Short Stories and Play "Indrāni", 1904, by Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863–1908)
The pinnacle writer of realism proper in Latvian literature, Rūdolfs Blaumanis wrote some of the most compelling plays and novellas in the language. He lived at a time when Latvian literary culture was still nascent and the people were adapting to the new emancipatory conditions following the end of serfdom. Blaumanis painted a vivid portrait of a changing Latvia under Russian bureaucratic control, dominated culturally and economically by Baltic Germans.
Born into the family of a manor cook, Blaumanis picked up Latvian from neighborhood kids after his native German. He started writing in earnest in his twenties, and his first work, a poem, was published in German in 1881; the first Latvian-language work followed in 1886.
A newspaper editor, Blaumanis was deeply enmeshed in the social issues of the day, while his German (“outsider”) education and urbane intellect made him a keen observer poised to dissect the circumstances of ordinary people in his native Vidzeme cultural region. For example, he found the master–slave conflict between Baltic Germans – in many cases still essentially serf overlords in the 19th century – and ethnic Latvian peasants as suitable dramatic material in the 1899 novella “Andriksons”.
Meanwhile critic Guntis Berelis (1961) credits Blaumanis with finally breaking Latvian literature free from the shackles of moralization that had hitherto limited its reach. According to Berelis, Blaumanis was the first Latvian writer to formulate the conclusion that every literature is bound to come to sooner or later: “Whether you describe a rose or a heap of dung is not what’s most important; it’s how you do it that counts.”
Indeed, Blaumanis’ most compelling characters may well fall into the latter category, and as his works are included in the curriculum they too are very much part of the national consciousness.
Many a student has been ravished by the story of Edgars, an irredeemable alcoholic and skirt chaser, and his chaste lover Kristīne in the novella “The Swamp Treader” (Purva bridējs, 1898). In 1966, the work was made into a film, included in the Canon and starring some of the best Latvian actors ever. In a similar vein, the eponymous heroine of “Raudupiete” (1889) is a mother whose erotic infatuation leads her to sacrifice her only son – but Blaumanis’ sparse and astonishingly precise characterization, coupled with his dramatic mastery, makes the reader really feel for even such a repulsive character.
Arguably, however, the work most likely to be appreciated by foreign audiences is the 1899 novella “In the Shadow of Death” (Nāves ēnā). The story centers on a group of people stranded on a floe and forced to survive on raw fish and horse meat. A small rescue boat finds the stranded people but there’s not enough place and they have to cast lots to determine who gets to get on the boat, i.e., survive.
Modern Latvian philosophers have found echoes of Schopenhauer and utilitarianism, and more in the devastating work, made into a film, likewise included in the Canon, in 1971. “With its abstract situation and the existentialist problem of choice, “In the Shadow of Death” seems to more in place in the 20th than the 19th century”, writes Guntis Berelis.
Blaumanis the playwright is in many ways the same as Blaumanis the writer, as his novellas and plays share a very tight dramatic structure. Blaumanis the tragician really shines in “Indrāni” (1904), a dramatization of a conflict between a father and his impetuous son, who cuts down the prized ash trees by the title homestead and eventually banishes his parents to the outside bathhouse to live. Here, as in his best works, Blaumanis seamlessly blends the modern (changing mores) and the timeless (conflict between young and old).
When “Indrāni” was staged in two Rīga theaters in 2013 for the author’s 150th birthday, Blaumanis’ staying power was made very obvious: the National Theater’s innovative performance conspicuously drew on a vast tradition of staging the play, perhaps, as notes critic Valda Čakare (1953), adding another layer of intergenerational rivalry to its texture. It is abundantly clear that the play – and Blaumanis’ entire oeuvre – has assumed a life of its own, and the recent publications of his work in English and German just might help Blaumanis find a readership outside his native Latvia.
Guntis Berelis par Rūdolfu Blaumani Latvijas kultūras kanonā, 2008.
Blaumanis, Rūdolfs. (1900). Nāves ēnā. Rīga: Ernsta Plātes tipogrāfija.
Rūdolfa Blaumaņa piemiņas vakars 1923. gada 10. septembrī. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Sīkiespieddarbu krājums.
Rūdolfa Blaumaņa pieminekļa atklāšana Ērgļu kapenēs 1923. gada 2. septembrī. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Sīkiespieddarbu krājums.
Rūdolfa Blaumaņa atceres vakara programma 1938. gada 29. janvārī. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Sīkiespieddarbu krājums.
Rūdolfa Blaumaņa vakara programma Valmierā 1939. gada 25. februārī. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Sīkiespieddarbu krājums.
Rūdolfs Blaumanis 125 (1863-1908): [buklets]. (1988). Rīga. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Sīkiespieddarbu krājums.