A murder and the spectre of lost love give strong motion to the plot of High Tide, the first novel available in English from Latvian author Inga Abele. It focuses on a woman and two men whose lives bridge the end of communism in Latvia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their experiences act as psychological corners of a tragic love story told in reverse chronological order, like the points of a triangular shard of glass spinning past us through the air, throwing off a dangerous and attractive light.
The book’s unique structure sets a fine stage for Abele’s prose style, a balance of cold truth and tender, luminous scene-setting. The language is restrained, rarely playful, but the voice is expansive, often covering grand themes in short paragraphs – life, death, existence, politics – in an offhand yet compelling manner. Abele’s background as an accomplished poet and playwright gives the language fantastic vibrancy. Yet, as is the case with some first novels, an overuse of chapter breaks yields many beautiful sections within a slightly jumbled whole.
Nevertheless, the hard-won wisdom that arises from the minds of Abele’s characters carries the timeless tone of a Greek tragedy. Despite the suffering the characters face, High Tide is a mostly lyrical book, a symphony of echoes and recurring memories through the generations that is, like any good tragedy, heartbreaking to take in. What the small cast of characters learns or fails to, what they remember and forget about each other, is carefully orchestrated to yield to us full knowledge of how love or pain came to dominate their lives.
On the surface, the book presents Ieva’s story as an effort to raise her daughter while trying to find work and fulfilment as an artist and scholar after intense loss. When we first meet Ieva, she is estranged from her husband, Andrejs, with whom she had a daughter, Monta. Andrejs has served a prison sentence for killing Ieva’s lover, Aksels. We see them when they are young and old, before, during, and after key events. Our foreknowledge of many key events gives the scenes tremendous irony and pathos, especially Monta’s confusion about the murder of Aksels, and Andrejs’s real reason for killing him.
Abele begins the lovers’ saga near the end, when they are separate, having moved on, shakily, from the turmoil of the Awakening, after Latvia became free of Soviet rule. By introducing them in severe emotional distress we are drawn to learn about what led them to such dark places. We likewise grow closer to and become nostalgic for the times they enjoyed peace, knowing how and why it will be ruined to some degree by what we’ve already read of their fates. It’s a fine template for a novel that few writers use. My major complaint is that an early section about Andrejs’ life as an ex-convict is too long, and makes him a stereotypical thug turned book-lover; it’s difficult to be moved by all his grim views about life with no understanding of who he really is.
Ieva’s thinking forms the novel’s thematic and philosophical backbone, as she first chooses Andrejs as her husband, then Aksels as her lover. Artistic by nature, longing to travel, she writes poetry, studies photography, and seems torn between a love for living in the moment and a longing for stillness and peace. The blessing and curse of her being is how she “throws herself into the passage of time, lets herself be rattled apart so she overflows with awareness and all the trivialities that keep her alive.” Her zest for life is deeply enjoyable, making her low points very affecting, as when she feels her existence is reduced to “a calculation”, as she tells her brother in a chapter comprised entirely of dialogue. “Correctly calculated empty accomplishments and losses,” she tells him. “It’s all trivial. Once it was high tide. Now it’s low tide. I’ve been washed away from myself.”
There’s great tension and anticipation as we approach the moment Andrejs kills Aksels. Occasionally the chronology leaps far backward or ahead, which is jarring at times. I found myself flipping back to check things and for the most part it was a satisfying exercise to appreciate the book’s various threads subtly tightening together. The how of Aksels’ death is interesting to learn, of course, but the why is naturally more so, and worth the journey.
Yet the most remarkable facet of the book is Abele’s talent for making small moments grow large.
In a short section called “The Attack”, Ieva attends a conference in Milan and hears a prominent Austrian journalist named Michael Schulter question the moral character of Eastern European artists after the end of communism.
“And the main thing that left western society speechless when the Iron Curtain fell was that there was nothing behind it!” says the journalist. “Everyone thought you’d pull out these masterpieces from hidden drawers, just like the masterpieces of the people who were convicted as dissidents … You had those kind of works, true, but it turned out you could count on one hand the exceptions in the vast majority that remained immobile and indifferent.” He finishes his ignorant tirade by asking, “Where are the sacred resources of Eastern Europe? Maybe there aren’t any?”
This stuns Ieva, who she sees herself as the “very the immovable mass Michael is talking about”.
Yet the blow triggers a stunning wave of reverie from her childhood that showcases Abele’s mastery of portraiture bursting with detail, via the equal talents of the book’s translator, Kaija Straumanis.
Ieva’s response to the journalist’s words against her people is moving, a fiercely proud catalogue of memories from cold nights at her grandmother’s house that ends with a peaceful, if insistent, call for her accuser to look more closely at what he’s tried to dismiss.
“Behold, a sugar bowl, a silver spoon, a quilt as heavy as a person. Maybe they’ll outlast us. But they’ll never again live the life I see through my eyes. Come, Michael, look into the drawer of Eastern Europe.”
Because so few Latvian novels have been translated into English (only a handful exist), Ieva’s defiance takes on a special resonance.
The story of a female artist struggling with personal tragedy against the backdrop of one of the 20th century’s most revolutionary political upheavals is universal, and given the sweeping changes across large parts of the Arab world today, could not be more contemporary.
As I read it, Ieva’s song of defiance seemed to belong to a youthful chorus chanting their rallying cry across borders, something continuing since 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Though this novel suffers somewhat for its reliance on vignettes, perfection is irrelevant when an author manages to fit the push and pull of life’s epic and minor qualities in a neat, 300-page package. Another example that sets this novel apart comes when Abele’s original words and Strausmanis’s translation exemplify literature’s continent-jumping abilities, erasing borders to add something to the unity of human experience. Ieva narrates, looking back across the course of her life:
“If an irrational hope sparks in your veins now and again, it could even be the moment when you’re on the train reading a book translated into Latvian, and in a brief flash you realise that you understand the author, the main character, and the life of the translator. For a second, all three of these personas unite in you, not in a linear sense, but in a predestined glowing arc.”
Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who has served as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award.