Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena (2015, trans. Margita Gailitis 2018 ) 190 pages
Soviet Milk is published by the wonderful Peirene Press, as part of their Home in Exile series. Set in Latvia, it’s another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.
Marina Sofia posted at the start of the month on how stories that tend to be translated from the former Eastern bloc tend to be grim and hard-going, not reflective of the scope of literature of those countries at all. Unfortunately, Soviet Milk does not buck this trend. It’s an excellently-written novella though, and compelling portrait of a mother/daughter relationship and the impact of the state on people’s lives.
The imagery of milk is woven throughout the narrative and begins with a young single mother refusing to breastfeed her child:
“my mother was a young doctor. Perhaps she knew that her milk would have caused more harm than good to her child. How else to explain her disappearance from home immediately after giving birth? She was missing for five days. She returned with aching breasts. Her milk had stopped flowing.”
The narrative alternates between the mother and daughter. The mother is hard-working, committed to her gynaecology practice, but also distant and depressed.
“Having witnessed my father’s physical suffering, I decided to become a doctor. I’m not sure I loved him. Sometimes I felt sorry for him. Sometimes I hated him because I suspected that his self-destructive gene was deeply implanted in me and that with time it would grow and strengthen, no matter how hard I fought it.”
The daughter grows up a very different character. She is cared for by her grandmother and step-grandfather, and is a happy child, taking joy in simple pleasures. She is aware of her mother’s troubles though:
“I don’t remember Mother ever hugging me much, but I remember her needle-pricked thigh, where she practised injections. I remember her in bed with blue lips from the first time she overdosed, possibly as part of some medical experiment.”
But only possibly…her mother definitely self-medicates with various substances, and tries to overdose more than once. Her life isn’t laid out explicitly – we never know who the father of her child is – but she certainly struggles with life under communist rule.
“My mother continued to raise me as an honourable and faithful young Soviet citizen. Yet within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence. We carried flags in the May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot.”
The story follows the banishment of the mother from Riga to an obscure part of the Latvian countryside, where she continues her gynaecological practice but without the research and clinical developments she so highly valued in the city. The daughter begins to recognise the limitations the state places on their lives, whilst simultaneously caring for her unpredictable, unhappy mother.
Although very much about Soviet rule, there is much in Soviet Milk that is universal: familial relationships, mental health, the impact of addiction beyond the addict, struggling against the forces that govern and circumscribe our lives. Yet however much I rail against the political nightmare we’re currently in, I don’t truly feel my existence is Orwellian, unlike the mother who finds a section of 1984:
“The whole dialogue sounded as if the speaker was standing right beside me, in my narrow room, as if he was describing my life right now.”
If Soviet Milk was solely from the mother’s perspective, it would be very bleak indeed. But the daughter has a teenager’s exuberance, and is living at a time when Gorbachev has just come into power…
A powerful, highly readable novella about two very different women.