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VIZMA BELŠEVICA. "BILLE"

Vizma Belševica (1931–2005) was the chronicler of the 20th century. She was direct and merciless in her actions and words, without ever weighing the consequences.

Silence about Latvian history was broken in the 1960s by the voice belonging to Henricus Lettus (Henry of Livonia) revived by Belševica in her long poem "Notes of Henricus Lettus on the Margins of the Chronicle of Livonia" in the collection "Gadu gredzeni" ("Rings of Age") (1969). In the cycle of poems "Laika raksti" ("Time Signs"), included in the collection "Dzeltu laiks" ("Autumn") (1987), the voices from various historical periods came alive, asking questions that were about the present and merciless both to the powers that be and those subjugated by power. History, for Belševica, served as a yardstick for her contemporaries’ honesty, treachery, and willingness to compromise.

In the 1990s Belševica wrote her trilogy "Bille". The first edition of the first part was published by the Latvian publisher "Mežābele" in 1992 in the United States and only in 1995 in Latvia. "Bille dzīvo tālāk" ("Bille Lives on") and "Billes skaistā jaunība" ("Bille’s Wonderful Youth") were published in 1996 and 1999, respectively, but in one volume the trilogy came out in 2004. The reason why the first part was first published in the USA the author explains as follows: "The story about Bille is not an autobiography in the direct sense of the word. I had to tell the story of the very poor people who lived in the remote parts of the city and for whom the time of Ulmanis [Latvian authoritarian dictator who headed Latvia’s perceived "economic miracle" of the 1930s] was no paradise. They were also not particularly patriotic, but that did not mean that they were dreaming of becoming a part of the Soviet Union." The fact that the childhood stories were not told earlier serves as evidence that Belševica did not want to heed the Soviet demand to depict social contrasts in the bourgeois society, nor did she want to serve the myth, which was common currency in the 1990s, that Latvia of the 1930s was homogeneous and orderly.

Bille, short for Sibilla Gūtmane, observes, feels, and thinks in an era that is filled with tragic events and difficult to understand even for adults. Bille, as opposed to most other children in Latvian literature, is a city girl, a "city squirrel", as one her young relatives would have it. The author avoids any nostalgia about the "lost paradise" of childhood and, using her actual memories, shows the life in the workers’ district of Grīziņkalns and life of the Gūtmanis family there, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The result is 75 separate stories, which she has ordered chronologically. Bille goes to school and visits her country relatives; as regimes change, Bille grows up and, along with the adults, she has to starve, help people imprisoned in the ghetto, go to the country to exchange material things for food.  Each and every episode is a separate story in the girl’s life. Bille’s is not a world where children are particularly protected from anything: it is actually a world that is cruel to children. And children deal with it – first with tears and an incomprehensible sense of guilt and then with irony. Bille knows what it means to survive, she is no stranger to difficult dilemmas and knows how hard it is to remain honest and human.  Belševica’s "Bille" is a narrative devoid of illusions about the world and people in it, without promises that this world can be changed, however it is possible to retain one’s honesty and a clear vision.

Belševica’s trilogy concludes the series of 20th century childhood memories in Latvian literature, both continuing and breaking with the tradition started by Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš, Anna Brigadere, and Ernests Birznieks-Upītis.  Bille’s childhood, in contrast to a great majority of Latvian literary childhoods is not experienced in a closed in farmstead, which is remote from the events taking place in the outside world. For her narrative, Belševica chooses the present tense; Bille is not a narrator, the reader is invited to look through Bille’s eyes and hear Bille’s thoughts in which she registers, from time to time, the contrast between the words and deeds of the adults. Bille’s observations may seem naïve, for the author avoids the judgment of an adult. A child’s view of the events gives the reader the liberty to distinguish the true from the false, the real from the fake. The deceptively simple narrative serves as a veil behind which the author hides the complexity of prose and her time, her own talent as a master of style, and also a sophisticated and merciless sense of humor.

Raimonds Briedis

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