book has arrived. It’s a paperback with a murky dark cover and I can immediately see that it’s the right book because it has a picture of a racing car zooming down a tree-lined road and a silhouette of enthusiastic spectators on the cover. I feel overcome with emotion as I handle the book and turn its pages. The paper is thickish and brown from the acidic content. I get to the title page and it offers an extraordinary surprise – the book was translated from the German by M Berzins. My mother’s maiden name is Mirzda Berzins! I wonder whether this may be the reason the young man in the train gave this particular book to my mother.

I start to read a little of the book but I’m too overcome by its very existence to be able to concentrate on the Latvian. I turn the pages and find that it won’t let me get beyond a certain point because all of the pages have not been cut – the content of most of the book is thus inaccessible. I am reminded of my own art work and how so many of my projects present the viewer with book pages, documents or other objects that promise information and meaning but deny access to that information and meaning.

I take lots of photos of the book and then head for Magnum to pick up my print. I pass by that strangely alluring street again, and this time take a quick photo. At Magnum my print has turned out well and I’m really happy with the scale, even though I am not completely convinced by the surface of the fabric. On my way home I stop by that street again and take a couple more shots, but the shadows are very intense and so the pictures are not very successful. Then I look at the name of the street – it’s Lienas Iela. This is the street where my father grew up! I’m completely taken aback, overcome by a feeling that the street has been calling me to towards itself. I walk down, looking for number 8, and there it is, just a short way down on the right. It’s a big rendered apartment building with a large gate on the left leading into an internal courtyard. It looks as though it has not been touched since the 1940s. I take photos and feel tears welling in my eyes. My father’s family lived in apartment 14 and this is also where my cousin Mara grew up.

I’m not sure what to do. I walk back to Krasotaja Street and there is a small café directly opposite Lienas Street called Lienas Café. It’s very basic, with fake green onyx tables and a lone customer - a rather rough looking Russian worker - busily concentrating on a bowl of soup. I don’t feel I belong here, but I need to sit down and get over the shock of Lienas Street. The owner of the café emerges from the back room – he looks like an extremely weathered version of Michael Edwards, the directory of Contemporary Art Services Tasmania - and I order a Frikadelu (meatball and vegetable) soup with rye bread. It’s home-made and delicious and I enjoy every mouthful.

On the way home I stop at three Antique Book stores and ask for a copy of The Last Bend, but no-one has it.


a said...

Brigita...I keep seeing provocative art works!...the crosses are terribly moving, the sign with the red mark across it and PLEASE explain the way the access was denied further into the novel??? I didn't get it...were the pages made of folded paper and not slit along the sides?... your blogs are getting excited now about the breadth of you axo

a said...

wonderful blogs...death is all pervasive(crosses) there is no such thing as a non-site(red marked sign)and the truth will always be denied (book)...please tell me more about the physical structure of the book and how it was stuck? I didn't get it much provocative stuff to dwell upon over under and beyond!...take care and NO MORE singular wanderings thanks down lonely country roads axo

Anonymous said...

We're loving your blog so far! My mum has been printing out your entries and giving them to my gran (Velta Balens) to read. Gran called me the other night and wanted me to tell you that she, her mother and my grandfather were also at Accu camp during the same time your mother was. Although at the time, my gran was around 22 years old so she was a little older than your mother.
She also wanted to know if your mother could remember the camp commandant Ilmars Berzins (who also came to Australia and ended up being in charge of Sydney's parks and gardens).
I wouldn't be surprised if our families have some strange unknown connection from those years.
I am very jealous of all the talk of Latvian rye bread. My gran makes the most delicious rye bread every time we go to visit and it never lasts long enough...

Brigita Ozolins said...

Thanks for your comments, Briony - I'm so pleased that it has some relevance to other Latvians in Australia as well as my family!

What is your mother's name? My mother was 17 when she arrived at ACCU and almost 22 when she left, so she spent over 4 years there. My grandfather, Alberts Berzins, actually helped to establish ACCU camp, working with a team of others to convert the buildings into suitable living spaces. (All these Berzins!) My grandmother was Marta and my mother's brother was just a teenager - Gunars.

I'll ask my mother if she remembers your family. I also have some photos of the camps and a group of young people at Jani - will post those later.

Brigita Stroda said...

Rivetting reading! I hope that the Lienes iela "episode" has convinced you and everyone reading, of the power, and indeed necessity, of following intuition and hunches . . . .Brigita

Brigita Ozolins said...

Thank's for your observation, Brigita S. I feel as though almost everything I do here is in some way destined to be - and interconnected. So many people have helped me with the project, often just as a result of my following a spontaneous hunch. I know that Riga is not a very big city, but it also seems remarkable to me that my father's, my cousin's and my godmother's apartments and the company that is printing some of the images I have developed for this project, are all within a stone's throw of each other!