Poet and writer Jānis Poruks (1871–1911) is the founder of the romantic branch of Latvian literature, breaking the stereotype of Latvian prose as a narrative on country life and moving out of the space defined by brothers Kaudzīte. As one of the first Latvian intellectuals who got educated abroad (thanks to a patron, he spent a year (1893-94) at the Royal Conservatory in Dresden, he let into Latvian literature the spiritual and literary currents of Western Europe.

Poruks is the author of some 150 stories. Early in his career as a writer, he penned the partially autobiographical long story "Pērļu zvejnieks" ("The Pearl Fisher") (1895), the most important of his works and the first Romanticist manifesto in Latvian literature. Up until then Latvian prose was devoid of the road motif so common in world literature; "Pērļu zvejnieks" was the first to feature it: both as a journey in space (the son of a poor country scribe, Ansis Vairogs, travels to Riga and then, like Poruks, to Dresden to study music) and one in search of one’s self. Before Poruks, Latvian literary characters were not much involved in self examination or concerns about the problems of being. Vairogs is a typical "romantic hero" – a lonely idealist, a platonic lover wrapped up in the life of his soul; at the basis of the tragedy are the dichotomies characteristic of Romanticism: reality/illusion; spiritual/material, and the end of his journey also matches the canons of Romanticism: unfit for the "alien world", Vairogs gets sick in Dresden and dies. The title of the story is symbolic: it refers both to the attempts of the naïve youth to find pearls in the nearby stream and to find them in himself. Shortly before he dies, Vairogs has a dream (probably the first really symbolic dream in Latvian literature): a stranger, having found a pearl, hands it to him with the words that it is his heart. In "Pērļu zvejnieks", the echoes of German Romanticism and influence of Nietzsche’s ideas are quite obvious (Poruks knew his Nietzsche well); Vairogs’s mother talks as if quoting Tolstoy; much space has been accorded to reflections on Wagner and Goethe as well as musical reminiscences.

Poruks could be considered a typical representative of Romanticism and his oeuvre scanned for the origins of Symbolist poetics. However, it is much more important that Poruks started a cultural self-examination process, which is important to any healthy culture. Before Poruks Latvian literature seemed to consider self-assertion as the most important element: both "Lāčplēsis" by Andrejs Pumpurs and "Mērnieku laiki" by brothers Kaudzīte seem to declare: here I am and I am not going anywhere.  In Poruks, literature began to think about itself and the regularities of its being, in other words, literature turned into an art form.

Guntis Berelis

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