The Prose by Andra Neiburga: Narrative Structure, Narrator, and the Levels of Narration: A Report on How Birnitis Grant Supported my Research

Jul 3, 2019

In my report, I would like to give an insight into the conclusions relating to Andra Neiburga’s prose which is the object of my dissertation. The dissertation has been developed in the field of literary theory. I analyze the narrative structure of Neiburga’s works; the cage metaphor that applies the historical layer in the narrative; as well as the various models of masculinity—a concept which Neiburga has implicitly put in the foreground of her prose as a changing thing in a situation of crisis.

Neiburga’s literary activity can be divided into two periods. The first one covers the period from 1985 to 1993, when a new generation of writers entered the literary field. Among the first debutants were several young women writers, including Neiburga, that expressed themselves vividly. The prose’s “new wave,” as it was then called, exposed itself with a new aesthetic program. It differed sharply from the works of older writers and shocked with the ugly, unpleasant truth it revealed. Neiburga entered this scene with an autobiographical story, which revealed her attention to detail. It is based on her observation capabilities that helped her to depict both the psychological manifestations of her characters and the settings they lived in. With meticulous precision Neiburga was recording both household details and mundane events, looking at them from an unusual point of view. The role of form and aesthetics has also been recognized by the writer herself when saying, “Form – it is the main thing to me. As in life and literature.”

Critics have described her characters as freaks and losers. At the same time, she has managed to record significant societal changes through a literary text, using a dialogue-based approach that balances between the abstract and the concrete as well as between the grotesque and the real.

The most important of her stories had been written in the late 80s and 90s. In those works, men have been put in difficult situations. Historical events at the time contributed to the crisis of masculine subjectivity: firstly, some men’s inability to adapt to the stereotypes of society that relate to manhood, whereas others were unable to accept that these stereotypes could ever lose their importance by offering other scenarios of action; secondly, it became possible to create a discourse of “other” whose existence was deliberately kept to oneself and suppressed.

In the stories “Stum Stum” and “Provincial Eurydice”, the masculine features of the rural women are visible in their spoken language as Neiburga does not avoid the swearwords. Her visual depictions of those women include both some masculine physical appearances and signs showing their aging. Even when Neiburga uses irony, her voice still stays good-natured and humane; and if her characters have grotesque qualities, they still are treated with good taste and sense of style. Neither in the author’s position nor in the narrator’s voice (and it is undeniably evident that the narrators are females) Neiburga yields to cynicism when telling her stories about women. Both Eurydice and Andra, the protagonist of “Stum Stum,” are educated women. Their life in the countryside has made them marginalized from the perspective of the people who live in cities. However, they are still endowed with self-critical judgment, and they do not condemn others—mostly male characters—who needs their support while still thinking about them as less valuable persons.

Jānis Ozoliņš, 2018 Aina Birnitis Fellowship Awardee

The principle of allegory has been used as a method of structuring the narrative in the story “The Death of the Mouse.” In the agony of the trapped mouse, the heroine of the story sees a resemblance to her own experience. This similarity is regularly emphasized throughout the story. In Latvian, “pelēka pele” (a gray mouse) is a trope for a woman who does not stand out among other women and, as the society would assume, “does not care enough” about her “femininity.” But the associations with grayness applies not only to the subjective feelings of the heroine but also to the environment of a Soviet woman in late 1980s when the national consciousness is rising among the peoples of the USSR. The life is made gray by the food shortages, anxiety is growing as shocking facts about history and ecology are revealed, and the numbers of Russian immigrants in Soviet Latvia are growing. The actual bilingualism of the time is represented by several Russian phrases in the story, uttered by the passers-by and people in the overcrowded trolley bus.

Neiburga skillfully has used the opportunities offered by the second-person narrative thus revealing not only the feelings of her heroes but also the narrator’s critical view of events. Moreover, with this type of narrative, the reader is also involved in the world of the story. The second-person narrative is one of the rhetorical techniques that the author often uses. The addressee of the narrative is the reader who is offered to see her life exposed in front of her. Different life experiences of the readers can influence the level of possible identification with such heroines.

As critic Guntis Berelis has pointed out, Neiburga’s stories are often left with open endings. The use of allegory shows the revelation some of the protagonists have experienced: this life is a cage, and the only way out is death.

Within the narrative, conceptual metaphors belong to the voice or narrator’s instance, but they can also describe the narrative structure. In the prose of Neiburga, the cage metaphor is rather common. According to Monica Fludernick, who has studied the cage metaphor in English classical poetry and novel, visual linking of a prison to a cage is a relatively new phenomenon: in the past, British prison cells had walls while bars were first used in US prison architecture.

The semantics of a birdcage as a prison have been extended over time to both the dichotomy of mind and body (the mind is a prison, the body is a prison), spatial dispositions (the room/house/city/grave is a prison) and existential relations (marriage is a prison, life is a prison). A cage in human relationships also highlights a range of psychological signs of losing control: fear, concern, despair, etc. If the inmate does not yield to the norms of society because he is considered to be dangerous, he loses the signs of a rational being and is made similar to an animal and isolated from the public space.

In her lifetime, Neiburga has published only three books of fiction. Even adding some works published only in periodicals, her literary heritage in prose consists only of 31 stories. Still, her work has an important place in contemporary Latvian literature. And this dissertation project is the first full-length study dedicated to her prose.

I am very grateful for the opportunity of having The Aina Birnitis Dissertation-Completion Fellowship to finish my dissertation and I aim to continue my research on this field.

Jānis Ozoliņš

2018 Aina Birnitis Dissertation-Completion Fellowship Awardee