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Zigmunds Skujiņš: Vīrietis labākajos gados (A Man in His Prime)

Alfrēds Turlavs is forty-six, happily married to Livija. They have a teenage daughter, Vita, who is doing well in her studies in physics and mathematics. They have managed to get an excellent flat with Vilde-Mezniece, a former diva who is now devoted to gardening. She needs a man about the place to help her and Alfrēds is the ideal man. During the course of the book, we will see him helping her out, from fixing a stuck drawer to driving her to Estonia. Alfrēds is the head of the Telecom Design Board of Electrona. They currently seem to be involved in designing a new telephone exchange. However, as this is the Soviet Union, we first see that one of his colleagues has been under investigation for having an affair with a female subordinate.

Alfrēds tends to leave late and we see him leaving with Maija Suna, a young woman whom he had been asked to hire and who is competent but not brilliant. Over the course of the next few days, he will bump into her more than once. At the same time, we follow the love life of Vita. She had been having an affair with Edmunds and then switched to Ivars though, when, a bit later, she announces that she is getting married, it is to Tenis. Tenis is the grandson of a worker in Alfrēds’ department who seemingly had no formal qualifications but manages to work well in various roles – indeed, too well at times, rejecting too many components as faulty. Sadly, he fell down a lift shaft and died at the beginning of the book. Alfrēds, perhaps foolishly, blames one of the bosses for this, though the boss denies all responsibility. This boss will later turn against Alfrēds.

The key issue in Alfrēds’ unit is the building of a new type of telephone exchange called an innervation exchange. This appears to be the wave of the future but is very complicated and expensive to design and build. It has been tried and rejected but is now back in favour, not least because other countries seem to be working on it. In particular, the director of the department, Kalsons, Alfrēds’ boss, says it is in the plans and therefore must go ahead. Alfrēds is not convinced and goes to visit Valters Saltups, known to everyone as Sir, something of an éminence grise in the business. To Alfrēds’ surprise, he founds Maija there. Saltups is in favour of the innervation approach.

Alfrēds is sent off to Moscow to discuss the issue with Soviet counterparts and, once again, Maija turns up. By this time, we realise something is going on and, indeed, the two clearly start an affair, as Alfrēds’ plane is delayed because of bad weather.

The book had been a bit slow to this point but now heats up as Alfrēds is having an affair with Maija, and wondering how to tell his wife and daughter, the innervation project is being pushed but, contrary to orders, Alfrēds is determined to have his team develop, at the same time, an alternative exchange model, which will be cheaper and just as effective (in his opinion). Things get more complicated when Maija gets pregnant, he finds out that Maija is the ex of Valters Saltups and Valters wants her back, Alfrēds tries to move to another flat, Livija has a serious accident which looks like a suicide attempt, the union representative publicly denounces Alfrēds for allowing lax discipline in his unit and the bosses, particularly the one whom he condemned for the lift shaft accident, turn on him for not focusing on the innervation model, and Vita gets married.

One interesting twist is that Alfrēds has a party at his flat (before moving out) and the writer Zigmunds Skujiņš turns up. Alfrēds, who arrives late, finds him poking among his books. Alfrēds describes him as the sort who sops up psychological tidbits for his latest novel. Skujiņš will later consult Alfrēds about some technical information for a novel he is writing about an engineer. Alfrēds describes him as an intellectual ragman.

For a Soviet era book, this is not a bad book. Alfrēds is a lively character, always on the move, whether at work or play. It is Valters Saltups who describes him as a man in his prime, with a glorious past ahead of him (before he knew about Alfrēds’ affair with Maija). This novel is about him. Indeed, the narration jumps between first-person and third-person narration. Clearly, when things are going well, he is a man in his prime but when they go wrong, as they do in this novel, though, for most of which he is thoroughly to blame, then he struggles but still manages, more or less, to keep his head above water, running around as he always has done, trying to get things done. I have no idea whether he is the typical Latvian Soviet man but he clearly could be found in many other parts of the world, the married man who has an affair with a subordinate and who disobeys his bosses, and then expects it all to turn out well.

Publishing history

First published by Liesma in 1974
First published in English by Progress Publishers, Moscow in 1981
Translated by Laura Beraha