Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pacietības Mērs (The Limit of Patience) by Lelde Stumbre

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Publisher: Lauku Avīzes, 2006
• Paperback, 191 pages
• Language: Latvian
• ISBN: 9984-542-59-9

What a treat, on my last birthday, to receive a book from Latvia from a good friend. My first language, after all, is Latvian—the only language spoken in my childhood home. I learned to read in Latvian two years before I mastered reading in English at the ripe age of five, so whenever I have a chance to return to the literature of my roots, I am most pleased to do so.

As soon as I began reading, I fell deep into a world with which, for better or for worse, I could identify. The surroundings are the Latvian countryside—a gently rolling, green land of forest and lakes, juxtaposed against the city, where a full half of the country’s population resides, the Baltic country’s capitol of Rīga.

The main protagonist of the novel is Anna, a single mother with a teen daughter and a set of twin boys. She has recently moved from Rīga to the countryside, a city woman accustomed to city ways, but now enchanted with the country life and determined to learn how to create a comfortable home within it. If she did not move there of her volition—the move was instigated by her “other half”—then she is committed to make the best of it.

While initially it seems that Anna may have an invisible husband, Edvards, the father of her children, it is soon revealed that she is not actually married to him at all. The two had lived together for a while in Rīga, but then lived apart, and yet still continued to relate to each other as husband and wife, if in separate households. If that may seem a bit odd, having spent some time in Latvia myself, I realize that the Soviet years (which, thankfully, ended in 1991) wreaked havoc on relationships and lifestyles. Married couples sometimes lived apart, divorced couples sometimes lived together, and a number of other strange arrangements could be found as housing was at a premium, and often unavailable. One held onto an apartment or a house at any cost and in spite of any personal inconvenience. Strange bedfellows were common.

In this case, however, it is Anna’s ambiguity about her relationship with Edvards that is the cause of these on-again, off-again living arrangements. Her limit of patience seems boundless. Edvards, who works with the national opera, appears and disappears, strolling in and out of her life and the lives of their children, at unpredictable whim. Between visits, he leaves his family completely stranded and with no means of communicating with him. (Other women? Take a guess.)

Why would Anna put up with this abusive behavior? But of course: because she loves him. Because hope springs eternal. Because love is blind and sometimes love is stupid. Haven’t we all been there? Hopefully only in our adolescence, but too many adult women get duped into wearing such blinders with their adored men. We see what we want to see, we rationalize and we excuse, we pardon and we forgive, only to be taken for granted yet again. Anna is the perfect embodiment of the abused woman syndrome.

Edvards calls her his angel. Typical of emotional and psychological abusers, he appears clueless as to the cruelty of his own behavior, and he sincerely seems to love (in his own way) Anna and his children. Charming, intelligent, articulate, smooth as silk, he whisks onto the scene with gifts and cheer, his every appearance an instant holiday. Again and again, Anna is swept off her feet, and just so her children are, too.

Anna’s country neighbors are baffled by what they see happening next door. Why would this pretty young woman put up with a man who treats her this way? Relationships develop between Anna and the local rich businesswoman, Arta, and a complex and troubled relationship with Arta’s husband, Jānis. Melānija and Osis are the neighbors who have big hearts, offer much help, but struggle with their own troubles with Osis’ alcoholism.

We see Anna’s inability to hold boundaries with her neighbor Jānis, too, as the man early presents himself as a second villain in the story, taunting her about her disappearing husband, offering himself as a substitute bedmate, enraged when she refuses. When he eventually forces himself upon her, however, Anna once again turns angelic, forgiving even rape. Indeed, there are such moments that the reader would like to slam her up against the wall and slap some sense into her … but such is the typical psyche and profile of the abused woman. Her martyrdom seems never-ending.

Anna seems spineless around men, but she is strong when it comes to taking care of her household. We see the first flare of real fire in her when Edvards slights their daughter. It is one thing to take the abuse herself, quite another when it is heaped on her child. Little by little, over the course of one year of passing seasons, we see her gain knowledge in how to run a country household, but also how to hold her own in her relationships.

Anna does, at long last, find the limit of her patience, even as she leaves a toe dipped in abusive waters. One suspects she hasn’t yet fully learned to take care of herself, but, well, hope springs eternal that someday she will.

Lelde Stumbre is well-known in Latvia as a playwright, and has worked as such for more than three decades. This is her first venture into novel writing. There is a sense of the theatrical in this debut novel, almost as if one can see the stage lighting shift across the faces of the characters, but all in all, she has had a successful crossing over into light if not quite literary fiction. Pacietības Mērs was a quick and enjoyable read, presumably intended to be “light reading” (albeit on the very heavy topic of emotionally abusive relationships) as part of the “Lata Romans” series.

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