Among the Living and the Dead
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2017)
Trauma comes in many forms: physical abuse, illness, political violence, environmental disaster, or in the case of exiles, refugees, those forcibly removed or otherwise displaced persons, a form of suspended animation. Author Inara Verzemnieks, in her book, Among the Living and the Dead, shows that such traumas can lead to a loss of family, culture, memory, and community, an impoverishment that is intergenerational and shattering not only to those who experience it firsthand, but to those left behind. Like the amber so prized in Latvia—a resin made from fossilized conifers that preserves small, ancient life forms—the persecuted and their descendants linger in an amorphous landscape, outside their home and homeland, fractured and unresolved.
Verzemnieks tries to shore up her family’s and her country’s broken history, where lives and landscapes of her ancestors in Latvia were corrupted and interrupted by war. Her grandmother, Livija, fled Riga as bombs pelted the city during the 1940s. “There was no time to write a letter...no time to say goodbye, no way to tell them where she was heading, because even she had no idea. It was too late for anything, except to try to stay on her feet and ahead of the Russian troops...” After years in a refugee camp and reunification with her husband who had been conscripted to serve in the German army, Livija resettled in Tacoma, Washington in 1951 where she and her husband eventually raised Verzemnieks. Meanwhile, Livija’s sister, Ausma had been torn from their ancestral farm, Lembi, and banished to a Siberian work camp until the Allies liberated her after the Second World War. The sisters didn’t communicate with each other for decades.
After her grandparents pass away, Verzemnieks journeys to her grandmother’s village for the first time, a place “nestled at the edge of Latvia,” a “world where my grandmother, Livija, was born into: where landscape was lineage, and the span of a life could be measured by all that was held within the farm’s boundaries.” There, she and begins splicing together Livija’s, Ausma’s, and her own history, plaiting the living with the dead. There, she finds Ausma and the farm collapsing under the weight of their memories, in contrast to her childhood, where in summers she attended a two-week Latvian camp under wet Washington skies. The camp served as a miniaturized doppelganger of Latvia where children of refugees dressed up in traditional Latvian costumes, danced traditional Latvian dances, and sang the Latvian anthem. “We were too young to know that there is a difference between the exile’s memory of home, which remains perfectly still, immobile, as if encased in a carapace, and a homeland’s memory of itself, which drags itself from the shallows each day, molted, tender, new.” In Latvia, she expected to find a land laced with “fresh mown hay”, “saffron milk caps”, or “storks winging overhead.” Instead, she found “old Soviet- era apartment buildings, stubborn blocks of concrete and pebble-dash, their facades brittle and peeling like the skin of old wasps’ nests.”
Ausma’s recollections of their farm deviate from the more mythical version Livija bequeathed to Verzemnieks: “You should know that your grandmother’s stories aren’t my stories....Her memories aren’t my memories.” The visual impact of the Latvian deportations and exterminations showed itself through the farmhouse’s open front door, the one left ajar when soldiers removed Ausma’s family and corralled them into box cars like the cattle they so loved. This is a major theme that drives the narrative; what does “home” mean and how does it tie into one’s identity? Can home be a mix of stories, both imagined and real?
Slowly, Verzemnieks extracts Ausma’s hesitant and long-buried narrative. The suffering and atrocities unfold as would mold germinating under the wet leaves of autumn. An exile’s dead baby is casually tossed out railcar window by a Russian soldier. Neighbors disappear under the glower of lies. Russian soldiers order Latvian families out of their homes in the dead of day and spit them north into the severe, gelid land.
Verzemnieks’s family tragedies orbit around larger historical events, which she provides in a deeply reported and fulsome account of landscapes, both mental and physical; on German and Russian pacts and impacts; on the prehistory of her family; on the tiny details that can only be found in digging through old newspapers and archives like the letter written by her great-grandmother she finds “...in an unmarked warehouse located at the end of an unpaved service road in Riga, hidden behind the bulk of an old factory where fifteen thousand workers—the same number of people sent to Siberia in the first mass exile, in 1941—assembled.”
For all the sad particulars of Latvian history, it is Verzemnieks’s writing that rescues it from the polemic; she writes as if she’s recounting a fable, and fills the pages with werewolves and phantom villages and barons and journeys undertaken by simple men and women, in fairytale tones, lush language, the contrast between her prose and the tale it tells, devastating in its crushing polarity.
Before the family farm felt war; before it absorbed the difference between the tumbling pitch of a bomb, and that of my great-grandfather’s body; before it sheltered my grandmother Livija’s youth, then stole Ausma’s; before it was lost, then regained, then lost again, as if in imitation of the confused cycles of the country in which it found itself—this is what the eighty acres that would one day be Lembi knew:
For over a billion years, uneventful stillness.
No systematic genocide or atrocity can be compared to another, but when reading Verzemnieks, it’s difficult not to think of Syrian refugees who flee whatever hell makes them board a boat no safer than an inflatable beach toy. How does one survive such moral abominations or rectify what’s been taken in such cataclysmic ways? The toll of Latvians killed or disappeared is around 2.5 million people. Thus far, an estimated 11 million Syrians have been displaced and over 117,000 disappeared or killed.
In a culmination of history and myth, past and present, life and death, home and exile, Verzemnieks tries to make sense out of thousands of years of chaotic history, of occupation, of limbs and eyes lost, of a teenage refugee sewing her scalp on with a bobby pin, and of the slow, burning barbarity of the world that seems to have no real beginning or no real end.
It is fitting that Lenin, certainly not the inventor of savagery but its disciple, whose murderous campaigns affected Verzemnieks’s ancestors as did Joseph Stalin’s later on, remains perfectly preserved and entombed in Moscow’s Red Square since 1924, amber-like, unable to come or go, betwixt and between life and death, heaven and hell, a place his victims knew well, even if they were buried in unmarked pits in the forests of Latvia.