Novella "The Pearl Fisher", 1895, by Writer Jānis Poruks (1871–1911)
Jānis Poruks’ novella “The Pearl Fisher” (Pērļu zvejnieks, 1895) is a curious interflow of competing and contradictory philosophical and literary currents of the late 19th century Europe, a book of ideas, chiefly romanticist, that in one fell swoop brought Latvia’s nascent literature much closer to the rest of the continent.
Published when the author was not yet in his mid-twenties, the partially autobiographical novella tells the story of Ansis Vairogs, a sensitive young man who spends his life daydreaming, the realm of his spirit unreconciled with the material world as per the romanticist fashion.
Hoping to study in the capital, quixotical Ansis goes fishing for pearls in the river to sell for tuition. A local benefactor catches him in the act, is moved, and provides Ansis with an allowance. He embarks on a quest of self-discovery that leads to music studies in faraway Dresden (the author also studied there), and ultimately to a premature death after living an instant of a perfect love.
Very much a product of its time, the novella is chiefly set in a Latvia still under Russian bureaucratic and German cultural dominance, with intellectual influences from both the East and West. Young Ansis’ voyage to Germany reflects a historical trend among the early Latvian intellectuals who gained knowledge abroad and shaped the national culture upon return. This was enabled with the lifting of serfdom and the ensuing economic and personal liberties Latvians received in the 19th century.
Church life, still an integrative part of most people’s daily existence back then, is depicted without a hint of displeasure despite that the author was something of a Nietzsche scholar who, contradictorily, also adored Wagner, referenced copiously throughout the book. Russian influence is evident, for example, in that Ansis’ religious mother speaks in Tolstoyan pieties.
One may well ask, then, what else is Latvian about the book, the language and the setting notwithstanding? The answer may lie in the stress that the book lays on the visceral experience of nature. While it is not sufficient for solving the central conflict (that of Ansis not being suited for a regular life, or, positively, of his striving for absolute spiritual love), the passages evoking nature’s divine beauty do bridge “The Pearl Fisher” with the pure harmonies of Latvian folk songs.
Critic Guntis Berelis (1961) notes that Poruks’ influence on Latvian literature is not limited to pinning down the tenets of romanticism. The Dresden part of “The Pearl Fisher” also doubles as one of the first longer travelogues in Latvian. Meanwhile Poruks’ other works, like the supremely depressing story “The Battle of Knipska” (Kauja pie Knipskas, 1897), have likewise left a mark on Latvian literature and culture with the depiction of pale, other-worldly characters who are never to find peace this side of the grave.
Poruks seems to have been a such-like character in real life. Of a delicate complexion and mind, as well as susceptible to nasty habits, Poruks gradually became more and more paranoid in his early thirties. His life drew to an early close at a mental asylum.
“The Pearl Fisher” has been reprinted nine times and has also been translated into Lithuanian and Estonian, testifying to that it remains relevant and enjoyable as literature to this day.
Guntis Berelis on Jānis Poruks in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Poruks, Jānis. (1936). Pērļu zvejnieks. Rīga: Zelta ābele. (in Latvian)
Commemorative evening programme organized by the Student's Union of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Latvia on 7 April 1924. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Jānis Poruks – 110 on 13 October 1981: [brochure]. Rīga: Latvijas PSR Brīvprātīgā grāmatu draugu biedrība. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Guntis Berelis on Jānis Poruks in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.