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REGĪNA EZERA. "ZEMDEGAS"

Regīna Ezera (1930—2002) is one of the most important 20th century Latvian prose writers, equally successful in the novel and story as well as essay, review, journal, autobiography genres. During her lifetime, Ezera published twenty-eight books of original work. Her novel "Zemdegas" ("Smoldering") (1977), which has been called a phantasmagoria, along with the novels "Varmācība" ("Violence") (1982) and "Nodevība" ("Betrayal") (1984) are her masterpieces. These works are expeditions to the periphery of literature where the traditional novel is replaced by entirely different forms of writing: prefaces, notes, letters, diaries, reflections, fragments. In fact they are novels on the subject of the difficulty of writing a novel. Despite such an approach, however, the novels are dense with a variety of passions and existential abysses. In "Zemdegas", the Author (Ezera’s alter ego who has but a distant relationship to the author’s real personality and who has taken residence in several of Ezera’s works) after a heart attack is wandering through a spooky sculpture garden where she sees her acquaintances from her little town Mūrgale cast in stone. The Author realizes that all these people have died as has she: she also reveals that knows everything about these people, including the fact that they have been accidentally killed. Five more or less tragic narratives follow, variations on the theme of indirect/accidental murder, concluding with the sixth, the Author’s story of her own death, different from the preceding ones. While generally the intonation has been lyrical or gently tragic, in this narrative it turns acerbically ironic. The Author seems to try to put a distance between herself and the novel, since in terms of the plot, the sixth narrative is not connected to the preceding five. Autore runā ne tik daudz par savu The Author talks not so much about her biography than about literature: the text in effect is a belles-lettres essay on literature. Yet the death of the Author is also not the "real" ending of the novel; she comes back to life and so do the other supposedly dead people. The six narratives that form the novel are developed in the tradition of realistic-psychological fiction: everything is recognizable and therefore absolutely believable. Yet the introductory and final parts of the novel declare this believability a phantasmagoria and fiction: the believable is no longer trustworthy. The novel tries to negate itself or rather that dimension which is usually described as "veracity". In the Latvian prose of 1970s where the tradition of psychological realism related to the canons of socialist realism predominated, it was a radical step. "Zemdegas" is a big step towards a literature that would recognize itself primarily as literature, i.e. as a text where the categories or "veracity" or "verisimilitude" are not really important. The Author is a kind of justification why each of Ezera’s novels is exactly the way it is.  The Author writes – or at least is preparing to write – a novel, whereas Ezera writes a novel about that process: what happens as the Author goes about her project, in what ways the emotional impulses are transformed into language, what is possible to express in words and what remains beyond their (and the novel’s) reach etc. In other words, Ezera’s novels are the possible but unwritten novels of the Author and at the same time self-referent texts on literature and the creative process. This is in line with one of the seminal problems of 20th century: the relationship of language (and therefore also literature) to reality and, in a way, it is surprising that it was Ezera should have been so keenly aware of this problem, since she was hardly intellectually extravagant in any other way.

Guntis Berelis

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