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In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis

In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


[I am very grateful to my friends at Latvian Literature for securing me a review copy of this. As ever, my opinion is my own. I’d not be writing this if it weren’t…]

First published in 1899 and based on a then contemporary newspaper account of several fisherman who were lost at sea after the ice floe they were on broke away, In The Shadow Of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis is pretty much the perfect short story. It is a quick read and yet, in many senses, not; I keep looking at it and wondering just how it does what it does. It’s like one of those pebbles you drop into water, the ripples echo out from it and the landscape is forever changed by its presence. A big book, a little book, a haunting book. A good book, yes.

Blaumanis is new to me and I didn’t know who he was or what to expect of him. And so, if you’re like me, here’s some facts from the edition itself. Blaumanis (1863-1908) is “noted especially for his numerous short stories and plays, and for his command of literary realism”. Later it talks about how “energised by the social issues of the day, he honed a deep sympathy for the lives of ordinary Latvians”. And that’s a really good point to link back to In The Shadow Of Death itself, it’s a story of the everyday person. The people who make the world turn – the people who carry out their jobs because they have to, and who deal with all of the dangers and difficulties that simply living may bring. This is such a tense, unnerving story because it feels so real. So immediate. So brutally matter-of-fact.

Blaumanis writes with an incredible restraint, and reminded me in many ways of Hemingway’s frank directness. There’s also a hint of Virginia Woolf in here, that nuanced, deep eye for style and structure and theme; these are characters that you get to know very briefly but intimately somehow, people made flesh and truth in a moment of a paragraph. It’s so subtle this book and so clever, so small and yet so, so big.

My thanks again to the team at Latvian Literature for hooking me up with a review copy.

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