Short Stories III: The Smokehouse

This week’s tale is one of the longer ones, which at one point looked like it might develop into something longer still. But then I decided to keep it fairly compact, and by the end you can pretty much see where the story might head in the future. I hope you enjoy it, and even if you don’t, you are at least getting value for money on a per word basis.

The Smokehouse

I

If they had let me keep my smokehouse, I would never have gone into politics. All I wanted to do was smoke a few fish, something which everyone else does. From spring to autumn the whole coast from Kolka to Lapmezciems smells of delicious smoked herring, sprats, flounder, trout, salmon… if it swims, it smokes.

 

But the wise men of the council told me to pull down my smokehouse – really no more than a few old crates lashed together using washed-up fishing nets – and to add insult they even quoted European Union regulations at me to justify their decision, as if they had the slightest idea of what an EU directive was let alone the slightest intention of applying one or even conforming to it themselves. That really was what sealed their fate and the fate of the continent.

 

Of course I knew even at the time that if I had given one of them as little as 10 lats the question of my ramshackle smokery would never even have been raised. I would like to say the reason I did not do so was a matter of principle or respect for the even-handedness of the law but of course that would be a lie. no, the reason I didn’t hand over 10 lats to those grubby little idiots was quite simple: I didn’t have 10 lats. If I did, I would not have been trying to cobble together a smokehouse out of driftwood in order to earn a few lats from one of the very few skills I possessed: smoking food.

 

Even that skill I owe more to chance than any application. As a young boy I used to follow my grandfather around simply because he looked like a freakish character with his long beard, corn cob pipe and one leg. It had been crushed between two trawlers – probably when he was drunk – and one of his fellow crew members, whom I was forced to call Uncle Modris despite the fact that he was no relation, had had to cut of grandfather’s leg with his filleting knife. Grandfather loved him for this and seeing Uncle Modris at the gate would always shout at me: “Here comes that thief Modris – go and ask him when he’s going to bring back my bloody leg!” Both of them would collapse with laughter when I did as I was instructed and made enquiries after the missing limb.

 

Both grandfather and uncle Modris smelled permanently of fish. Modris smelled of unsmoked fish, which was unpleasant as if he had been sleeping among the slop buckets outside the canning factory, which was a distinct possibility, particularly after a quart of vodka. Grandfather on the other hand smelled equally strongly but much more pleasantly of smoked fish thanks to the little smoke tower at the bottom of the garden he had inherited from his father and which was permanently in service with one rack of sprats after another slotting into place. To my childish eyes they looked as if they went into the smokestack made of silver and came out made of gold, lending grandfather something of the air of a wizard or alchemist.

 

Without even realising it, I picked up all of his knowledge regarding how to clean and prepare the racks, which woods to use for which flavours, whether to use shavings, powder or dust, how to add herbs and which marinades would enhance, mask or destroy the tastes of which particular fish. On the rare occasions we caught the bus to Riga, the big city seemed doubly strange as there was no smell of fish or woodsmoke in the air, just the smell of pine resin from the vast pyramids of timber seasoning in the docks and the heavier more acrid smell of smoke coming from stone chimneys that were not cleaned as often as they should be.

 

Grandfather was long dead and buried by the time I was refused permission for my smokestack, though given the amount of smoke to which he had been exposed both externally and internally during his lifetime, I doubt his body has yet started to decompose. But I was still living in the same old fisherman’s shack without a job, without a family to speak of and without much prospect of changing either of those facts.

 

It was my luck that they decided to make an example of me in order to curry favour with the Eurocrats from western Europe who needed some persuasion that their diligent tax payments were being spent properly in the lawless east. So when that fat fool Leiskalns from the local council showed up at the gate looking even more drunk than Uncle Modris, I was just about ready to kick him in his flabby arse.

 

Flanking Leiskalns were two other figures. One was a dessicated-looking woman in her forties who looked like she hadn’t had a good night in the sack for years. Nevertheless I felt a bit sorry for her. She looked smart, like she came from a very clean city and wasn’t used to walking down muddy lanes or through puddles. She kept looking around as if she had never seen a shack, a garden with some dunes behind it and a few crates forming a smoke stack. Even the seagulls wasting time on the landward breeze seemed novel to her, as she kept looking up at them distrustfully, as if she expected them to swoop down and seize the little camera she was carrying in one hand.

 

In orbit on the other side of Leiskalns’ flabby equator was a much more interesting young woman whom I immediately liked. Grandfather would have said she was the sort it was worth ditching a net for, with long, straight, brown hair, green eyes, a smooth, pale forehead and – I could not help noticing – a really outstanding couple of bouncers beneath her pale blue sweater. She was carrying a notebook and recording what Leiskalns said as he leered in towards her – obviously I was not the only one who had noticed her curves – then she would in turn lean behind the fat councillor’s back and mumble something in English to the other woman.

 

They weren’t the only ones on the road though – perhaps forty metres further back, near the junction where the dusty track joined the main coast road, two policemen were smoking cigarettes beside their car, casting occasional glances in my direction.

 

“Hello Leiskalns,” I said with a sarcastic smile, “How’s the diet going? You look like you’ve lost weight!”

 

The nice-looking young woman suppressed a giggle and started translating to the older woman but Leiskalns waved her efforts aside irritably.

 

“That’s enough from you!” Leiskalns blustered, puffing out his chest in the most ridiculous fashion. “I am here on official business to inform you that that building over there has to go!” he said, gesturing towards the smokestack. It is an eyesore and it has been constructed without a permit within the bounds of a designated national park and European Protested Biosphere Zone.”

 

“What building?” I said with fake naivety. “And what’s all this talk of European Protest Zones? If you want to protest on my land you need permission from the local council! Oh, that’s you isn’t it?”

 

“Stop your jabbering, you’re as filthy as a gypsy!” Leiskalns said, his face turning the colour of a nicely-cooked langoustine.

 

The smart old woman recoiled visibly when the translation of this particular pearl of wisdom hit her ears. “Really, Mr Leiskalns, I must object in the strongest terms!” she said. “As the European Union’s representative in Latvia I will not tolerate discrimination against any minority group. As I understood it we are here to enforce an environmental protection order. From what you were saying on the way here I expected some serious pollution event here. All I see is a cottage in need of repair and you start using the most offensive language…”

 

While all of this was being translated back into Latvian for the benefit of Leiskalns, I hit upon a nice idea. Catching the delicious young woman’s eye while she was speaking, I flashed her my best rogue’s wink as if to say “Look out, here it comes!”

 

In Latvian I began, in a wheedling, vulnerable sort of voice: “Leiskalns, you really are the sweatiest, ugliest fat fucker it has ever been my bad luck to meet. Not only are you full of shit but you stink like a hog in season. Most of the fish hanging in that stack have more brains than you, so I can hardly blame your wife for hanging around down the yacht club as much as she does. Is she still having sailing lessons from that young instructor? She must be a slow learner because she’s never at the tiller when they come back after a couple of hours on Wednesday afternoons when you’re in town spouting more drivel with your party buddies…”

 

It had the desired effect. Leiskalns exploded. Naturally none of my speech had been translated, so the European Union was reduced to saying “What did he say? What did he say?” as Leiskalns surged towards me with his hands in a strangling position like a huge wave of whale blubber.

 

Now I switched into broken English (I pretended to speak it much less fluently than I do, playing the role of the simple peasant to maximum effect) as Leiskalns closed in on me: “But I simple man… all I have is little smoke house… I not hurt anyone…” I bleated as his hammy hands wrapped around my throat and started throttling me. I could easily have thrown the fat oaf off at any moment if I had wanted to. His hands were soft and weak from pushing paper around his desk and tucking folded banknotes into his top pocket. In fact he was wheezing so much from the exertion of charging at me that for a moment I was worried in case he had a heart attack and robbed me of my sympathy.

 

“Police! Police!” screamed the European woman. They came charging up the road. You could tell they thought it was serious because they even threw their cigarettes away as they got to the fence. One of them pulled Leiskalns off me. He rolled around on the floor for a few minutes like a randy walrus before regaining his feet unsteadily.

 

The other cop gave me a kick in the stomach on the assumption that I must have attacked Leiskalns, which brought another scream from the European woman. “Stop it, stop it!” she shouted, “Mein Gott, the poor man!”

 

“Is this democracy of Europe?” I sobbed in her direction. I was rather proud of myself for remembering to get the grammar wrong in the right way, as the cop’s boot had certainly been a hard one.

 

By now Leiskalns was on his feet and being physically restrained by the two policemen. The woman from the EU had finally got the idea to record the whole thing on her little camera – which would prove useful later – and the babe in blue was scribbling into her notebook and giving the odd glance in my direction. I liked her more and more by the minute. She could tell what was going on alright. She understood just what sort of man I am and she liked it.

 

Leiskalns raved for a bit in terms even more descriptive than the ones I had selected for his benefit. I wanted to laugh but instead looked as miserable and put-upon as possible, not forgetting to grasp my neck and gasp for breath at regular intervals.

 

“That stack is coming down,” Leiskalns shouted. “Don’t think you can embarrass me in from of these people. We’ll be back tomorrow and we’ll sort you out properly,” he sneered.

 

He would have done too, had I not continued to seize the initiative. “Okay, good Mr Leiskalns,” I said, speaking good and slow to make sure the European woman could hear me and take a few more pictures. “I obey orders of European Union. I just one man. European Union cannot be stop.”

It was pure theatre. All of them – the policemen, Leiskalns, Madame Europe and the girl in the tight top watched me as I trudged towards my smokestack, looked it up and down a couple of times, aid my hand on its rough, splintered surface and wiped an imaginary tear from the corner of my eye with my sleeve. Then, with all the reverence of an Aztec priest overseeing ritual sacrifice at the foot of some huge stepped pyramid, I pulled my cigarette lighter form my pocket and set the smokestack ablaze.

 

It went up like a Roman candle, the dry, seasoned wood catching in an instant. There were gasps of horror and surprise from the witnesses as I walked back towards them, making sure to keep the inferno nicely in shot behind me as I approached.

 

“All done now. Europe is happy. Environment is safe,” I deadpanned as the flames soared up into the sky and the seagulls decided it would be best to fly a little higher than usual.

 

The European woman looked horrified and clutched her hands over her thin, dry mouth. The policemen scratched their heads for a while and discussed whether it was worth calling the fire brigade who apparently did not like to be bothered at lunchtime unless it was really urgent. Leiskalns, who had calmed down but was perspiring heavily from the heat of the flames took them to one side and told them to call the fire brigade only when they were sure the smokestack was beyond saving. He thought about slipping them a note but remembered he had witnesses and clapped them on the back instead.

 

“Don’t think I will forget this,” Leiskalns called over his shoulder as they left. “You’re not so clever as you think.”

 

Well, maybe I’m not. But I am certainly cleverer than he thought I was, and if there is one thing the last few years have taught me it is the benefit of appearing to be more stupid than you really are.

 

I waved goodbye to them, went back into my shack and opened a beer. I walked out and stood as close to the flames of grandfather’s smoke stack as the heat would allow. I toasted the old man, throwing a bit of beer into the flames to mark the occasion. I even wondered if I should get some sausages and cook them on the flames but discounted the idea on the grounds that the meat might get tainted by the flavour of the fish inside the pyre that were currently being given the ultimate hotsmoke treatment.

 

When I turned around, the girl in the tight blue jumper was standing behind me. I passed her the beer bottle and she took a long drink. I could tell we would get on.

 

 

II

 

Considering this whole episode was portrayed as a great scandal and the use of an EU legislative sledgehammer to crush a poor Latvian nut (myself), it is funny to think that at the time I considered it to be one the luckiest days of my life. As well as providing me with a huge amount of satisfaction in getting one over on Leiskalns, the girl in the blue sweater and I hit it off in no uncertain terms.

 

By the time we cracked open a second bottle and were sitting facing each other on the grass while the fire crew lazily put out the few remaining timbers of the stack, I had learned that her name was Biruta, she was 21 years old and a junior reporter on one of the Riga newspapers. She had been given the job of accompanying the EU representative on what was supposed to be a dull job, seeing an environmental hazard disposed of, that would enable the EU to tell everyone how effective it was being in protecting the Baltic Sea from pollution and how its local representatives were active on the ground, not just sitting in their nice air conditioned offices all day reading dictats from Brussels. Biruta suspected there had been a mistranslation of ‘smokery’ at some point, which resulted in them showing up to witness the destruction not of some Soviet-era industrial chimney but my ad hoc collection of crates and kippers.

 

Biruta had already filed a story about the affair and had even got permission from Madame EU to use her photographs and film clips – provided the tale was told in such a way that she was portrayed defending me against the unreasonableness of Leiskalns and the local council. It was a wriggle I would have been proud of myself and was perhaps the first indication that the Euopean Union and I were made for each other in that we we are both opportunistic, as slippery as eels and in it for ourselves; but ultimately with fairly good intentions.

 

Miraculously, some of the fish inside the smokery had avoided total immolation so we munched on a few as we knocked back the beer and even gave a bucketful to the firecrew to take back tot he station. Being local boys, they knew my fish were always worth a nibble and they left with a promise to bring me some old wooden crates they had in storage so I could build a new smokehouse.

 

During all this time Biruta was fielding calls on her mobile phone, occasionally asking me for a quote to pad out the developing story which had apparently been picked up by the international newswires. Between mouthfuls of seared fish washed down with my favourite Bauska beer I dreamed up some choice phrases such as: “That smokery was all I had. Now I will starve” and “All my fish was environmentally friendly using sustainably-sourced fish and wood from certified renewable forests.”

 

This was a downright lie of course – the fish was generally given me at knock-down rates or for payment in kind by captains who had exceeded their quotas and the wood was “sourced” from wherever I found a decent enough tree in the forest. In my defence I did prefer deadfall when it was available but I won’t pretend I never cut down a living birch or alder if it smelled like it would make particularly aromatic wood smoke. I’d never cut down an oak – though maybe I would take the odd branch if I had asked its permission…

 

Biruta’s questions turned into an interview for the following day, then turned into a little bt of a roll on the grass and finally a more intimate tete-a-tete inside my cabin. I think we were all happy with our day’s work. I had had fun at Leiskalns’ expense and made the acquaintance of what lay under Biruta’s jumper. She had found a story that got bigger by the minute and I like to think had also been interested in What Lies Beneath. The European representative had managed to salvage a situation that could have been very damaging to her reputation by positioning herself as defender of the oppressed rather than oppressor. Only Leiskalns had lost out, but that wasn’t something I was about to lose sleep over. No, I had much better reasons for losing sleep that night.

 

 

III

 

At this point I should explain why Leiskalns had such intense dislike for me. He would say it was something to do with me being a work-shy layabout from a notorious family that lowered the tone of the neighbourhood. To which I would respond that whatever appearances were, when necessary I worked harder than he could ever dream of and when I didn’t need to work I made sure I enjoyed life. As to being from a criminal family, well, I admit we had had our fair share of legal entanglements over the years. But to be on the wrong side of the law during the Soviet era was a badge of honour as far as we were concerned. It showed our spirit had not been manacled by our occupiers even if they were able to control every aspect of our lives. My Uncle Kaspars (this one was a real relative, Grandfather’s younger brother) had spent a couple of years enjoying life in a Siberian labour camp as a result of the heinous crime of climbing up the town hall building in the night and placing the claret and white flag of Latvia among the silly standards of the Latvian Soviet Republic. There were many more than the usual number of pedestrians passing in front of the building the following day, and it wasn’t until the evening that the apparatchiks inside noticed te outrage.

 

Naturally, Uncle Kaspars had spent a good deal of the day quietly celebrating his boldness and had become a bit loose-lipped as a result. Which of his drinking companions ratted on him has remained an open question in the many years since, and it may be worth noting that a member of the Leiskalns family paid a brief visit to our property that day too and enjoyed Grandfather’s hospitality without complaint. Whether he was the snitch or not I cannot say with any certainty. If he wasn’t, I apologise for casting aspertions. If he was, I’m sure Uncle Kaspars is settling his score in the afterlife.

 

Sure enough more recently there had been the odd drunken incident, but nothing more serious than some late-night singing, a bit of poaching and the occasional bar room brawl which in any case invariably ended up with the combatants – myself included – swearing eternal friendship and insisting on buying the drinks, which was ironic as the brawls usually resulted from a suspicion that someone was ducking out of their round.

 

But all of that was small fry, to use Grandfather’s analogy. The real reason Leiskalns hated me was nothing to do with low-level delinquency or ancient blood feuds. The real reason he couldn’t stand my guts and was so delighted to have a chance to destroy the smoke stack was this: our family home, despite being just a shack with a couple of hectares attached, lay on the Linija 1 – the road running parallel with and closest to the sea shore itself.

 

A hundred metres further inland and it would have been worth next to nothing but comprising part of the Baltic coastline itself it was prime real estate. Most plots along the coast had been sold by the original owners (who themselves had only regained possession after the Soviets went home) at prices that seemed like fortunes in newly-independent Latvia but can now be seen as chicken feed. Leiskalns and his family were among the most active buyers and in turn sold many of the plots on to developers or private individuals who built increasingly grand weekend homes for the Riga elite.

 

Meanwhile we lived on in our weatherboard palace which let you listen to the waves breaking on the shore while you lay in bed, so big were the cracks and holes in its fabric. Another plus was that at any time of the day or night you could keep your nose attuned to the latest goings-on in the smokery so that the fish could be removed at precisely the right moment, even if that moment happened to be four o’clock in the morning.

 

Our plot was one of very few remaining that Leiskalns and his friends hadn’t managed to buy, steal, bluff or threaten their way into their own ownership and it lay in perhaps the prettiest location of all with a gentle dune of sea heather, sawgrass and gorse bushes giving us just enough shelter from the wind while maintaining that healthy sense that you were always in the immediate presence of the sea’s living soul.

 

We were bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood and more importantly bringing down the price of the neighbouring real estate, all of which Leiskalns owned. He had tried every trick in the book to kick us out and had failed, so when the happy chance came to crush us in the machinery of the mighty European Union, he had not hesitated to nominate us as the most pressing redevelopment site in the parish which, given its profusion of abandoned collective farms and former missile bases was clearly a choice motivated by something other than logic.

 

 

IV

 

Biruta returned the next day, and not only for a repeat dose of what had already passed between us. Apparently the story of the smoke stack outrage was continuing to whirl around the continent and, being an entrepreneurial sort of girl, she had managed to win commissions from at least four different agencies for “exclusive” interviews with me. Naturally our interview passed very agreeably, though I would describe it more as a collaboration that gave us mutual satisfaction than the sort of notebook-across-the-table encounter I have got use to since then.

 

I think it was as we lay together smiling at the cobwebs in the roof of my shack that I had my first intimation of the power of the press. When she told me how much she was being paid for the interviews I was astounded, perhaps in the same way that the owners of the other seashore properties had been astounded by the riches offered to them by Leiskalns. In reality the fees were not that big – but in the context of a small Latvian newspaper they seemed so.

 

My admiration of Biruta grew from the merely physical to something else. As I had known from that very first glance at the gate, she was made from the same sort of material as myself, so it did not seem much of a risk to ask what came out of my mouth next.

 

“So what’s in this for me?” I said, lighting a cigarette and exhaling in the direction of a spider.

 

“Isn’t fame enough?” she parried.

 

“I would prefer fortune.”

 

She gave me a surprisingly forceful dig in the ribs. We both lay there thinking for a few minutes. I noticed the sound of the sea.

 

“You can’t make any money out of this,” Biruta pondered as she took the cigarette out of my mouth and had a drag of her own. “But you could do something else. You could stand against Leiskalns in the elections.”

 

There, in the blue-grey smoke of a cheap Russian cigarette from a packet smuggled in the spare tyre of a car that had crossed the border from Belarus a week earlier, my fate was decided.

 

I had to admit is was a brilliant idea, and I knew with my inherent talent for political prediction that it would work. Everyone hated Leiskalns, though until now they had been too scared to say so. That had all changed with the international fuss created by torching my smokery. The name of the town – of the whole country even – had been tainted by his action, and people would want to distance themselves from him in a clear and serious way. Leiskalns relied on fear and apathy to secure his seat on the local council. People were no longer fearful and no longer apathetic, not necesarily because they had any great regard for me but because they wanted to put clear space between themselves and Leiskalns.

 

“I could mention it to one of the opposition parties, if you like,” Biruta said. “In fact you could probably choose whatever party you wanted. Of course you’d need to have a shower and a haircut to make yourself look less like a tramp, but I think that can be arranged…”

 

The strange thing is that even by then I was already scheming. Her words had been intended as a joke, but some sort of new connection had been made in my brain. It was as if I had always had a political circuit in my head that had never been powered up before. Suddenly a current had been applied and it was coming to life quickly.

 

“A shower yes, a haircut no,” I said. “That’s part of my appeal. I have character. I don’t look like a dull politician, I look like a normal person thrust into an abnormal situation. In any case I will need to look like I do on the TV and the internet otherwise people will get confused and think I am someone else.”

 

Biruta turned to look at me with a mixture of fascination and maybe a little uncertainty as if she couldn’t tell if I was being serious or not. She realised I was.

 

“As for parties, I will need to think about it,” I continued. “They are all a pretty sorry bunch. There are one or two decent people I suppose, but they are all surrounded by idiots just as bad as Leiskalns.”

 

“That’s why they will be so keen to get you on board,” Biruta said. “You would be a very useful symbol.”

 

“Symbols are nice to look at but they don’t do much,” I thought out loud. “If I am going to stand, I want to do something. I want to have some fun!” I concluded and rolled back on top of Biruta.

 

In the afternoon, a Swedish television crew arrived. The ever resourceful Biruta was acting as their fixer, of course. They looked a little disappointed that there was nothing left of the smokery to film, so we engaged in a little beachcombing, picked up a fair stack of driftwood (the cameraman was built like a Viking and I suspected one of his ancestors had probably pillaged the Courland coast a thousand years earlier) and set fire to it in the place where the orignal smoke stack had stood. We let it die down to a highly photogenic mass of smouldering, charred wood before conducting yet another interview in which I waxed lyrical on the iniquities of EU law being used against such a miserable individual as myself.

 

I was becoming quite adept by now at tailoring my account to suit the audience. In this I was helped by the Swedes suggesting a few choice angles before the interview started and I realised that in much the same way as Biruta they weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say as much as hearing what they expected me to say. So that’s what I said, playing up the sort of things that would give any Swede worth the name conniptions, such as incorrect use of procedure, not having the right paperwork and causing environmental damage to “their” Baltic sea (not that the film crew had expressed any qualms about releasing carbon dioxide via our little beach bonfire).

 

In short it was a very productive afternoon and I was amazed at how simple the whole process was. Even before they left they they had assembled a rough cut of the item that would broadcast on Swedish national television just a few hours later. I almost felt outraged on my own behalf, it was so persuasive. Moreover I enjoyed it. And like all enjoyable things I craved more. Biruta was still there.

 

If it had been anyone other than the Swedes, probably here would not have been such a fuss. But with their reputation for impartiality and fair-mindedness, how could anyone fail to see their point that a terrible injustice had been committed that while not on a huge scale was nevertheless symptomatic of where the entire European Union project was going wrong? The Swedes felt considerably more outraged on my behalf than any Latvian would ever have bothered with. Even so it came as quite a surprise when the Swedish embassy called me to say that their foreign minister wanted to pay me a visit during a visit to Latvia the following week.

 

Word of his imminent arrival must have got out because before he arrived I was subject to the sort of wooing even a beautiful girl like Biruta must have envied. One by one members of the local political parties invited me to meet them in Riga and when I declined they graciously deigned to visit me at home instead.

 

In an amazing turn of events I was even approached by the party of which Leiskalns was an oh-so-loyal member, the Northern Farmers’ and Fishermen’s Party or ZZZ. They sent one of their smoothest operators to see me, a veteran MP by the name of Brinkmanis who veritably oozed chummy reassurance. He was the sort of man Grandfather would have said could change the oil in his engine without getting his hands dirty.

 

To give him credit, Brinkmanis was a lot better turned-out than some of them, I can tell you. It may be surprising to hear from someone renowned – in those days at least – for being scruffy, but my unkempt appearance was just as carefully studied as Brinkmanis’ unflashy smartness and I appreciated that here was a man who had found his true niche in life as a cunning, slippery political backstabber. Despite my total aversion to his crooked party and its grubby little schemes, I rather liked the fellow.

 

I made him stand in his polished Oxfords right on the edge of the black ring of scorched earth that had formerly been the location of my smokery. He did a fine job of talking about “unfortunate misunderstandings” and “communication breakdowns” while admitting – in strictest confidence, naturally – that though Leiskalns was a long-standing member of the party he had never been renowned for his intellect and had received a stiff talking to behind closed doors at party HQ. It was all so much soft soap, but I made Brinkmanis run through his whole routine for the purposes of entertainment and study as much as anything else.

 

I nodded and mumbled the occasional response, giving the clear impression that I probably wasn’t possessed of the greatest intellect myself and letting him think that he would certainly walk away from my humble home having achieved some sort of victory.

 

Then, as even Brinkmanis’ fluid conversation dried up, I looked him straight in his neat little square-framed spectacles, smiled broadly and said: “That’s great, Brinkmanis. Listen – if I stand for your party in the elections, will you can Leiskalns?”

 

“Can?” he asked.

 

“Expel. Eject. Kick out. Consign to the dustbin,” I clarified.

 

He pursed his lips as he realised perhaps I wasn’t quite the idiot he had taken me for. I could see him wondering if he should have tried a different strategy with me, that of the hard-nosed negotiator. Someone else back at party headquarters – hopefully Leiskalns again – would get another rollocking for an inaccurate briefing that portrayed me as a dumb peasant.

 

“That is a matter that would require discussion at the highest level,” he said diplomatically. “If it is a serious offer you are proposing, we could…”

 

“Don’t bother!” I cut him off. “You had your chance. They should have sent someone capable of making a decision. Thanks for coming, nice to make your acquaintance. ‘Bye.”

 

He left, but not before giving me a serious look, like a botanist wondering whether he had stumbled upon some new form of moss and whether it merited further study.

 

Brinkmanis was followed by representatives of the other social clubs and self-help groups that pass for political parties in my country. They each had their little variations, appealing to my venality, my bravery, my simplicity or my “grass-roots understanding” but they all wanted essentially the same thing – my name on their ballot papers. Each of them got pretty much the same treatment as Brinkmanis, to which they responded with varying degrees of incredulity, as if I had just turned down a free pass to the best nightclub in Monte Carlo.

 

Consequently, Brinkmanis rose considerably in my estimation as he was the only one who had managed a degree of sang froid when faced with my sudden confrontation. I decided that we should definitely conduct business in the future.

 

Biruta hadn’t been over for a couple of days, but by the end of the week her nerve cracked and she showed up at the gate. I was glad to see her, though did my best to look as if I hadn’t been secretly pining for her in my kennel. She was hot to trot but I decided it would be a lot more fun to make her wait for her next turn around the paddock and made the unprecedented suggestion that we might walk to a bar for a drink and a bite to eat – provided she was willing to pay, using the money she had made off me. She agreed at once and we set out together on a pleasant evening in early summer walking along the beach while I talked about nothing and Biruta responded to messages on her mobile phone that beeped with annoying regularity. I told her to switch the damn thing off, to which she responded that it was more than her job was worth and that a meteorite might land on her patch at any given moment.

 

The bar was called the Red Herring and I was well known there if not exactly a regular. Despite my reputation and the enjoyment I have always had from being in bars and studying the specimens that that are washed up, in truth I have never been a big drinker. It’s a common misconception – ironically enough among non-drinkers – to assume that people hang around bars for the drinks. That is rarely the case. The drinks are just an economic justification for the existence of the place. Bad drinks can be tolerated in a good bar, but in a bad bar even the finest champagne tastes disgusting.

 

The Red Herring was popular with the trawler fisherman, a fact which generally kept most other people away as they imagined it must be the sort of place where tattooed deck hands slashed at each other with cutlasses on a regular basis. In fact quite the opposite was true. The atmosphere was remarkably tranquil and conversation generally took a rather philosophical course compared to other bars. If you doubt the fact, set sail at 4 in the morning some day, work a 12-hour shift in a rough sea and then see if you feel like jumping around shouting when you get back to dry land.

 

No, what you want is a quiet place with good food and a relaxing drink to help you sleep before you start the whole thing again in a few hours’ time, and if some fool starts misbehaving it’s a safe bet he won’t last very long before you and all the other normal types tell him to clear off or face some collective persuasion.

 

The bar itself was a fairly small wooden structure perched on a concrete slab just outside the perimeter fence of the fishermens’ port cooperative. It was painted a different colour each year for reasons no-one could remember and was currently an attractive sky blue which was a great improvement on the slightly sickly yellow of the previous year which had only looked good at sunset.

 

Even better than the unspoiled nature of this watering hole however was the menu. Unsurprisingly, the seafood was the best in the country. Fish stew was the only unchanging item and was made in small enough quantities that you had to eat by 7 pm to be sure of avoiding disappointment. The rest of the menu generally consisted of just one other dish according to what seemed particularly good or plentiful in the nets that day. There was a unique a la carte option too, which consisted of a trawlerman entering the bar toting a specific fish and demanding that it be cooked to his own personal taste or – if he was feeling generous and had snagged a turbot – for the general pleasure of all patrons, in which case he would not have to buy a drink all evening. It was not for nothing that turbot are known as “gold bars” by fishermen.

 

Sadly there was no such marine Midases in residence on the evening Biruta and I showed up but there were a few familiar, friendly faces who exchanged greetings with us (and a couple of wolf-whistles that I doubt were directed in my direction, though where sailors are concerned you can never be one hundred percent sure).

 

We sat at a table by the window, discovered we were in luck as far as the fish soup was concerned and Biruta updated me on the progress of my unlikely tale while we waited for it to arrive. Interest had subsided in my story at last, though it had sparked some limited interest in other instances of abuse of European Union powers by low-ranking officials in Spain, Cyprus and the Czech Republic.

 

“Well, here’s to my Spanish, Czech and Greek – or Turkish Cypriot – counterparts. I’m glad to have helped them all,” I said as we clinked glasses in their honour.

 

At that moment, as if summoned by a bell, the door of the bar opened and in walked none other than Brinkmanis. Trailing behind him like a puppy that had just had its nose pressed into its own mess was the vast lump of Leiskalns.

 

Brinkmanis fixed me with a look of recognition that somehow reminded me of the one Biruta had given me across the gate at our first acquaintance, smiled and politely acknowledged Biruta as well, whom he seemed to know already. With impeccable manners he enquired if the pair of them might join us – all this, mark you, as if he had just happened to be passing on his way home and our meeting was a happy coincidence.

 

Suddenly Biruta’s enthusiasm for mobile communication made sense. I picked up her phone which lay between us on the table and with a few clicks confirmed that she had been sending details of our whereabouts to Brinkmanis. It wasn’t necessary to say anything – I just looked at her and she shot me a “So what?” shrug, which I returned in kind without bothering to feign outrage.

 

Brinkmanis seemed amused by our exchange and took the initiative.

 

“Let’s not fall out, you know we would have got together sooner or later,” he said. I couldn’t argue with that and asked if he fancied a beer.

 

“Do they have wine?” he repsonded. “I have nothing against Latvian beer, best in the world and all that, but I am a martyr to dyspepsia. My physician says unless I go easy I will develop an ulcer if I haven’t already. Stress-related, he says.”

 

“I never realised politics was so dangerous,” I replied. “I must remember to avoid getting mixed up in it. Actually they do have a decent house white if you ask nicely. Goes well with fish.”

 

Turning to Leiskalns I added: “I would offer you a drink as well, but now I am concerned about your health.” He muttered something under his breath which probably wasn’t entirely complimentary and carried on sitting there with a humiliating lack of anything to drink in his hand.

 

A glass of house white appeared with almost magical rapidity on the table next to Brinkmanis. More significantly it was accompanied by a large smile and the words “on the house” by the proprietor, who was generally a man with all the good humour of a bull walrus sitting on a lobster.

 

It provided a timely reminder that though his party might be of questionable honesty, with an insatiable appetite for bribery and back-handers, riven by the worst forms of cliquery and possessed of a tendency to advocate the most outrageously populist promises, in order to suck up an extra few votes, it did nevertheless retain a loyal following amongst its eponymous Farmers and Fishermen. In fact form the approving looks Brinkmanis elicited from the other esteemed patrons (I did not entertain the notion that they could have been directed at Leiskalns or myself, though Biruta was another matter), it looked like he was even more popular than the dish of the day.

 

“Shall we get down to business?” Brinkmanis said, pulling his chair closer to the table and straightening the creases on his trousers. “Leiskalns, perhaps you would like to take Biruta outside for a moment and tell her all about our exciting plans to develop the harbour and add a marina for pleasure craft that will create dozens of much needed jobs?”

 

“Plans? What plans?” Leiskalns flapped.

 

Brinkmanis shot me the same “So what?” glance Biruta had given a minute before.

 

“Come on Leiskalns,” Biruta chipped in, dragging the heavyweight towards the door. “How about I tell you what my sources have leaked to me and you can deny you know anything about it. You might even be telling the truth!” she giggled.

 

“Excellent!” Brinkmanis commented as he sipped his wine then held it up to the evening light coming from the window in a manner that surprisingly did not seem at all pretentious, “Who would have thought that such an acceptable vintage would be found in such unexpected surroundings?” After the briefest of pauses he continued: “Which brings us rather neatly to you. Who would have thought such an acceptable candidate would be found in such unexpected surroundings?”

 

I acknowledged him with my glass.

 

“I know I missed my chance to recruit you, so I won’t embarass both of us by begging. I just came to let you know that there are no hard feelings and that my friend Mr Leiskalns will not be bothering you any more.”

 

“That’s very decent of you. But I don’t need your help or anyone else’s to deal with people like him.”

 

“Of course, of course, that’s understood. The funny thing is that I had a word with the central committee – on a purely theoretical basis, you understand – about… what was the word you used? ‘Canning’ him? They didn’t raise much in the way of objections. So if you had been interested in our friendly discussion, it would not have been an obstacle after all. Amusing, no?” He took another sip of wine, his grey eyes fixed on me above the thin line of his lip on the rim of the glass which made him look like a snake.

 

“Okay Brinkmanis, I’ll stand for you,” I said. Before he could say anything else I added: “But on one condition – Leiskalns stays.”

 

“Intriguing,” was his one word response.

 

As ever my reasoning was more instinctive than anything else. I had a sort of premonition that here was an opportunity that would not be repeated. If reasoning did play a part it was based on the principle that an utterly corrupt party would be easier to control (and more understandable to me) than one kidding itself that it was acting on principle. As for Leiskalns, well, it would have been doing him a favour to cut him adrift. I had plans for him. They say revenge, like herring, is a dish best served cold. It’s also much tastier if you wave it around the kitchen for a while first.

 

We clinked glasses and again it had the magical effect of summoning Leiskalns from his cave. The door swung open and in he came with Biruta.

 

“Perfect timing!” Brinkmanis exclaimed, turning in his chair so that the whole bar could hear what he was saying. “Leiskalns… friends… I am proud to announce the new ZZZ candidate for mayor of this fine town!” He put his glass down, rose from his chair and began clapping in my direction. Everyone in the bar joined in, with a general murmur of surprise followed by one of approval. They would have thought the notion was insane coming from anyone else of course, but from someone as smooth and reassuring as Brinkmanis it seemed perfectly natural.

 

I acknowledged my potential constituents with a cheery wave. Biruta clapped her hands and jumped around. I could see that power, or even the future promise of it, really did have aphrodisiac properties and the bedsprings would be in for a particularly gruelling night. Meanwhile Leiskalns looked like a volcano seconds away from cataclysm.

 

“Drinks all round!” shouted Brinkmanis, slapping a 50-lat note on the bar and switching instantaneously from political heavyweight to congenial host. I was in.

 

 

V

 

In case you were wondering, yes, I did consider standing as an independent. While I would still probably have won, it would have taken an awful lot of hard work and thinking out some sort of principle on which I was standing. I suppose that was possible, but how much easier it was simply to make use of the political apparatus ZZZ had in place already and let their minions do all the hard work.

 

It wasn’t as if I had many people to win over anyway. I was well known about town and the endorsement of Brinkmanis and (somewhat reluctantly) Leiskalns was enough to win over all but the most independent-minded voters who quite rightly regarded me as the worst sort of turncoat. Incidentally, Leiskalns was mollified by the offer of the mayorship of Polga, a town a little further along the coast which had a slightly larger harbour, a slightly larger mayoral office and a slightly larger opportunity for creaming money off the top of municipal and private real estate deals as it was the weekend retreat of choice for the political and diplomatic elite.

 

The official line was that he had done such a bang-up job in Zivrags he was being sent to Polga to repeat the trick. No-one but Leiskalns believed this of course, but it served its purpose and he was sure to let me know that he would be happy to return to our home town after I had screwed everything up and ruined my reputation. He believed he was now a big shot. He was half right.

 

The details of my debut election campaign are barely worth recording. I continued my series of interviews with Biruta, which were duly printed in the newspapers and a few party leaflets. The fact that the text of both was identical shows the standard of media coverage.

 

The only debates worth the name took place in the Red Herring when I agreed with whatever the person sitting on the other side of the table was saying, which was usually what brick Brinkmanis was, as he had placed another 50 lat note behind the bar to fuel the political process.

 

My first election gave me the impression which I retain to this day through all subsequent ballots that the result one achieved was generally inversely proportional to the amount of effort put into the campaign. All that doorstepping and loitering outside supermarkets to show what a regular guy you are is really just insurance so that when you lose you don’t feel it was through lack of effort. I had no need to prove what a regular guy I was so there was no point making a show of it.

 

Election day itself was spent mainly reconstructing my smokery using various crates and pallets I scrounged from the party and – in a piece of symbolism that was not lost of me – some pine ballot boxes from town hall that the election commission was replacing with new, flimsy plastic ones. These sturdy old cubes proved to be excellent material for construction of the new smokery. It was fitting that these receptacles of the people’s democratic will should enjoy their retirement years in the service of the man who was about to be elected to public office for the first time. Moderates, extremists, agrarians, libertarians, nationalists and radicals would at last be united in the pungent but pleasant aroma of applewood and birch shavings, the smoke flitting past the places in which their ballot papers had piled up and escaping up into the ether in just the same way that their legislative expectations had done.

 

The polls closed at 8 pm after which I sauntered towards the counting station. Within minutes the counters were telling me, off the record, that I had won by a fairly comfortable margin. The other candidates looked so miserable I thought it only decent to go over and offer them my condolences. I felt almost guilty winning an election about which I cared so little and which clearly meant so much to them.

 

Brinkmanis showed up soon afterwards with a couple of other party bigwigs in tow. Evidently my victory was going to be the story of the night and with ZZZ not expected to do particularly well away from its ‘coast and crop’ heartland, they wanted to make sure they were in some photographs depicting a victory. With the practised ease that spoke of countless such occasions in the past, Brinkmanis issued his instructions regarding who should stand where and what sort of expressions they should make available to the cameras: “Enthusiastically happy without any hint of triumphalism, switching after about thirty seconds to a determination to get down to work,” were his precise words, followed swiftly by: “…and don’t make any promises!”

 

My election saw a brief revival in interest in me as media were able to re-use all their old footage in their accounts of how this poor downtrodden peasant had seized the initiative to win a democratic mandate. For once all sides were equally happy with the outcome. For the EU people it provided the best evidence that they were not after all part of a vast supranational oppression machine but something vaguely to do with grass-roots democracy. Similarly, the Latvian authorities were delighted to point out that oligarchs and business interests did not hold sway as was commonly supposed. If a wrong was committed, the rule of law, the constitution and the flimsy plastic ballot box provided the means of recompense.

 

Perhaps the biggest winner was the ZZZ. With me on board Brinkmanis had succesfully changed the party’s image from bad guys to good guys, left all their land-grabbing, money-making schemes intact and found someone more capable than ninety percent of their council members and MPs who tended to be the sort of people you would dread being sat next to at a country wedding.

 

Over those days I got a lot of advice form a lot of people. I listened to all of it and believed almost none of it. Instead I developed a game that has proven to be extremely useful to me in my political career ever since: I put myself in the position of the person talking to me, first to ascertain what it was they were really trying to say and second to see if I would have taken a different approach, based on what I knew about myself.

 

Without wanting to sound like a bighead, I have always been a pretty good judge of character. I can see what makes people tick, so it came as something of a surprise when I realised how truly awful many other people are as judges of character. Some people talked to me in the most inappropriate ways that made me want to seize them by the lapels and say: “You are talking to me under the assumption that I come from the same village as you!” or “I do not share your prejudice against Jews to please do not address me in this manner!” or tell them outright: “You never get anything done, because you are not a likeable person!”

 

Brinkmanis was an exception of course. He clearly was as much of a connoisseur of character as myself, so that our conversations always possessed a sparring quality. We were both scheming, it was just a matter of who would make his play first and to what end. Being the young pretender, of course it was me that moved first. Brinkmanis could have waited until the crack of doom before playing his hand if necessary.

 

It came at the very first council meeting I chaired. Contrary to the expectations of my fellow councillors, all of whom assumed I was a semi-literate puppet who could be manipulated with ease and ignored at will, I made it clear from the offset that I was fully in control. I arrived for the meeting before anyone else. In fact, I was the only one who arrived for the scheduled start and informed every subsequent attendee precisely how late they were and that this should all be recorded in the minutes.

 

A small group of spectators, including Biruta, another member of the press and at least one spy for Brinkmanis (who seemed redundant given Biruta’s presence – maybe he suspected divided loyalties) was in attendance too and from their reaction they clearly enjoyed seeing their democratically elected representatives told off like naughty schoolchildren. But as every schoolmaster knows, carrot is needed as well as stick, so during the main body of the meeting, after we had dealt with some standard requests for new gateposts, grass to be cut and potholes to be filled in, I revealed my own king sized carrot.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your cooperation thus far. Despite our slightly tardy start, we have actually got through a reasonable amount of business, which is, after all, one of the reasons we were elected. But that is not the only reason we were elected. We were also elected to develop our town, to move it forwards and make it a more prosperous, attractive and safe place to live. But I ask you, in all sincerity, how can we do that when we are totally restricted and rstrained by what happens at county level over in Polga? We have already had to pass on decisions for road repairs that have been refused co-funding from our ‘friends’ over there in Polga who seem to think we are some vassal state of theirs. Where is all the money being spent? Polga. Why? Because that’s where the Riga elite go to their holiday homes. It doesn’t matter if the trucks carrying the economic lifeblood of the county have to drive along roads that would shame a banana republic provided they don’t get bumped in their Mercedes and Porsches on their way to Polga!

 

“I for one am not going to stand for this any longer. I will not stand by and let the people of Zivrags who pay the taxes that pay for those nice smooth roads, be discriminated against! There is no time to waste. It is a disgrace that my predecessor did nothing – absolutely nothing! – to fight against this blatant corruption. Action is needed now because it should have taken place years ago! Therefore I am proposing that with immediate effect we launch the necessary legal measures to leave Poga county and form our own authority of Zivrags county. All those in favour?”

 

You could see the fear in their eyes as I asked. The councillors were completely unprepared, torn between wanting to seem enthusiastic and not wanting to make what might be big mistake.

 

“All those in favour… of putting Zivrags first!” I said with an authority that surprised even me.

“First one, then another hand went up. As soon as that happened, the rest of them shot up like rockets, sensing that there was safety in numbers, or at least that the blame would be more evenly distributed.”

 

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I knew I could rely on you!” I beamed, then went around the table and shook each of their hands individually. It was a nice touch and had something of the mafioso bestowing ‘made man’ status upon a capo, I felt. That was pretty much all it took to win their loyalty. We all went home feeling good about ourselves and dreaming dreams of a golden age for Zivrags.

 

Biruta arrived soon after I reached home. She didn’t have Brinkmanis with her in body but that made little difference as he spoke to me over her telephone instead.

 

“You certainly didn’t waste any time,” Brinkmanis said. “Don’t you feel you might have acted a little prematurely? It would have been nice to be consulted before such a dramatic move.”

 

“Sorry about that,” I said. “I suppose the intoxication of democracy got the better of me. But now the process has been set in motion and everyone is feeling so upbeat it would be a shame to stop it. After all, my job is to do my best for Zivrags.”

 

“What a quaint idea,” Brinkmanis replied. “Your job is to do your best for the party. See me in my office tomorrow at ten. I will send a car to pick you up.”

 

He did.

 

The most interesting thing about Brinkmanis’ office was that it did not have the feel of a place in which he spent any time at all. The desk was a cheap catalogue-bought effort completely devoid of papers or personalisation. The pictures on the walls were hackneyed photographs of castles and riverscapes that could have come from any tourism brochure.

 

Only the seat was notable, a high-backed creation of steel and black leather like a sort of post-digital revolution Barcelona chair. It looked expensive and must have cost at least ten times more than the standard conference chairs on which the party minions in the outer offices were shifting their backsides. It suggested Brinkmanis valued comfort highly – so highly that even a chair for occasional use needed to be absolutely perfect. That chair provided one more note in the mental dossier I was amassing on Brinkmanis.

 

Now I am sitting in it.

END

 

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Short Stories II: A Blood Decoy

Here’s the second short story of the series. Short and not particularly sweet…

 

A BLOOD DECOY

It was humiliating living in another man’s bath-house. The owner probably hadn’t intended it to be so – he would not have given enough thought to the matter to even notice it – but that was the way it was.

The arrangement wasn’t permanent. Madis was allowed to live there while he carried out the renovation of the bath-house itself and a few of the other, small outbuildings at the residential complex where the owner lived. After that he would be back in his shack which though nearly as small, colder and less comfortable than the bath house at least didn’t make him feel like such a serf.

Madis started the work in mid-May. It involved laying new lawns, putting on a fresh roof and repointing the chimney, plus similar treatment for the woodshed and garage. The job could have been done in a month but Madis figured he could string it out to two or three months without too much trouble, while still giving the impression that he was always busy.

But creating this extra time to sit on the steps into the bath-house chewing on sunflower seeds and spitting out the husks, or smoking a cigarette, just gave him more opportunity to dwell on his humiliation and each time he thought about it, he grew a little more disgusted. A lust for revenge grew within him. His arms and neck throbbed faintly from mosquito bites.

The steps were still curing after being laid the previous week, but he was no longer prepared to squat on the grass or lean against a tree. How could a man have nowhere to sit in the open air? A wrought iron table and four chairs sat fifty metres away in the middle of the growing lawn but he was not allowed to use them – even though no-one else did either. They were chairs as useless as pieces of sculpture.

They proved the owner of the property could afford real wrought-iron chairs instead of the plastic things most people made do with, which looked bad enough when you bought them and then faded in sunlight and rain to look old and ugly before the frosts weakened and warped the legs when you forgot to bring them inside in autumn or more likely didn’t think such ugly items deserved to be given space inside. They would fend for themselves outside for a few years and eventually crack or give way when some fat relative paid an unexpected visit.

The refuse collectors would spurn them and in the end you would have to dump them somewhere. Then you would buy some more at the end of summer when they were going cheap because that’s all you could afford and a man must have somewhere he can sit outside.

Madis took another handful of roasted sunflower seeds in much the same way the original owner of the property, a minor Baltic German nobleman of the nineteenth century, would have taken a pinch of the snuff he had specially imported from Munich four times a year. The nutty flavour of the seeds filled his mouth, then he began spitting out the husks in a little cloud of straw.

Some of the pieces of husk fell to the ground beside the body of a dead honey bee next to the bottom step. It was half squashed. Madis must have trodden on it without noticing. It reminded him of the insects of the night before, ravenous agents of his deep humiliation.

The cook had approached him the previous afternoon. She was the only person on the domestic staff who was prepared to talk to him. His foreman, the man actually contracted to do the renovation work would drop in every couple of days to check on progress, give him a packet of cigarettes and tell him to keep working. Apart from that he had no human contact.

She had summoned him across to the main building from the window, waving her arm irritably. He wandered over to see what she wanted, making the short journey last longer than strictly necessary as it clearly annoyed her that he wasn’t running at double speed.

He lit a cigarette while she made the offer. He didn’t listen too carefully except when she mentioned money. She offered 15 lats. On principle he said 25 lats. She complained and offered 20 but as he dropped the cigarette butt to the floor and turned to leave she agreed to 25, as he knew she would. It wasn’t her money anyway. She would probably tell her boss they had agreed 40 and the difference would be quietly tucked into the pocket of her apron.

In theory it was money for nothing. All he had to do was sit in the shadows, perhaps 10 metres from where the dinner party was taking place al fresco. The owner was there sitting at the head of the wrought iron table, speaking a mixture of Latvian, Russian and various foreign languages to his guests. The women looked beautiful in elegant dresses. The men mainly looked silly, middle-aged businessmen dressed like college students twenty years their junior. The food was served in small portions but smelled good.

The one rule was that he was not allowed to move, let alone speak. He had thought that after a long day on the roof he would quickly fall asleep, making it the easiest money he had ever earned. But it didn’t turn out like that with the smell of the food, the uncomfortable plastic seat and above all, the braying voice of the owner all keeping him awake.

Once or twice he caught the guests looking at him. The women seemed unsure what a large man was doing sitting close to them, completely immobile and ignored by everyone else, even the waiting staff. The owner was pleased to explain.

He had been in Africa on a business trip when he had been told about blood decoys. They were young boys or old men given a few coins to sit near a chief or other important person. Their role was to draw mosquitoes by offering a ready meal and no resistance. The owner had been struck by the sight of an old man covered from head to toe in buzzing insects, his eyes, trance-like, staring passively ahead while all the business was conducted in comfort around him.

Most remarkable of all, the owner said, was that the blood decoys actually seemed to work. Having been plagued by flies all through his trip thanks to his pale European skin, on this occasion the flies paid him barely any attention. So naturally when he decided to hold this little dinner party in the open air he had decided it would be amusing to see if a blood decoy would work as well on a white Baltic night as it had in the dark continent.

The experiment was only partially successful. Madis was bitten sure enough, but so were the others. Before the dessert was served they had all disappeared inside, forgetting his existence. But Madis stayed there, motionless, under the eye of the cook. Only when the table had been completely cleared, the candles lining the pathways extinguished and the vases of flowers smuggled away to the cook’s own lodgings did she dismiss him, making no effort to conceal her contempt.

As he expelled another little eruption of sunflower husks he felt a sharp pain between his two lower front teeth, like a pin stuck into the gums. He moved his tongue to the spot which only caused the pain to intensify, involuntarily making his eyes water. He swore but his half-filled mouth turned the word into a stupid grunt.

Reaching his thick fingers into his mouth he pulled out a few gobbets of half-chewed seed and husk, throwing them angrily away onto the grass. He fiddled around his front teeth, his fingers clumsily attempting a task far too delicate for them and causing fresh pricks of pain to be injected into his gum, travelling along his jawline and up his neck right to the base of his skull. At last he pulled out a long, thin shard of sunflower seed husk, looking like the curved needle a trawlerman would use to fix his nets. Pink blood glistened on its tip and on his fingers. He could smell the iron taste of blood in his mouth and on his tongue, too.

Madis spat blood onto the ground and rose to his feet, fists clenched. He marched towards the main house, his dirty boots thudding on the lawn. As he passed the wrought iron table he kicked one of the chairs which waltzed onto one leg then toppled sideways onto the grass. He disappeared around the corner of the main building. The mosquitoes were starting to emerge.

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Short Stories I: The Governor’s Laugh

A slight departure now, and the point at which anyone looking for information about Baltic current affairs will probably want to change channels.

Over the last few months I have written a dozen short stories, of varying lengths. They have come partly as a result of wanting to keep on writing while waiting for the novel to be published but also as experiments in their own right and inevtably as a result of reading lots of short stories by other writers. As well as the matchless Chekhov who remains the undisputed master of the form, I’ve been immersed in Turgenev’s sketches, science fiction by Stanislaw Lem and Ray Bradbury and latterly, some shorter works by Conrad.

It is strange that a couple of years ago I tried tackling Conrad properly and got nowhere, yet in the last few weeks I have been completely enthralled by such works as the well-known Youth: A Narrative and the remarkable Il Conde, which is an undoubted masterpiece.

It’s also interesting that both Conrad and Chekhov produced works that defy the common idea of the short story as a work of up to around 20 pages by producing tales that sit somewhere between short story and novella. For this reason alone they seem to have been almost forgotten, yet in fact contain much of the complexity of a novel with the economy of a short story or sketch. A couple of such “long short stories” will appear here in coming weeks.

I am going to publish one story each week on this website, then in the new year I may put them out as a collection. I hope they provide you with some sort of enjoyment or at least, diversion…

THE GOVERNOR’S LAUGH

The call from the central bank was completely unexpected. My relationship with them had always been tenuous at best and probably merited the description ‘bad’ after my piece appeared mocking the Governor for buying his oversized luxury apartment just as the housing market peaked.

The week after he moved in the real estate market collapsed, leaving him paying through the nose for a property that was suddenly worth half its original value – and this was the man supposedly with his finger pressed against the pulse of the economy.

He had even described me as “economically illiterate” during one particularly tenebrous press conference, which was ironic as that was essentially the same thing I was implying about him.

So when his press officer called me, I assumed he would be passing on the Governor’s pedantic comments regarding something else I had written. Maybe I had got a long-term forecast wrong by 0.1% or confused the long-term and medium term overnight rates the central bank was offering (and which none of the retail banks used anyway, making the whole thing rather academic).

Instead, the press officer invited me to lunch with the Governor. I was tempted to refuse on the spot. The Governor is a vain, arrogant, humourless and cold man. Lunch with him would be like lunch with a great white shark – you could never be entirely sure that you were not the dish of the day.

Perhaps sensing my lack of enthusiasm for grub with the guv’nor, the press officer reassured me that the great man was in good humour and would not be picking me up on any errors, perceived or real. In fact, he had a proposition for me that might prove lucrative as well as giving us a chance for “a fresh start in our relationship.” I wasn’t entirely sure that the Governor was the sort of person (if indeed he was even human rather than some form of advanced counting machine) with whom I wanted I wanted any sort of relationship at all, but the final sweetener came with the name “Renoir’s,” one of the top restaurants in the Old Town. Which hack journalist has ever been known to turn down a free lunch? It would be a disgrace if my colleagues ever discovered I had done so, therefore I accepted with good grace and wondered if I needed to iron a shirt for the occasion.

The Governor arrived on time and so, for once, did I. I should explain that the account of what followed may seem on the surface to be unremarkable, banal even. What needs to be understood is that the Governor is a man of such intense self-obsession that every sentence he utters, and sometimes every individual word, is preceded by a long pause during which he gives the impression of holding the fate of an empire in the palm of his hand and deciding whether or not he can be bothered to crush it.

In this way conversations with him are more like consultations with the Delphic oracle: ask a question and you are condemned to decades of hanging around for a response which when it does eventually arrive is at best cryptic and at worst completely unrelated to the enquiry you made in the first place.

In conversation with the Governor, the most innocent question is interpreted as merely the prelude to a lengthy chain of probable subsequent enquiries which all have to be anticipated, catalogued, weighed up and have their own preparatory responses prepared before an answer can be given to the original question. In most cases this thought precess will result in him giving what he believes to be a diplomatic or cautious answer when in fact it is just monumentally dull or tragically predictable.

Perhaps this tendency towards conversational ultra-conservatism came from his job. Flattered by the idea that his least utterance could “move the market” he took to hoarding his words in miserly fashion, firmly believing that by under-supplying the market, the value of his thoughts would correspondingly increase to blue-chip status.

So even dinner table chit-chat gained an epic quality. There is a reason no-one reads epic poetry any more, and a conversation with the Governor makes that reason crystal clear: while intermittently illuminating it is barely worth the vast spans of time that it demands be invested in order to reveal those minor revelations. Therefore the account that follows has been condensed in order to avoid the destruction of the last remaining rainforests.

After a few minutes of staring at each other across the table, the Kraken awoke.

“Shall we order?” the Governor sighed, in a manner that suggested we were in eternal limbo rather than a renowned restaurant, “I have a very busy afternoon ahead of me.”

Despite being exactly the sort of thing I expected from him, I couldn’t help being extremely annoyed by his opening gambit. After all it was he who had invited me, not vice versa.

“Well, shall we do it another time? I mean, if you have more pressing things…”

True to form he failed to pick up on my sarcasm.

“No, let’s… just… eat,” he said, waving languidly to a waiter like someone in a trance attempting to swat a fly.

I was starting to lose my appetite despite starving myself at breakfast in order to make the most of the central bank’s expense account.

The Governor made some vague gestures towards the menu which suggested he didn’t much care what was placed in front of him, whereas I made a point of ordering pate de foie gras, followed by duck with truffles and asparagus. Sadly the Governor intervened before I could make inroads into the wine list, mumbling something about bank policy not permitting alcohol except at official functions. It seemed a false economy as the jug of water that arrived was very nearly as expensive as a modest Cotes du Rhone.

“So this little shindig is not classed as official business?” I asked in a desperate bid to establish a line of communication.

After a trademark pause during which the chef completed most of the preparatory work on my duck, the Governor leaned across the table in conspiratorial manner.

“Indeed,” he said with all the consideraable gravitas a man in his position can muster. To my surprise, a few seconds later he carried on with the sentence, “it is very definitely unofficial. And I very much expect it will stay… unofficial.” He drew his fingers across his mouth zipper-fashion to emphasise the point. How I wished he had been equipped with a real zipper.

“I will not waste any more time,” the Governor said, making it clear he was referring to his valuable time and not my cheap variety. “In one week’s time I need to make an extremely important address at the European Central Bankers’ Annual Meeting in Frankfurt. All of my colleagues from Europe will be there as well as lots of other central bankers, Nobel economists, political leaders, the best journalists…”

At this point I got the distinct impression he was looking at me through his nose.

“It is impossible to underestimate the importance of this speech,” he said. I toyed with the idea of suggesting it could hardly be more important than “I have a dream” or “We will fight on the beaches”.

“It will be a defining moment of my career,” the Governor continued. “It is not often that one has the opportunity to address this global elite on equal terms, as one of them. Therefore it is imperative – imperative – that it goes well. And not just goes well, but goes extraordinarily well. It is important for the prestige of the country.”

Probably more important for the prestige of the Governor though, I thought to myself, remembering that his term was up soon. It sounded to me like he was trying to put himself in the shop window for a nice cushy position advising an investment bank or, more likely, being invited into some semi-official thinktank in Brussels.

“Well congratulations on that,” I smiled. “I’m sure you’ll get a round of applause at the end. I think I can smell my duck.”

The Governor closed his eyes as if a narcolepsy had just descended from the small chandelier over our heads. When they opened again I felt like a fuzzy mould being examined in a particularly well-appointed Petri dish.

“The reason I invited you here today was not social,” the Governor said. “The fact is that I need help writing my speech.”

“From me? But I’m economically illiterate, remember…”

“Yes, that is an established fact,” he said, though it was noting of the sort. “You will be as pleased as I am to learn that I will not be asking you to perform any economic analysis for the bank now or in fact ever.”

“That is a relief.”

“…however, I have noticed in previous years that there is a tendency at the Central Bankers’ Meeting to give a speech that is… funny.”

“Funny?”

“Funny.”

“Funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” the Governor deadpanned. “You are a very poor journalist. We both know I have a low – a very, very low – opinion of your coverage of the central bank’s business. But I am told that you also write in an… amusing manner.”

The word “amusing” was pronounced through clenched teeth, as if it caused him physical pain to enunciate.

“I want you to take my analysis of the country’s path through the economic downturn and its successful application of the internal devaluation principle via public sector cost cutting and financial sector restructuring and make it… funny.”

“Funny?”

“Funny.”

It was my turn to indulge in a long and exceedingly pregnant pause. It took a considerable effort of will not to burst out laughing in his smug, condescending face. It was the most ridiculous brief I had ever been given. So ridiculous in fact that it was immediately appealing. But I decided to have a little fun before accepting.

“Let me get this straight. You want me to take your usual bar graphs, pie charts and stat tables – forgive me but I have seen your standard presentation probably fifty times in the last two years – you want me to take that and make it into a side-splitting comedy?”

He sighed before replying.

“Essentially, yes. In recent years I have noticed a general tendency towards the amusing in the bankers’ presentations. Apparently it is regarded as a way of smuggling information in a memorable way. All those who have delivered the funniest presentations have gone on to higher positions. Those who gave a better but less lighthearted analysis have been passed over. It is an unfortunate development but one that we must take into account. You will be paid whatever is a reasonable rate for such a job. But it must be the sort of humour that would appeal to central bankers.”

I savoured this last sentence. If he couldn’t see how funny it was, he really did need help.

“Then I am happy to accept the brief, Governor! It will be an honour to serve you, I mean, serve the central bank.” I toasted him with a glass of the finest carbonated and re-bottled tap water. “To help me in my task, can you give me a few pointers on what you would class as central banker humour? I mean, when you kick back and drink a few beers after a hard day’s central banking, deciding not to change interest rates or intervene in the foreign currency markets, what do you all talk about? Girls with big hooters? Ice hockey enforcers? Fifteen percent fluctuation bands? Tell me a central banker-type joke.”

The Governor fixed me with a death’s head stare. Then, realising that objectionable though he found the thought, he did actually need me, his face softened with all the warmth of an Arctic ice sheet collapsing.

“I have been thinking about that. Here is a joke our lecturer used to tell in economics school,” he began, as the starters materialised in front of us. “It was very amusing.”

The word “amusing” started a small alarm bell ringing in my head as if someone had just tried to walk out of the depository with a couple of hundred-lat notes tucked in their socks. Anything described as “amusing” invariably is nothing of the sort. When Queen Victoria said “We are not amused” she didn’t realise what a close escape she had had.

Nevertheless, I settled into my seat to savour not only the aroma of the foie gras and freshly ground pepper which the waiter sprinkled over it but my first ever encounter with central bank comedy.

“Three economists die in a car crash and go to heaven,” the Governor began.

I made a mental note not to start any of my gags with mass fatalities.

“They arrive at the pearly gates where St Peter meets them,” he continued, warming to his task. “In order to enter heaven you must tell me your IQ and your job.”

I nodded, brushing aside some minor concerns about theological orthodoxy.

“The first one says I have an IQ of 150 and I am an econometrician. St Peter opens the gate and he goes in. The second one says I have an IQ of 100 and I am a public finance economist. St Peter considers for a moment then opens the gate and lets him in too. The last one says I have an IQ of 50. Before he can finish, St Peter says I know, I know, you are a foreign exchange economist!”

Something approximating a smile flashed briefly on the Governor’s face, flickered and died. My own physiog remained as stony as an Easter Island statue save for an involuntary widening of the eyes. The joke – though it hardly merited the name – was atrocious, the delivery even more so. On a technical level it simply didn’t work. The classic Pearly Gates set-up was completely redundant in this context as it requires some sort of good or bad deed to play a part in whether or not one can gain admission to heaven. Making the comparison between the three candidates their IQ was nonsensical.

On top of that, St Peter’s knowledge that the stupid one would be a forex economist is pointless as he doesn’t even deliver a variation on the standard “You’re not coming in here” that is usually the climax of this type of set-up.

In short, the gag had clearly been made up by someone who knew nothing about how to structure a laugh and possessed an underdeveloped sense of humour. Someone who had perhaps once heard a proper Pearly Gates joke and had hit on the bright idea of adapting it to refer to members of his own profession – an economist, in other words.

Being essentially optimistic in nature I pondered that though I would certainly have my work cut out to turn such material into something halfway smileable at least I would no longer feel any pangs of guilt at submitting a grossly inflated invoice. If the central bank was willing to pay for my professional services, which clearly were desperately needed, I would have no qualms about charging them accordingly, particularly as I had only one week in which to work my rib-tickling magic.

All of this passed through my mind before I remembered somewhat belately to react to the Governor’s elusive approximation of a punchline. For an instant I pondered the possibility of summoning up a false laugh, or perhaps just a smile from the very depths of my soul, but one look at those watery fish eyes ogling me across the foie gras was enough to tell me that fakery would be wasted.

I resolved that honesty would be the best policy.

“That was perhaps the worst attempt at telling a joke I have ever heard,” I told the basking shark on the other side of the table.

I needn’t have been worried about offending him. You cannot offend a predator.

“That is why we are employing you,” he stated matter-of-factly and turned to his starter, which only now did I see was prawn cocktail. Ordering that was the funniest thing he had done all day, possibly all week.

The rest of the meal passed without major incident, which is to say in almost perfect silence. Having established the reason for our meeting the Governor saw no reason to hang around and fled back to his vault midway through the main course, leaving his trout in a state of what I considered criminal neglect.

Speaking of neglect, the worst was yet to come. Thanks to the Governor’s early exit and the lack of foresight that had always been a hallmark of the central bank from top to bottom, I was left to pay the bill, which I was able to do only by the tiniest of margins using a current account which vacillated between existence and nothingness like a long-term coma. I consoled myself by swearing to add at least one, and possibly two, more zeros to the invoice I would eventually present to my dining companion with even more relish than I had displayed devouring the duck.

When the press officer called that evening to congratulate me on what he evidently judged to have been a successful summit, I vented not only my spleen but a generous selection of other organs in his direction.

I will not pretend that the next six days were easy. Almost as trying as creating the misleading impression that the Governor was not only human but actually something of a card was the regularity with which he and his assorted underlings would assail me with requests to update them on my progress. This I steadfastly refused to do, urging them to place their faith in the Lord, the Fates or, failing that, my professionalism and speechifying ability, none of which seemed to reassure them much.

My strategy for achieving the most artificial personality transformation since Frankenstein flipped the switch on his ersatz son changed over the course of those six days. I started off trying to insert a few humanising one-liners into the existing text but they stood out like randy camels at a Bar Mitvah.

The second strategy involved stripping away all but the most essential data and stitching together a more coherent narrative that illustrated it using some observational points about how the actions of the central bank could affect everyday transactions. I was quite proud of this effort and may well revive it one day. However, as I read through the draft it became abundantly clear that it could only be delivered by someone with a well-developed sense of irony able to indulge in self-deprecating humour. That ruled the Governor out.

Something more radical was required – something that would be shocking but not so shocking that the Governor would realise he was being shocking. I realised I had to use his own inherent, if not immediately apparent, comic potential instead of trying to make him deliver a speech that was out of character. What was required was an even more extreme form of this already extreme character – a character so extreme in fact that his audience would assume they were witnessing a performance of some grotesque, not a simple depiction of a man who was himself a grotesque.

In effect, what I needed to do was write a speech with two entirely separate audiences: first, the governor himself who would believe he was reciting something perfectly reasonable, second the actual audience who might begin by thinking that this was just another central bank speech but who must come to realise that it was in fact something else entirely.

During a long walk along the banks of the river, inspiration seized me at last. I had wandered onto a patch of wasteland that had been earmarked for development during the pre-crash era. The only evidence of that long-lost boom was a large hole in the ground, a vast quantity of garbage deposited in it, and the tattered remnants of an advertising hoarding on which a few suggestive words such as “exclusive”, “luxury” and “investment” flapped listlessly in the breeze. Seagulls loitered overhead while on the few straggly bushes that had grown since the site was razed, delinquent blue tits fought over the remains of a burger wrapper. I had the feeling I was being watched by a wide selection of rodents and other feral creatures.

That dump was where I got the idea to be presented in Brussels to the pink-faced, bespoke tailored central bankers of Europe. I hurried home and without even pausing to wipe the sludge from my boots sat at my desk and began typing the Governor’s speech. It took all of that evening and the next few days as well.

Then like another well-known creator of the improbable, I rested on the seventh day, because that was when the Governor was due to fly to Brussels to deliver his eulogy.

I had made sure that the speech was delivered to him at the last possible moment with strict instructions that it would only work if he did not read it in advance. Of course I did not expect him to keep this promise – a man of such overpowering vanity and risk-aversion would never risk his reputation on being spontaneous – but I also knew he would not deign to give the text close scrutiny as he regarded reading my hackwork as beneath his dignity. Therefore the speech was written in such a way that it might satisfy a cursory inspection of the first few pages without suffering on the nib of the Governor’s Mont Blanc pen, which I happened to know he had received as a gift when signing the country up to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism but had never actually declared to the taxman.

On the day of the speech I was probably more nervous than the Governor. His unshakeable belief in his own omnipotence would see him through, but I knew that if for some reason the speech failed in its purpose, I would be held solely responsible. More importantly, the bank might get awkward about paying my invoice.

The conference was being broadcast via a live internet stream but as is often the way with these things, technical problems meant that the first half hour or so of proceedings were missed as I desperately installed a series of upgrades and applications that would allow me to watch it. By the time a working connection was finally made and pixels slowly coalesced into the lugubrious features of the Governor – I couldn’t help noticing how well digitisation suited him – he was already half way through his speech, at roughly the point at which he and his audience’s ideas of what was happening should diverge. The fact that he was still speaking was a good omen. If he was going to react to what I had written or try to change the direction of his recital, he would probably have done so before now.

“As we predicted, inflation continued to drop in the first months of the year,” the Governor said, wearing his best expression of calm self-assurance and nodding his head slightly as if this piece of successful prophecy was only to be expected coming from such a source.

“Ongoing political tensions in the oil producing regions of the Middle East cannot be disregarded as topical risk factors for price rises in the next quarter,” he continued, “while we must also bear in mind that in our skies the spring migration will be in full flow as winter’s ice recedes. We particularly look forward to welcoming back populations of geese, storks, swans, duck and cranes in April and May when up to 50 million birds may cross to the Eastern littoral of the Baltic.”

There was a decent laugh from the unseen audience that could be heard even on the live stream. That meant the earlier birding references must have been picked up on too, for now it was a laugh of anticipation fulfilled rather than the more nervous laughter of bemusement. The strategy of supplying information about the birds, migrations and habitats of Baltic birdlife interspersed among the economic data was working. I had introduced the feathered facts sparingly at first, but as the speech progressed their frequency and size increased until they pushed the figures about money supply, exchange rates and currency reserves aside entirely. The audience would end up rather better informed about the lakes favoured by crested grebes and the differences between barnacle and greylag geese than anything else.

“Following what will hopefully be a quiet summer during which work will continue to reduce structural employment and introduce tax reforms to stimulate entrepreneurial spirit, the major autumn migration cycle of cranes will begin in mid-August and conclude at the end of September,” the Governor said.

By now he was actually getting big laughs from the other central bankers. They had ‘got it’ even if he had not. But this did not bother him at all. He had commissioned me to get laughs and he was getting laughs – more laughs than anyone else. That rated as mission accomplished in his view. He concluded his speech with a return to the oil theme with a touching appeal for reduced levels of maritime pollution in the Baltic Sea to benefit the populations of black-bellied plover and – intentionally his last words – “the bar-tailed godwit” to rapturous applause.

As I looked at his familiar face on my computer screen, I thought I detected even the tiniest hint of a genuine smile struggling to establish itself on his thin-lipped features. He would definitely be the toast of the conference. Another step up the central bank ladder beckoned.

I was happy, too. I had the writerly satisfaction of knowing that the speech I had written had worked as intended. Better still, I could present an even bigger invoice than I had estimated. But best of all, I knew that the Governor, that most arrogant and selfish of men, was now utterly dependent upon me.

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Publish Or Be Damned

The Fourth Largest Rock In Latvia?

A rock in Latvia, yesterday.

The day that the winner of the Booker Prize is announced seems as good a time as any to publish something.

The something in question is a short essay I wrote earlier this year on the subject of my seemingly eternally ‘forthcoming’ novel The Fourth Largest Rock In Latvia, the importance of satire as a genre and the writing process in general.

Regarding the publishing date for the book itself… well, if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity in publishing. The final, proofed manuscript was supplied to the publishers seven months ago. Since then little if no progress appears to have been made with the contracted translation into Latvian, selection of a format, design of a cover, marketing plan etc. etc. and my repeated attempts to contact them proved fruitless until last week, just as I was about to contact Interpol.

They reiterated their desire to put the book out, albeit in terms that made it sound like I was offering to extract their wisdom teeth with a half-dose of anaesthetic.

My contract with the publisher expires at the end of December. Hopefully they can discover a hitherto hidden Stakhanovite streak before then and actually deliver on the contract they signed, which would make me so happy I’ll send them a Christmas card.

If not, well, I’ll put the bloody thing out myself and write in rather more detail here about the whole affair.

In fact the essay below was intended to be used as part of the publicity materials for the book. Maybe it still will be used, but rather than let it rot in a drawer any longer, it had might as well be brought out to bring you to a fever pitch of anticipation for the novel itself…

NOTES ON THE FOURTH ROCK

With publication day approaching for my book The Fourth-Largest Rock In Latvia (4LRL), I feel it is worth outlining the reasons why I wrote it in the first place. That’s not from a sense that I am about to make a major contribution to world literature (I would much rather make a minor contribution to Latvian literature) but because it will be good to get my answers prepared for the questions I know will be fired my way from some people with very red faces.

I shall skip the period of 20 years during which I repeated to myself the thoughts familiar to all ‘writers’ who have never actually written anything. Long ago I fulfilled a childhood promise to make my living from the pen, and as is usually the case with dreams that come true, it happens in an ironic way. Hence, I found myself churning out miles of appalling text for tedious magazines, most of it directed at readers with whom I had almost nothing in common.

Like all such frustrated hacks, I boiled and re-boiled ideas for a book in my mind until they evaporated entirely. The book was always going to be started tomorrow. Once or twice I did actually produce a few pages of ‘creative writing’, but it was all either dull, derivative or both dull and derivative.

Deep down I knew it, too. In addition it became obvious that what can seem like a “great idea for a book” usually turns out to be a great idea for a couple of pages.

But then in early 2011, salvation came. On a visit to the Robert’s Books second-hand bookshop in Riga, the helpful owner diagnosed me with a case of Eastern European angst and recommended that I read The File On H by the esteemed Albanian writer Ismael Kadare. It had a fantastic premise – two American linguists visit rural Albania in the 1920s to capture the last remnants of Homeric language before it disappears forever. There are back stories involving a small-town governor, his sexually repressed wife, the secret police, and Serbian-Albanian national rivalry. A sticker on the front cover of the book said it had won the prestigious Booker Prize, while the back cover had rave reviews from French academicians.

As I turned the pages, The File On H completely eluded my expectations. It took a while to convince myself that another book, perhaps a pastiche, had not been substituted between the covers by mistake. This was probably the worst book I had ever read. Every dramatic situation was botched, every detail that might require explanation was papered over and every character managed to be both absolutely tedious and completely unbelievable. Matters weren’t helped by what must rank as one – possibly two – of the worst translation jobs ever commissioned (it was translated from Albanian to French and then from French to English).

I finally gained confidence that the novel really was as awful as it seemed when I encountered a line which was immediately seared into my memory: “Crumbs, thought the governor.”

“‘Crumbs, thought the governor,” was the moment of my literary liberation. Here was a highly successful, critically acclaimed and prize-winning little novel. And it was absolute tripe. It was with a sort of ecstasy I realised that instead of worrying if the book I wrote would be any good, I could now be confident that however dreadful it was, however cliched and unimaginative, no matter how clunky the dialogue and plot, no matter how illogical or disappointing the final page, it could never be as bad as this. I could write something merely quite bad and it would still be better than a Booker Prize-winner.

I may be unfair to Mr Kadare who may indeed be a very fine writer. For obvious reasons I have never read any of his other works in order to confirm this. In a way, it would be a shame if I did find one of his books I quite liked, as it might retrospectively soften the overwhelming drop-kick delivered to my literary backside by the awfulness of The File On H.

From “Crumbs, thought the governor” onwards I have no longer been scared of writing badly and realised that it was better to enjoy writing, albeit with the chance of writing badly, than to be so worried about writing well that I never put pen to paper.

If one form of frustration had to be overcome in order write, another had to be actively cultivated. The other major inspiration for The Fourth Largest Rock came from my day job as a foreign correspondent in Latvia. The route by which I came to be a Baltic foreign correspondent is best left for another time, but like most forms of journalism it involves its fair share of hanging around waiting for things to happen, talking to people for the sake of talking to them and asking inane questions in the hope of a predictable answer.

Far worse than the daily grind of cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions – which do provide ample scope for daydreaming – are the big conferences and summits. Sometimes one does encounter entertaining and informative speakers at these events. But these sainted speakers are in a very small minority amongst the droning ranks of experts.

The particular conference that sticks in my mind as far as 4LRL is concerned was one in Riga in 2008 about defence. One can almost forgive economics conferences for being dull. Generally they are only enlivened by the bitchy competitiveness of economists and bankers who view it as far more important to get one over on their colleagues and rivals than to communicate anything stimulating.

It is difficult to be tedious when talking about guns, tanks and fighter aircraft. Except of course, at defence conferences the talk is never about ammunition, equipment and training. It is about strategic threats, theoretical scenarios and potential flashpoints. Soldiers are rarely asked for their views, probably because they are busy patrolling, training and soldiering. Instead, experts from a slew of think-tanks and bits of one government department attached to another puff out their chests and talk about countering this with that or investing over here in order to save future expenditure over there.

This particular conference was happening at the same time as the Russia-Georgia conflict which gave all participants a bit of extra swagger. Yet as one red-faced, overweight, middle-aged academic after another tottered up on stage to give us his insight, I felt a sense of vague nausea mixed with a sort of knotted rage in the pit of my stomach. While men were crawling in the dirt, bleeding, dying, committing terrible acts and witnessing the terrible acts of others, these puffed up Blimps had all the answers.

At the end of the day they gave it more jaw-jaw over canapes and champagne before sliding into an all-expenses paid hotel room while the poor bastards in the field – the statistics in their presentations – were slumping into holes they had scratched in the ground. The unlucky ones would never get out again, let alone receive a soothing wake-up call.

Of course it comes as no surprise that the well educated elite has it a bit better than the foot-sloggers who joined the military because it offered a rare opportunity to better themselves, but that doesn’t make the contrast or the airy way with which these people were able to hypothesise about the destinies of other men any more palatable. I’m sure not all of the people at the conference lacked a sense of the tenuous nature of human existence or appreciated the distance between what they recommended and the actions necessary to implement their plans, but a fair number of them gave that precise impression.

But as well as being disturbing, I have to admit it was also entertaining, in much the same way that my later encounter with The File On H would be entertaining. It had a grand guignol element in which things are so appalling they become darkly comic. Surely it wasn’t just me who was thinking this whole thing was ridiculous? There must be others, perhaps many others, yet instead of standing up and laughing at these lunatics we were sitting quietly, nodding and occasionally asking questions designed to show how clever we were, too.

One speaker in particular held my attention, the way a drag queen might hold the attention in a Weimar cabaret hall. He was a looming mass of affected mannerisms from the way he perched his half-moon spectacles on his head to his snorts of derision when he encountered any opinion that did not tally with his own. Most noticeable of all was the fact that his thinning, formless hair was dyed a bizarre claret colour, a sign of vanity that suggested his own self-image was somewhat removed from the lumpy figure he actually presented. He was billed as a leading expert in his field and not a session of the conference passed in which he was not involved either as speaker, commentator or inquisitor.

I became fascinated with this entirely unattractive figure who somehow seemed like the most important man in the room. A little digging into his background suggested he must practically live on a never-ending circuit of events similar to this one, punctuated by the odd publication for a think tank. I wondered what sort of man could lead such a life and how seductive it could be, while at the same time how easy it would be to gradually lose any sense of connection to the world beyond, and finally to lose even one’s own sense of a personal biography. It seemed to me he was not so much a person as a set of self-perpetuating drives: to be cleverer, more erudite, better informed, better respected than anyone else in the same secluded orbit.

Then I wondered what would happen if such a man was suddenly wrenched away from his accustomed life by absurd circumstance. What if he was forced to interact with the sort of people in the sort of places he would never usually consider as existing – the world in which no-one cares about potential flashpoints or energy security because they are too busy worrying about what they will eat or when they will be warm again. Thus my central character Viktor Draaks was born.

I had originally intended to be cruel to Viktor. I wanted to create a completely nihilistic character who stubbornly refused to learn anything from his ‘inferiors’, who obstinately stuck to his own prejudices and who rejected any form of friendship or love offered to him. I wanted the reader to feel startled that anyone could be so intransigent. That Viktor would have reached the end of the book just the same as he had started it. He would have been a sort of monster.

To my initial disappointment but eventual pleasure, Viktor did not let me do that to him. As he proceeded he did learn things and develop – not, it must be admitted, in any dramatic way, but enough I feel to make him a slightly more attractive and hopeful character by the end of the book than when he sets out on his strange Latvian odyssey.

The book is also in part a conscious reaction against received images of the Baltic states in general and Latvia in particular. Mention the word ‘Baltic’ to most outsiders and – to those who manage to avoid getting it confused with ‘Balkan’ – it conjures up an image of a cold, grey post-industrial wasteland populated by depressives, drunks, prostitutes and suicides who sit around in filthy bars drinking vodka and talking some sort of Slavic dialect.

The locals hate to be told this and refuse to believe it, as they would like ‘Baltic’ to represent folk dancing, log farmsteads, brave struggles for freedom and massed choirs. But it doesn’t. In fact this is not even what they think of the place themselves, but it is what they would like others to think of it. Ironically, anyone who points out quite how ill-informed and dismissive most foreigners are can expect some stiff criticism from the locals.

Sadly, the idea of the Baltics as a depressing place full of people moping around bemoaning their lot in life, history and geography is not helped by much of the contemporary culture that does make it to Western Europe and North America. The few arthouse films that get made tend to dwell on questions of existential angst with long scenes in which actors stare meaningfully into each others’ watery eyes. These are the sort of films that in truth are tedious to watch but which you feel obliged to say are “interesting” because you appreciate how difficult it is to get anything made at all.

It is worth noting an exception for Baltic children’s films which are vibrant, charming, clever and well-made, but sadly they never get seen in a West dominated by billion dollar kiddie franchises.

In 4LRL I wanted to show that Latvia is just as colourful, varied and silly as anywhere else; that all manner of people live here and that they are by no means uniform, grey or bereft of ideas. Latvians in my opinion have a temperament that has a natural affinity with farce (whereas I think the Lithuanians prefer slapstick and the Estonians irony) which makes the almost total lack of comic literature in the national canon all the more puzzling. Perhaps it comes from a fear of not being taken seriously. This is a counter-productive fear. Look at Dead Souls or Don Quixote for examples of comic literature that underpin rather than weaken national identity.

I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting my book stands even the remotest comparison with those masterpieces which along with The Good Soldier Schweik are probably my three favourite works of fiction. The elements 4LRL shares with (or steals from, if you prefer) all three of those works are obvious enough and in fact an idea I kept in mind throughout the writing was a sort of modern, Latvian Dead Souls. Initially I even made the central character a foreign property speculator travelling from farm to farm buying up cheap land during the boom years.

My main intention is to inject some comedy into Latvian culture. Yet despite my best efforts at levity, I expect the whole thing will be treated with extreme seriousness. Some commentators may say I am mocking the country or various individuals. I can only remind them that 4LRL is a work of fiction and that the foreigners in the book come out of it far worse than any of the Latvians. I am the one who should be offended.

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Kip Smailing!

It came as quite a surprise to discover I lived next door to the greatest Latvian artist of the twentieth century. But there it was, on page 94 of Janis Kalnacs’ monolithic and wonderful Riga’s Dandy And Outsider – the house at number 10, Frica Brivzemnieka iela.

The view of Padegs' house from my own back door

In the bottom right of the frame I could even see the corner of my own wooden fence. One page further on is a photograph of Karlis Padegs aged about two standing next to a bench in Arkadijas Park – a park so familiar that just from the grass and intersection of paths it was possible to place the scene precisely – close to what is now a children’s sand pit.

I had known that Padegs the dandy was closely associated with the Tornakalns district, but this minor discovery of geographical proximity seemed to bring him even closer in temporal terms too – after all, he died (aged just 28) in 1940. It seemed to make my occasional fantasies of catching his tall, lean figure with his trademark fedora and cigarette holder striding along the far side of Maras dikis or disappearing into the shadows of a hidden courtyard all the more tantalising.

The discovery was a surprise because there is nothing on number 10 Brivzemnieka iela to tell you that a genuinely great artist was born here. While a mannered statue of Padegs has been erected outside Vermanes park and a plaque at 24 Elizabetes iela marks the later home from 1919-40 of “Riga’s extravagant artist”, his birthplace is marked only by a row of graffiti across the facade – the same graffiti that I have scrubbed off my fence more than once. Yet though the spidery scrawl of the graffiti tags is absolutely lacking in artistry (unlike some of Tornakalns’ other graffiti) it is almost appropriate. For there is something of the graffito prodigy about Padegs – along with something of the aesthete, something of the symbolist, something of the war poet, something of the decadent and something of the graphic designer.

As to Padegs’ art itself, I will restrict myself on commentary only because I cannot possibly do it justice and because the circumstances of his life, death and legacy make it perilously easy to slip into cliche when talking about him: his early death, love of shocking subject matter, Wildean/Warholian obsession with his own appearance and myth and disrespect for authority all play into a cosy myth of the rebel artist that has more to do with our reification of creativity than anything of real substance.

From Chatterton onwards, an early grave has been a great career move (yes, this is facetious) as far as certain poets and artists have been concerned. As well as the frankly morbid fascination with youthful death it allows what may not be a particularly satisfying body of work or a small selection of masterpieces to anticipate what would ‘undoubtedly’ have been later works of incomparably greater worth.

As Serge Gainsbourg – of whom I am sure Padegs would have approved – put it:

Chatterton suicidé
Marc-Antoine suicidé,
Van Gogh suicidé
Schumann fou à lier,
Quand à moi, quand à moi,
Ca ne va plus très bien.

A case such as Gogol’s second volume of Dead Souls, the burning of which was supposed to have pushed the novelist over the edge and into his own early grave, is instructive. While the myth makes a perfect tragedy, the more one discovers about the second volume (and the first volume remains my favourite book), the more one suspects that it was something of a lucky break that it never appeared to ruin what had gone before.

Monument to Padegs on Merkela iela

But with Padegs I get the definite feeling that his was a genius still being formed, even taking into account the relatively small but strong body of work  he had produced by the time of his death. Having shown himself adept in everything from oils to line drawings to pen and ink in the Chinese style to cartoons, there is the sense that he had yet to settle on the medium in which he would mature and embark upon a deeper exploration of his talents.

To say an artist is “ahead of his time” is another cliche, but nowhere is it truer than in Padegs’ case. The first time I saw his Red Smiles I was convinced some sort of curating error must have taken place. It looked exactly like a frame from a 1980s graphic novel but was in fact produced in 1931.

And as for shock, he could teach the moany-phoney conceptualists a thing or two. His Madonna With A Machine Gun has the sort of title the Chapman Brothers would wet their pants over, while Don’t Forget your Mother At The Final Moment depicts a soldier lying in barbed wire with his brains quite literally blown out.

In these works he is closest to the Weimar contrasts of Otto Dix – equally at home depicting an elegant set in a nightclub, the hookers and deadbeats outside or, preferably, both together. One small black and white ink drawing of a prostitute adjusting her stocking manages to be economical, erotic and sinister all at the same time. In other works the vacancy of hard-drinking men’s faces gives a much more chilling sense of the slow death of alcoholism than any number of reeling drunks.

His works are suffused with a latent sense of rage, impotence, disgust… and elegance, as if Aubrey Beardsley and Francis Bacon had decided to collaborate on a graphic novel. Had he been born in Germany or France Padegs would likely be just as well-known as Dix today. But while Dix now has a nice, neat birthplace museum in the east German town of Gera, Padegs has graffiti sprayed over a “Shop For Rent” sign in a Riga suburb with a questionable reputation. Perhaps he would have enjoyed the contrast.

For despite his pose of the refined aesthete, Padegs is never elitist or cold. And how can you not like someone who in an otherwise restrained nude self-portrait gives himself the sort of schlong that would make Dirk Diggler feel inadequate?

In one very funny little cartoon he lampoons various aspects of the art world including one frame depicting ‘Cubism’ which shows a moustachioed man’s oddly-shaped head half-wrapped in bandages and sticking plasters following what must have been a Tornakalns bar brawl.

The current exhibition of Padegs’ work at the Latvian national art museum still has a few days to run (until February 12th). If you haven’t been yet, I urge you in the strongest manner to go.

After all, you might not get another chance.

Scrawled on a gravestone in one of Padegs’ doodles is the deliciously dark inscription in cod-English: “Kip Smailing!”

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Let Me Underwhelm You

This is the time when – for want of anything better to report and staffed mainly by interns and juniors – the newspapers turn to their predictions for the new year. One only needs to look at last year’s efforts to realise the pointlessness of the whole exercise.

As far as I can recall, no-one predicted a giant tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan, a wave of revolutions across the Arab world, the deaths of the vile Gadaffi and Kim-Jong-Il,  the effective collapse of the eurozone, large-scale popular protests on the streets of Moscow or – closer to home –  the dissolution of the Latvian parliament by presidential decree.

Notwithstanding this fact, there is a tendency for those taking part in this guessing game to venture something fairly dramatic if ultimately fence-sitting for their predictions; say, that the pace of such and such a reform will pick up or that such and such a politician will win a scheduled election. If they are feeling really bold they might even venture that a certain economy will go into recession (though this carries the risk of being factually verifiable) or that sportsman A will beat sportsman B at last.

Therefore for my own piece of worthless crystal ballery I am going against the grain and hereby predict that 2012 will be extremely boring. It will go down in an obscure and rarely-thumbed appendix to the pages of history as one of the dullest, most purgatorial years in memory during which not much happened and what little did happen wasn’t of much interest anyway.

The London Olympics will be a yawn, enlivened neither by sporting excellence or terrorist outrage. They will be the most tedious Olympics since Atlanta, which was like watching live coverage of a coma.

Eurocrats will continue to tell us they have fixed the Eurozone throughout most of the year, their assertions losing resonance with every iteration like a timid echo reverberating through a particularly large and black cave. The zone will muddle on but more by reason of neglect than any chest-thumping action from Merkozy, both of whom will fade away from lack of interest.

This does at least point us towards one of the unexpected positives 2012 will deliver: repeated illustrations of the huge gap between what politicians say they can do and what they really can do. They will keep saying they have done great things, made dynamic, bold decisions and so forth, and then all the evidence will point towards them having made not one jot of difference. This in turn will prompt them to make even more dramatic statements in an attempt to gain our attention which inevitably will ring even more hollow.

In this regard they will come to be viewed like the ratings agencies, whose continued presence on this planet is contrary to the very Darwinian principles that seem to underpin their own world-views. Their failure to wake up to the biggest economic crash in decades until it was raining onto their roofs should have killed them off but still they pontificate and preen, weighing the virtues of nations in their silly little scales. In a way I wish there would be something as dramatic as another huge collapse so they could miss it again and finally prove themselves to be an evolutionary dead end. Sadly, they will be saved by the fact that things will just about manage to stagger on, though perhaps a few investors bored senseless by their outpourings will start actually researching their own investments for a bit of fun instead of placing it all in the hands of these hucksters with superior graph-making technology.

The Baltic economies will be completely flat, and so will the political scene. With nothing much left to trim, policymakers will be  left sitting on their hands and waiting for the weather to improve, though their remains a slight danger that they might start daydreaming and implement a few crackpot laws to give themselves some remnant of self-justification.

In Estonia Andrus Ansip’s main headache will be the lack of snow  which prevents him skiing more often. In Latvia, a challenger to Valdis Dombrovskis might emerge, but everyone will treat him with such indifference that he will soon crawl back into his burrow leaving Domby to do what he does best: carry on quietly.

Down in Lithuania, an uninvolving election campaign will result in Andrius Kubilius retaining power but with a reduced majority and an even messier coalition. This will come as a relief as no-one really wants to take over from him anyway in case things take a turn for the worse and they are held responsible. Kubilius will spend the first few months of the year trying to come up with a new joke he can use in place of the “We will win the basketball tournament” gag he was spinning for the first three years of his tenure.

It goes without saying that work will not have begun on the Visaginas nuclear power plant by the end of the year and that what little enthusiasm remains for it after Poland pulled the plug will continue to trickle away, like guests leaving a new year party at which the food, drink and company was all too tedious to endure until midnight.

So even though 2012 will be an absolute snore in terms of news, it will offer us plenty of opportunity to better ourselves doing far more interesting things. If you’ve ever wanted to learn a new language, knit a jumper or grow some roses, this is the year for you!

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Normal Service Will Be Resumed…

…shortly.

Nothing has been posted here for the last few months for the simple reason that I’ve been writing a book. Yes, a proper one, intended to be read via ink and paper rather than the wanly glowing screen before you now.

So, if any publishers out there would like to start the bidding war for this sure-fire international bestseller about, er, some idiots in Latvia – do I really need to say any more – then that would be just dandy. I particularly recommend obtaining the film rights, preferably for a six-figure sum.

Once that’s all taken care of in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be back from the new year with more blog posts – with the usual caveat that they are essentially the stuff that’s either not good enough or not appealing enough to be printed in any real outlets.

Anyway, it’s not as if I’ve missed anything major since my last blog post, other than the dissolution of parliament, a referendum, general election, new government, bank collapse etc.

Meanwhile I’ll still be updating the links to many features that have appeared elsewhere, which you can read by clicking ‘Examples’ above.

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