Within Touching Distance of the Past
Liam Bishop reviews Zigmunds Skujiņš’ Flesh-Coloured Dominoes (trans. Kaija Straumanis)
Zigmunds Skujiņš Flesh-Coloured Dominoes (trans. Kaija Straumanis) was originally published in Latvia in 1999. At the turn of a new decade, twenty years after it came into the world, the novel has been republished in English (a previous English edition was released in 2014). Ensuring that it reappears at this juncture might be neatly inspired by the novel’s own structure as it splices past and present via alternating stories on different timelines. One strand of the narrative is set in the eighteenth century: a soldier, thought to have been obliterated by a cannonball, is “saved” by having his lower half stitched onto the upper half of another soldier’s body. Meanwhile, in the twentieth century, a nameless boy makes his way through occupied Latvia during the Second World War.
It’s clear that the farcically sawn-in-half soldier might be representative of the novel’s own form. The image sets up a multitude of possibilities for allegory and lampooning, but the absurdity of it contrasts with the tone in which the eighteenth century setting is introduced:
Do you think the eighteenth century is a thing of the distant past? But this doorknob may have been touched by someone who personally knew Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, Robespierre and Diderot, Cagliostro, Catherine the Great, Kant or Munchausen. It was only yesterday. Witches and wizards are no longer burned at the stake, but enlightenment and rational thought still mix with sorcery and magic. Educated people take part in table-turning seances, call on spirits of the dead and use occult rituals to try and reach a higher truth. Alchemy flourishes, the world is governed by a belief in secret powers, Kabbalistic symbols, the “philosopher’s stone.”
The tone, here, is documentarian, as Skujiņš classifies who and what did or didn’t populate the Western world of the eighteenth century. But Skujiņš has a greater purpose than listing the follies of the era’s inhabitants. In cataloguing the real and fantastical elements of a certain historical period, he also suggests that history itself is a “doorknob” of sorts, so that its people — from Voltaire to vampires — are not confined to an unreachable past, but are within touching distance of people in the present. We, as readers, are thus positioned to look on as the curtain of time is not so much retracted but ripped away, and the sensory element of the novel’s title takes on new meaning. The historical actors of the past are as though waiting to be re-animated. We grope our way towards them when narrative events are set in motion, and, by fumbling among them, we connect their interactions with far-reaching consequences that tumble into history like the dominoes of the title.
The eighteenth century: it is during this time that the Baroness Valtraute von Brigen enlists the help of Count Cagliostro, the “Great Cophta”, to communicate with her long-absent, perhaps deceased husband, Eberhart. The Great Cophta is a mystic: he tells Valtraute that her husband is alive but “just can’t get to you”. When she discovers that the lower half of husband is attached to the upper half of another soldier, Captain Ulste, the baroness visits the count again in search of reassurance. This time, the count communicates with Catherine the Great who, in her afterlife, has chosen to have her own head replaced with the head of Mary, Queen of Scots. As an apparently common practice in the afterlife, the interchanging of body parts is, for Skujiņš, grotesque, vulgar. But one would be oversimplifying it to conclude that his purpose here is simply to make a statement about the shallowness and interchangeability of history’s so-called great leaders. He doesn’t use his comic imagery to lambaste these people so much as he invites us to enter into the worldview of Valtraute and the Great Cophta: to appreciate, through their eyes, the inextricable intermingling of past and present. Indeed, he even seems to want us to understand what they gain from it, and why their beliefs hold value for them. After Valtraute speaks to Catherine/Mary, the Great Cophta counsels the baroness that “[p]eople are rarely content with what they have”, and his play on the word “content” points to the dynamic between intellectual stimulation and emotional satisfaction: like any clairvoyant, he uses “communication” with the spirit world to deliver to the baroness both a form of contentment for her grieving heart as well as content for her fantasies of the past.
For a long time, Skujiņš withholds from us the connection between his eighteenth century characters and his story of war-torn Latvia. But the interplay between content and contentment crosses both narrative timelines and casts them as complementary parts of a whole. The more contemporary events are narrated by a young orphan in Riga, during the Second World War. He lives with another baroness named Johanna, as well as his aunt and his grandfather, in the wing of a manor house which he says has survived from the “era of Mozart, Robespierre and Casanova”. A mysterious “Pilot” lives with his family in the other half of the home; it’s unclear, at first, if this is the infamous Latvian aeronaut, Herberts Cukurs, who assisted in the mass murder of Latvian Jews. Early in the novel, though, the narrator discovers that he has a previously unknown brother named Jānis. When Jānis arrives in Riga, the narrator and his grandfather collect the boy from the port; but then, when Jānis is pointedly described as being “different” to the other pupils at school — he is of Japanese heritage — it becomes apparent that Jānis and the narrator do not share the same father after all. Jānis’ arrival, then, seems to be a precursor to the tumultuous events that will soon descend on Latvia. German students suddenly leave their classes to return to Germany and, not long afterwards, the Germans invade Paris while Riga falls to the Russians.
In the manor house, much time is spent battling for Johanna’s right to stay in Latvia. As she fights to prove she is of German heritage, the idea of “heritage” itself is raised as a consideration of how the past constitutes the present, and elevates the tension that plays out in the novel between history and the now. Meanwhile, the narrator’s grandfather, as the director of a horse and carriage company, is long accustomed to the funerary process and the ordinariness of death, and as such he gives voice to the absurdity of seeing the present day as beholden to the past. At one point he raises the subject of Shakespeare and notes that “[t]ime had already been derailed in Hamlet, but the gravediggers kept hard at work. We have to keep living on as well. People will still get married, babies will still be born. Man wants to live!” Amplifying earlier echoes of Shakespeare’s play, which arise from the novel’s questions of paternity and maternity, the grandfather uses the gravediggers to pose a question that few others seem able to ask. What if we simply refused to give content to the afterlife anymore? Or, more crudely, what if we were to treat death, rather than letting death treat us? What if we were to take our cues from the gravediggers, one of whom, as G.R. Hibbard points out, “radically alter[s]” the play’s “emphasis… on the terror and mystery of [death]”, to regard death as “neither terrible nor mysterious” but something that “provides [one] with a living and a never failing source of conversation and jest”.
As Hibbard’s comments appear tucked away in a footnote in the 1984 OUP edition of Hamlet, it’s difficult to know whether he saw the irony of his own final sentence (to say that death provides a man with “a living” is itself a form of jest) but I like to think he did. And ultimately, of course, death does provide people with livings: death is fundamental to the livelihoods of the gravediggers of Hamlet and the grandfather of Flesh-Coloured Dominoes, and for this reason they have a perspective on the dead that is very different to the broader cultural view of death. Their perspective is also, in some sense, shared by Skujiņš’ novel as a whole: so, much as the gravediggers prompt a “radical alteration” to the perspective on death presented in Hamlet, the narrator’s grandfather in Flesh-Coloured Dominoes provides an alternative — a counterpoint — to the perspective of somebody like the Great Cophta. Through him, new questions arise. Does contentment with the past — reconciliation with death — require a state of content, a moment of correction and regulation that goes beyond grieving or reflection, such as that which the Great Cophta might inspire? Or is it achieved only over a period of time, incrementally rather than through a singular catharsis, via a process of gradually laying things to rest, much as the grandfather would advocate?
Consider the grandfather’s response to news of the death of the Latvian littérateur Aspazija, the pseudonym of Elza Johanna Emilija Lizete Pliekšāne. Whilst writing of highly-regarded plays and poetry, Aspazija became a prominent critic of the Russian regime in Latvia. When she died, the Russians worried that a state funeral would inspire a wave of Latvian nationalism. The narrator’s grandfather argues, however, that because Aspazija was of German heritage, and not Latvian by birth, a state funeral ought to be permitted. But even though the grandfather appears to get his wish, a disagreement in the lead-up to the funeral results in him being barred from attending. He laments: “Never forget who Aspazija is! But, more importantly, never say she’s just tucked away under a simple mound of sand!” Then, after the state funeral, Aspazija is taken to the cemetery where the grandfather and his grandson await her. Here, though, Skujiņš offers us the narrator’s perspective on events. He looks upon Aspazija, noting that she gives the “appearance” of lying in her coffin with her “turbulent life behind her”, then he looks back on her life from a future point in time: “In truth, she had set in motion an opposition movement to this oppressive occupation; she became the flag waving on the front line, calling and summoning, more alive than ever. The thick layer of asphalt was cracked open by a pale little mushroom of freedom.” Aspazija’s writings had an effect on the occupation that was both contemporaneous with her life and posthumous, retroactive — an effect that was, in the wake of her death, both content given to the engine of history and a source of contentment for Latvian nationalists in the present. And although the direct effects of the events she set in motion are not entirely clear, when the grandfather’s horses are “nationalised” by the Russians and Johanna is arrested because of her German heritage, the narrator recognises something similar to Hamlet: that contentment is not available until long after tragic events have fed content to the past.
The bifurcation of Skujiņš’ narrative ultimately means that the presiding image of the novel is Eberhart strapped to the upper half of Captain Ulste. Eberhart is voiceless as a result of this arrangement, so that, when the ghastly image is considered in light of the novel’s play oncontent and contentment, its power comes not from its bawdiness but in how it functions as a representation of Skujiņš’ view of history. Historical periods, in Skujiņš’ world, are not neatly sewn together so as to provide a neat, linear story in which different eras sit, stably, beside one another. Instead, history is comprised of content that echoes barbarously throughout time, and so, for one to be content with it — to accept it on its own terms — one must resist undertaking a process of tying its ragged ends together. Sometimes, the past must simply to be laid to rest, even if it is not fully understood: if, in some capacity, it remains reachable, that’s not at all to say it’s within our grasp.