Friday, November 05, 2010

The Merry Baker of Rīga: An American Entrepreneur Ventures into Eastern Europe by Boris Zemtzov

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 320 pages
• Publisher: Stanford Oak Press (March 10, 2004)
• Price: $14.95
• ISBN-10: 0974711608
• ISBN-13: 978-0974711607

Scanning my bookshelves for a good book to take along on my recent trip overseas to Latvia, I came across Zemtzov’s The Merry Baker of Rīga. Perfect! I’d been meaning to read the book for some time, but hadn’t gotten around to it. Reading it while on the long plane ride over the ocean, to land in the Rīga airport, seemed a propos.

Settling into my seat on the jet after takeoff, I reread the book cover for the setting: “Mix one American expatriate, ‘inherited’ managers, Soviet-trained bakers, and a Danish baking instructor with an Irish accent. Blend in the collapse of the Soviet legal system, derelicts that heave bricks through windows for sport, and mafiya racketeers. Put them all together into a decrepit bakery plant, and you’ll have just a taste of what lies between the pages of Boris Zemtzov’s charming new travelogue…”

I had spent some time in the Soviet Union, and my ethnic roots are Latvian—I’d been to Rīga, and to other parts of Latvia, too many times to count. I began to read with great interest. Would this Russian-American businessman’s perspective be accurate? Or was this just going to be a parody of Soviet Latvia in its first couple years of shaking off its Soviet yoke?

Well, both. Zemtzov drew me in quickly and easily. He has a comic flair, and he does not spare himself in his memoir of starting up a bakery in Latvia. As in any comedy, there is the occasional exaggeration, coloring a little past the lines, but Zemtzov usually resists going too far. I admit to wincing from time to time in my reading. After all, not all that he had to say about Latvia and Latvians was especially kind. But it was (sigh), accurate enough for life in Rīga just after Soviet rule (and not just the legal system) ended. I couldn’t argue with him nearly as often as I wished I could. He was painfully on target. I winced, and then, l had to laugh.

One can drive the oppressors from one’s land, but some 51 years of occupation had undeniably affected the Latvian mindset, societal values or lack of, and general social behavior. When Zemtzov jumps through hoops to open up a business in Riga, he hires several Latvians to work for him. Others come with the package deal, something that is a part of the negotiations in the almost surrealistic Soviet-style world of business dealings, based more on bribes and under-the-table dealings than the more westernized style of “may the best man/woman win.” Yet that is also what gives Zemtzov’s account its frequent hilarity. It hurts to laugh, but the laughs are real.

Zemtzov is bound and determined to succeed with his bakery business, prompted in great part by the fact that he has fallen in love with a Latvian woman named Inge, whom he eventually marries. When the story is not about the antics in the bakery, it is about the new family, for Inge has two children from a previous marriage, Markus and Eliza. Two cultures clash in family interactions and everyday chores of taking out the garbage and dealing with juvenile discipline, or attempting to celebrate their first Christmas after living under Soviet rule, when celebrating Christmas was forbidden. Not the least interesting part of the book is how the family finds, negotiates, and finally moves into an apartment.

A moment of red-faced embarrassment for the western cultures in this story is when American businessmen come to Latvia’s famed Dziesmu Svētki, the national song festival, to sell their wares. There is a lesson here for anyone crossing from one culture to another: never assume. The western businessmen want to treat the event like a sports game, setting up booths and marketing their goods in every aisle, like calling out Hot dogs! Peanuts! at a baseball game. But the song festival, as Zemtzov points out, is no sports event or rave concert to the Latvian nation. It has a sacred air to it, and woe to the businessman who does not respect it as such. In this, Zemtzov’s book is a strong reminder of the need to take the time to understand cultural differences when doing business in another country.

The book takes the reader through endless adventure—the circus of doing business within the echoes of Soviet-style thinking; dealing with employee theft; handling Russian mafia extortion attempts and becoming part of a failed sting operation; trying out new recipes with a comic series of failures; eradicating rats in the bakery when a good old tomcat would do; an electrician gone haywire; buying black market gas for deliveries on the side of the highway, and many, many more. Zemtzov turns all into black comedy. Black and white photos add visual interest. Footnotes to explain the vastly un-American are helpful. And, as I continued to read the book during my stay in Latvia, the occasional interesting factoid or bit of trivia was fun, too.

I found myself recommending the book to several others who are familiar with both American and Latvian cultures. I always did so, however, with a firm addendum: this is NOT how Latvia is today. Had I not been familiar with Latvia, and a Latvian myself, I might have been frightened off from taking a trip to Rīga. Funny as some of Zemtzov’s story is, it can also be an intimidating if not downright horrific illustration of that time period. I wanted everyone to know to whom I suggested the book that it was to be read as a story of Latvia when still in the leftover dregs of Soviet occupation. Let’s just say … we’ve come a long, long way since then. Thank goodness.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet