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Nora Ikstena: Mātes piens (Soviet Milk)

Our unnamed heroine was born on 15 October 1969 which happens to be Nora Ikstena’s birth date so it seems likely that this novel is at least partially autobiographical. The Latvian title of the book translates as Mother’s Milk but, as we shall see, both the Latvian and English titles are pertinent. As Iksena speaks English, we can perhaps assume that she did not object to the change of title. The Russian and Italian versions of this book stick to Mother’s Milk.

We follow three generations of Latvian women, all of whom spend at least part of their lives under Soviet rule. The grandmother had lived when Riga was occupied by the Germans. Riga was liberated on 22 October 1944. That day the narrator’s mother was born. (I use the term narrator but, in fact, the first person is used both for mother and daughter. To avoid confusion, I shall refer to them as grandmother, mother and narrator, as none of them are given names.)

Grandmother, grandfather and baby flee Riga back to the countryside where they live. Grandfather is very attached to his spruce trees so when he sees soldiers chopping them down, he locks his wife and daughter in the house (daughter hidden in a suitcase with holes in it and wife hidden in the wardrobe) and tries to defend his trees. He is arrested and sent to Siberia. He apparently dies there. The grandmother remarries and the mother likes her new stepfather, till a man stops her at school and tells her he is her father, back from Siberia. However, grandmother has remarried and grandfather becomes a drunk and eventually dies. Seeing his condition inspires the mother to become a doctor, which she does.

While part of the story is about the three generations of women and their travails, a good part of the story is about the oppressive Soviet system. Mother trains to become a doctor and becomes one. She also gets inadvertently pregnant on the way. (The fathers in this story play little or, as in this case, no role.). She has the baby, our narrator, but is not cut out to be a mother and does not want to be. Immediately after the birth, she disappears for five days.

She is then offered a position in Leningrad but is quick to point out that the building where she is interviewed before taking up the position was used as a prison where Latvians were either executed or sent to Siberia. She is also quick to point out that she is leaving her mother and stepfather whose life she does not fit into. She leaves her daughter, the narrator, with her her mother and stepfather.

She may not be a good mother, indeed she freely admits this, but she is a good doctor. (We screwed up our marriages as badly as we managed our children, she says of the female doctors.) She works in the field of endocrinology and gynaecology and much of the job involves helping women who want babies to have them and to help women who do not want babies to get rid of them. While doing this job, she manages to more or less invent IVF, using the sperm of a man who is a drunk and cannot impregnate his wife. However, she eventually loses the job when she assaults the man (a Soviet hero) when he beats up his pregnant wife.

Mother and daughter get back together and the mother is sent to a rural area to provide medical services to the women there. They do become closer and the mother misses her daughter when she goes into town for secondary school and stays with her grandparents. Indeed, she becomes increasingly depressive. One of her patients gives her an incomplete copy of 1984 and it becomes her favourite reading.

But getting back to milk… The grandmother breastfeeds her daughter (i.e. the narrator’s mother) for three years, eating dried sugar beets (which hurt her jaw) to be able to provide enough milk for her daughter. However, the mother does not breastfeed her daughter. I disappeared for days so I wouldn’t have to feed my child. My milk was bitter: the milk of incomprehension, of extinction. I protected my child from it. She later says I didn’t want to live and I didn’t want her to have milk from a mother who didn’t want to live.

Milk has been generally agreed to be good for children (of any mammalian species). The Soviet Union shared this view and children were given milk at school. The narrator has to drink this milk and she hates it. She tries to give it to others or to pour it away. When she does have to drink it, she vomits it up. Eventually, the teachers call her mother in and her mother defends her. She does not have to drink the school milk. We then learn that one of the main reasons that she did not want to drink the milk was because she saw it as a form of control. Not drinking it was freedom. The next day at school, she drank a bit of her neighbour’s milk – voluntarily.

There are three main themes in this book. The first is the mother’s depression. This runs through the book. It may be, in a part, caused by the expulsion from Leningrad or the loss of her father. This is never explained. We only know that she is depressive.

The second is the role of women. The men in this book are shadowy figures, almost irrelevant, and when they do appear it is generally (though not always) in a less than positive light: bullying, controlling, drunk. The women have to struggle in a man’s world on men’s terms, having babies if their husbands want them to and not having them if their husbands do not want them to. Freedom must, should mean women’s freedom.

The third theme is the loss of freedom in the Soviet Union. Ikstena is understandably very bitter about the Soviet rule of Latvia, both on a personal level (the imprisonment of her grandfather after the spruce episode, her mother’s expulsion from Leningrad and even her own struggle with Soviet milk) as well as on a national scale (the prison where Latvians were sent off to Siberia or executed). The fall of the Berlin Wall is hailed as a great moment, as, indeed, it was.

For those of us fortunate not to have lived through the Soviet system, this book very much brings home the horrors of life under it but, as a feminist novel, it shows the sufferings of women in a clear way. The book had considerable success in Latvia and has already deservedly been well reviewed in the English-speaking world. It clearly will help Latvia on the literary map.

Publishing history

First published by Dienas Grāmata in 2015
First English translation by Peirene Press in 2018