1879 was the year when "Mērnieku laiki" ("Times of the Surveyors"), written by two brothers, Reinis (1839–1920) and Matīss (1848– 1926) Kaudzīte, both country schoolteachers in Vecpiebalga, was published. Instead of changing audience’s ideas of what fiction should be like, as is usually the case at turning points of the literary process, but actually created them. The appearance of this novel is still a literary mystery: there is no explanation how in the monotonous Latvian literary landscape where only didactic little stories, localizations, and feuilletons were found, where there existed no notable prose tradition, a novel could appear that created such a tradition that writers that followed simply had to continue.

"Mērnieku laiki" is a seemingly unpretentious narrative about land surveying in Vidzeme in the second half of the 19th century. The polyphonic novel contains several equally important plotlines: the measuring out of plots of land and the related scheming and plotting; the tragic and sentimental love story, so typical for the 19th century realistic novel; relationships between farmsteads and two minidistricts, Slātava and Čangaliena; there are several colorful characters, and a rather complicated murder and kidnapping story. The main accomplishment of the brothers Kaudzīte, however, was precisely delineating the space characteristically featured in Latvian prose.  In "Mērnieku laiki" it is the quadrangle formed by the peasant farmstead, pub, local baron’s estate, and church.  Depending on the circumstances, the geometrical figure might change: for instance, later the country estate disappeared; or one of the elements could be replaced by another – e.g., school or courthouse, but the principle of an enclosed environment remained more or less unchanged. No matter how they tried, many of the fiction writers of subsequent generations could not get out of the cage defined in "Mērnieku laiki".

In "Mērnieku laiki", just like in other late 19th century fiction, there is hardly any movement in space.  The small "inner" world is at the same time the entire world, with all layers and psychological types of society represented and the action taking the form of tragedy, comedy, and farce. In other words, the brothers clearly showed that even such a small and limited world is suitable for the interplay of regularities from "big" literature. The "outer" world, the metropolis where the fates of the "inner" world are decided, exists of course, but it is so remote and alien, that the characters of the novel simply ignore it.  The "inner" world is in perfect order, everything in it is predictable and predetermined. Some fluctuations, some regroupings can take place there, yet the world tends to return to its stable state. The authors’ attitude to these elements of order and chaos is a case to the point: if the "inner" world is stable, it is discussed rather ironically and lightly, but as the balance disappears, tragic motifs make their appearance.

With their "Mērnieku laiki", brothers Kaudzīte convincingly demonstrated that a new player has appeared on the European literary stage and that Latvian literature is capable of works equal to that of the great nations.

Brothers Kaudzīte, both together and separately, have created many other works: poetry, aphorisms, memoirs, textbooks, unfinished novels, yet their quality never came close to that of "Mērnieku laiki".

Guntis Berelis

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