Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena opens with two women who cannot remember. ‘I don’t remember 15 October 1969,’ says the first. ‘I don’t remember 22 October 1944,’ says the second, ‘but I can reconstruct it.’ They can only reconstruct what happened because these are the days on which they were born. Birth reminds us that we are always dependent upon another to know the truth of who we are, something few of us ever come to terms with. These two women are never named: the first, born in Riga in 1969 in the early years of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule over the Soviet Union, is the daughter of the second, born when Riga was liberated from the Nazis at the end of the Second World War. This mother is also a daughter, born to a woman who resolved to forget the independent Latvia of her youth, and a father who refused to forget that Latvia condemned him to the gulag. Soviet Milk consists of these two women telling their stories in short alternating sections, manifesting in its form the intimacy and distance of what the daughter calls their ‘two parallel worlds’.
This is one among many instances of the ‘Soviet absurdity of parallel lives’ the daughter experiences while growing up, as she alternates between public enthusiasm for Soviet rule and private rebellion through studying Latvian poetry. The absurdity ends when her generation re-achieves independence: ‘the return of their mother – the land of their birth’. But her mother cannot escape absurdity by being reunited with her nation, because absurdity is the condition of her existence. ‘My birth obliged me to be alive: an absurd happenstance.’ Unlike her daughter, identification with a nation does not provide an answer to the question that haunts her life: ‘There were so many who more than anything had wished to live but hadn’t been born. Who decided this?’
Ikstena’s novel, which is lucidly translated by Margita Gailitis, was written as part of a series called ‘We. Latvia. The 20th Century’, comprised of thirteen novels telling the history of twentieth-century Latvia. Ikstena has been publishing novels, essays, plays and criticism since 1995, and is one of the most publicly visible writers in Latvia, having co-founded the International Writers and Translator’s House in Ventspils in 2005 to enable dialogue between Latvian and international literature. Soviet Milk, first published in 2015, was a somewhat controversial bestseller in what remains a predominantly Christian country: the novel contains the first transgender character in Latvian literary fiction. Contemporary Latvian literature is currently reckoning with its past and Soviet Milk injected this moment with much-needed reflections on women’s exclusion and transgendered identities.
The slightly too neat way in which Ikstena aligns the daughter’s life with the rebirth of an independent nation makes her read like an alternative embodiment of Latvian national history. The mother, in contrast, is like the patient Carl Jung couldn’t cure because she never accepted having been born. She refuses to come to terms with ‘the life into which I had mistakenly been born’; she is the other side to official history and the enigmatic heart of the novel.
The novel’s title – which translates from the Latvian title as ‘mother’s milk’ – is the means of the mother’s first refusal. When her daughter was born she didn’t feed her breast milk: ‘My milk was bitter: the milk of incomprehension, of extinction’. ‘I had no maternal instincts,’ she confesses, and she becomes a gynaecologist to understand this ‘mystery’. But the rationality of science cannot explain the absurdity of her life. In an uncharacteristic fit of anger she ruins her scientific career by attacking the abusive veteran husband of one of her patients and is condemned to a life as a rural maternity doctor. She discovers her gift is helping women get pregnant, a cruel gift for a woman who believes ‘letting a child enter this world in this time and place’ is ‘senseless’. She is isolated from the medical discoveries in the west to which, one senses, she might have contributed: the hormone therapy that might have helped her friend Jesse, a women born in an intersex body, or the discovery of artificial insemination. This is ‘the most amazing discovery’ of all because it revealed that there is no ‘mystery’ no ‘divine will’ in motherhood, but also that: ‘Nor is there any freedom – either to be born or to die’.
Hannah Arendt believed that our freedom to act was ultimately guaranteed by the fact of birth: ‘the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting’. Arendt was no stranger to Soviet rule, but Soviet Milk shows the extent to which totalitarianism warps birth’s ability to bring something new into the world. If terror is unbearable it shouldn’t be continued: the mother’s greatest regret, in old age, is that she ‘never had the courage to eat my child’.
As the mother sinks into depression in an isolated village, the daughter struggles for freedom through education, leaving her mother behind in the country to attend an elite school in Riga. She shows the courage required to participate first in banned Latvian poetry study groups, and then in the protests and marches that led to the end of Soviet rule in Latvia. But even as she participates in the famous Baltic Chain protests, where some two million people linked hands across Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in 1989, she knows this is not strong enough to ‘crash through my mother’s small, smoke-filled room’ and to ‘wash away all of history’s injustices and miserable coincidences including being born exactly there and then – crash in and let life in with it’. If the daughter becomes representative of the generation whose struggle liberated the Latvian nation, she also becomes representative of the version of history contemporary Latvia wants to remember. Having died wishing she had broken the chain of generations, the mother is that aspect of history that cannot be brought into the present – that is the source of her terrible fascination and challenge.
Soviet Milk ends with the daughter, her grandparents and Jesse watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on television, with Jesse’s voice ending the novel: ‘We really will be free. Why couldn’t she listen to my words?’ ‘She’ is the mother who is not with them, who died a month before the fall of the wall. She is the missing link in these generations of women, the one who cannot be accommodated into national history. Jesse’s last words leave us with the question: Can ‘we’ ever be free unless all women are free? Its concern with this question makes the novel intimate and distant to English-speaking readers today. The novel defines women’s freedom as something that is collectively achieved across generations, rather than an individualistic pursuit, as it is so often represented today. It’s a measure of Soviet Milk’s achievement that it commemorates what is missing in Latvia’s past as well as our present.