Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

The unnamed grandmother had a chance to leave Latvia for Germany at the end of the war. “There was time before the Red Army invaded Riga,” we are told. But, instead of risking her life, and the life of her unborn child, she decided to stay.

“My mother’s decision determined not only her life but also my father’s and mine. Unwittingly I blamed her for everything.” p. 74

And so this daughter grew to be a resentful mother, a dysfunctional mother, a woman obsessed with medicine, fertilization of human eggs outside of the body, and the novels Moby Dick and 1984. Over and over her daughter comes home to find her mother in bed, unconscious, overdosed on alcohol, little white tablets, or both. It is a sad life, in itself a picture of the suffering going on in Latvia during the 1970s.

I was driven out into a world for which I cared nothing. A world in which I had been unnecessary since birth. p. 51

At first I was confused as to who was narrating the story, as the author alternates between the mother’s point of view and her daughter’s. But the effect ends up being a masterful job of blending despair and hope. And the female point of view also coincides beautifully with the concept of milk.

The mother says, “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.” p. 33

What a perfect symbolism for the bitterness that has permeated Latvia with the Soviet invasion. The daughter herself is unable to drink the milk which is mandatory to do at her country school. Her mother comes to meet with the teacher, so this burden can be lifted, and when it is the milk suddenly tastes sweeter.

At lunch, no one put a glass in front of me. But I tasted a little of my neighbor’s milk. It was the same milk that I couldn’t stand, but I could drink it or not. I had gained a little freedom. p. 59

I wanted to be patient with this mother, who at times was successful with her gynecological practice at the ambulatory centre, who at times was compassionate to her daughter who tried so desperately to please and encourage her mother. But, in the end I could be no more patient with her than she was with herself. After numerous suicide attempts, she is of course successful, for any one who truly wants to die will find a way. It doesn’t matter to them if they are loved by children or parents; their selfishness and despair take precedence over anyone else’s desires.

The Berlin Wall comes down at the end of Soviet Milk. This family and others have lived through desparate sorrows and governmental manipulations, but finally there is hope for those who endured. Those who had the courage to face hardships. Communism. Poverty and lack of independence. Finally, we can breathe with the daughter and her grandmother, no longer dependant on milk, but ready for solid food.