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Cultural renaissance sweeps Latvia for centenary

In the weeks ahead of the centenary books by Latvian authors are setting new sales records and are dominating bestsellers lists in four of the country's largest bookstore chains
In the weeks ahead of the centenary books by Latvian authors are setting new sales records and are dominating bestsellers lists in four of the country's largest bookstore chains In the weeks ahead of the centenary books by Latvian authors are setting new sales records and are dominating bestsellers lists in four of the country's largest bookstore chains AFP
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Riga (AFP)

With homegrown books and films topping sales in Latvia after decades of foreign cultural domination, the small Baltic state is in the throes of a cultural renaissance as it marks 100 years of independence.

Latvians will enjoy centenary festivities including classical music concerts, military parades and fireworks on Sunday.

Before independence in 1918, Latvia endured the better part of two centuries under Russian imperial domination, only punctuated by brief periods of freedom.

The country briefly emerged from that cultural cloud, only to be swept again under the control of Moscow, with decades of Soviet rule that finally ended in the early 1990s.

Like others in the post-communist bloc, instead of examining their own culture, Latvians gobbled up American popular culture with their first taste of freedom.

But over the last few years Latvians have been reclaiming their identity by immersing themselves in books and films focused largely on their own troubled history.

And in the weeks ahead of the centenary, this trend appears to have accelerated, with books by Latvian authors setting new sales records and dominating bestsellers lists in four of the country's largest bookstore chains.

Among the most popular is a book series entitled "We. Latvia. The 20th Century".

Written by 13 contemporary writers, it looks back at the lives of ordinary Latvians, rather than heroes or leaders, under the Tsars prior to independence, during the two brief decades of independence that followed, and then during World War II and under Soviet rule.

"After Soviet-era censorship and a period of turmoil during the 1990s and early 2000s, Latvian literature is back," Dace Sparane, editor-in-chief of the Dienas Gramata publishing house, told AFP.

"It's strong and diverse, and the popularity of this particular series is the best example," Sparane added.

- Soviet stories, drugs and death metal -

With record sales at home, an English translation of the novel "Mother's Milk" focused on Soviet rule in Latvia as seen through women's eyes and written by Nora Ikstena is also on sale in Britain and Russia.

Jelgava '94, is among other hits. The semi-autobiographical tale by Janis Jonevs focuses the life of a 1990s teenager growing up in the bleak industrial town of Jelgava hit hard by the post-Soviet economic crisis.

The unnamed protagonist dabbles in hooligan life, drugs and alcohol as he discovers death metal, black metal and grindcore music.

Jonevs won the EU literary prize for the book, which has been translated into French, Norwegian among others, under titles like "Metal" to "Doom 94".

"With contemporary and experimental novels dominating the bestsellers' lists, Latvia's cultural landscape is shedding its post-Soviet trappings and moving closer to (Western) European cultural traditions," Sparane adds.

Tsar Alexander III's policy of forced Russification in the late 19th century marginalised the Latvian language, even banning it entirely in some regions.

The Bolshevik revolution swept away imperial Russia, paving the way to Latvia's declaration of independence on November 18, 1918.

The "First Republic" was a period of immense growth in the economy as well as the arts and sciences. But that freedom and development was short-lived.

Alongside Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia was occupied by the USSR in 1940, seized by Nazi Germany in 1941 during World War II and again taken over by Moscow in 1944.

After spending decades as unwilling Soviet republics, Latvia and its Baltic neighbours broke free from the crumbling USSR in 1990-91.

- 'Baltic Tribes' -

"Back in the 1991, we had been cut off from the West economically and culturally for 50 years," Arno Jundze, head of the Latvian Writers Union, told AFP, adding that this gave rise to a hunger for all things Western.

"It's finally over: our public is turning back to its roots, just in time for our country's centenary," said the author of the critically and commercially successful novel "Red Mercury", focused on the turmoil of the 1990s.

Latvian bestsellers are also being adapted for the stage and into films that are turning into box office blockbusters in Latvia, now a eurozone and NATO state of 1.9 million people. Around a quarter of the population ethnic Russian.

During the week ahead of the centenary, homemade feature films made up half the repertoire of all Latvian cinemas.

After protests in 2014 by Latvian filmmakers over meagre state funding, the government launched the Centennial Film List to gear up for 2018. The program has proved to be a success.

The "Baltic Tribes" is a fact-based hit focused on the peoples of the region a millennium ago while the equally popular Homo Novus depicts a fictionalised account of the lives of Latvian artists during the First Republic.

Another hit is the biopic "Father Night" focused on Latvian Zanis Lipke who saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust.

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