Zigmunds Skujiņš: Kailums (Nakedness)
Our hero is Alexandrs Draiska, known as Sandris. He has just finished his military service, sometime in the 1960s. He is an only child. His father was twenty years older than his mother. He always got on better with his father. Sadly, his father died and his mother remarried six months later. He is not particularly eager to return home to his mother in Riga.
Sandris is a would-be poet and has published poems in Liesma, a litery magazine. As a result, he received a letter from an admirer, a woman called Marika. Since that time they have exchanged a whole host of letters. Sandris’ plan is to go to Randava, where Marika lives, and surprise her with a visit. He knows that she shares a flat with three other women but, now that he thinks about it, is surprised that she never mentioned the building or which floor she lived on. On arriving at the building, he sees a woman waiting nearby. We will later learn that she is Liba. She tells him that no-one is at home and that, as it is hot, they have probably all gone swimming.
He tries the door and hears someone. A woman opens it. It is Marika, as he recognises her from her photo, which she had sent it and she admits that she is Marika. Unfortunately, she has never heard of him, and denies either writing to him or receiving letters from him. At that point a man appears. He is Varis Tenisons, who turns out to be both Marika’s boyfriend and boss. Sandris is invited in and explains the situation but does not have the letters with him. At that point the other three flatmates turn up – Biruta, Càune (real name: Džuljeta) and Kamita. They welcome him, possibly because there are eighty-five women to every fifteen men in the town, with the women mainly working in the huge textile factory. They encourage him to stay in Randava but he declines, even though he feels less humiliated when Marika first spoke to him, and he heads for the station.
As there is no train for a while, he does stay in the town. He finds a place to stay and a place to eat. In the restaurant, he is recognised by Roberts Aparjods, an old friend of his father and introduced to Gatiņš, Aparjods’ friend. The two will play a a role, partially because of their amusing intellectual bickering, partially because they keep turning up in odd places throughout the novel and partially because Gatiņš is the brother-in-law of Marika.
We follow Sandris as he makes his way round the town. He comes across the various women and goes to a dance which Kamita had invited him to, to celebrate her birthday. He gets clues that each one may be the letter-writer and even thinks he has discovered the real letter-writer but then doubts arise. He has a fling with one of the women, only the second fling in his life.
While this book is clearly a sort of Whodunnit?, as Sandris tries to find out who really wrote the letters and why, and why she disguised herself, there is more to it. Sandris, like a lot of young male heroes, is naive. He himself admits that he has, on the whole not had to make an independent decision in his life, being first under the rule of his parents and then of the army. Now he is called upon to do so. Moreover, though the time period is relatively brief, this visit to Randava can be seen as a sort of initiation rite for him. He is, as he admits, somewhat lost in the town. He didn’t completely understand local customs. He learns more about women. He also learns from Aparjods and Gatiņš, who continually come out with wise and at time obscure remarks.
However, we gradually learn that he key theme of this book is lying and deception. There is good reason to question who any of us really is, says Gatiņš and he is perhaps more right than he knows, at least as far as the characters in this book are concerned. Obviously there is lying about the letter-writer, not just who did it but how much did the other women know and, indeed, how much were they involved in the deception. But the letter-writer is not the only source of lying and deception.
While Skujiņš certainly keeps us interested trying to identify the letter-writer and her motives, there is more to the book than that, with Sandris trying to work out who he is and where he is going and all of us trying to find out who is telling the truth, who is not and why. It all ends badly.
In his next novel – Vīrietis labākajos gados (A Man in His Prime), the author makes a brief appearance and one of the characters describes him as someone who sops up psychological tidbits for his latest novel. The real Zigmunds Skujiņš definitely seems interested in psychological tidbits but this novel takes these tidbits quite bit further, giving us a first-class psychological study.
First published by Liesma in 1970
First published in English by Vagabond Voices in 2019
Translated by Uldis Balodis