Mother’s milk has such a powerful reputation for nutrition and nurturing that it’s sometimes used as a byword for something that feeds our souls. But in Nora Ikstena’s troubling short novel, Soviet Milk (translated by Margita Gailitis), the withholding of one mother’s milk from her child becomes an unsolvable puzzle for that child as well as a metaphor for the stifling false nurturing of the Soviet Union.
Soviet Milk is narrated by two voices. We only know which first-person narrator is who because of their relationships to each other. One of these voices is a daughter, born in Riga in 1969. The other is her mother, born in 1944 in a small village in the Latvian countryside. There were times when I was confused about who was talking, until something happened that I could assign to one character or the other. I’m not sure if the two women are supposed to sound so similar or if that’s because of the translation. Aside from my occasional confusion, I liked Gailitis’ translation. She left some passages of untranslated Latvian and Russian poetry and songs, which I think added to the sense of place. (Personally, I like to try and work out what words mean even in languages I know nothing about.)
As the two talk about their lives in the last decades of the Soviet Union, we also get hints about the mother’s background. We learn about the mother’s lost father and her own mother’s remarriage. We also see the mother attack the abusive husband of one of her patients, which leads to her exile to a rural Latvian town. As for the daughter, we watch her work up through the ranks in school, but also care for her severely depressed mother. There are times when the daughter acts more like a traditional mother than her actual mother.
While most questions about the two women are addressed in the book, the central question remains unanswered, at least definitively. We don’t know enough about her childhood to psychoanalyze her. We can’t test her brain chemistry. The closest we get to an answer are the references to imprisonment and freedom. Latvians are imprisoned by the Soviets. The mother is exiled from her Rigan family by a Soviet doctor. A pet is incarcerated in a cage. Most of the characters are able to carry on, even though they know they are prisoners. The mother just can’t, no matter how much her family and friends try to talk her out of her depression. She can see the bars and can never forget that she’s not free to go where she wishes.
The less I tried to analyze the mother, the more I could see the characters as responses to repression. On the daughter’s side is a striving to live, to buckle down and make the best of things. On the mother’s is an ineffable longing for a different life, in a different place or time, where she could travel and think and speak as she wanted. While the daughter has a happier ending, I hesitate to say that she’s the one we’re supposed to admire in Soviet Milk. After all, the kinds of freedoms the mother wants are the kinds I was raised to enjoy and fight any encroachments toward. (America.) There aren’t any characters who fall between the two who get as much attention as the mother and daughter. Consequently, we readers are left to wonder what that would look like. We have to, because both of these women’s lives lack important nourishment; they are both stunted by their various hungers.