Michael Delgado

Flesh-coloured dominoes

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
, Zigmunds Skujiņš, translated by Kaija Straumanis, Arcadia Books, 2019, 245pp, £9.99 (paperback)

On the face of it, Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is a book of two novels spliced together: its chapters alternate between two wildly different narratives. One is a bildungsroman of sorts that sees the Second World War through the eyes of an unnamed first-person narrator, a young orphan growing up in Riga; the other is set in the 18th century in Vidzeme – part of modern-day Latvia – and aptly centres on a very literal, very macabre case of conjoining two odd halves to make a whole.

Written in 1999 by the renowned Latvian writer Zigmunds Skujiņš, who was then seventy-two years old, the novel was hailed by the critic Guntis Berelis as Skujiņš’s finest work. Skujiņš is in many ways a national hero. In the late 1980s, Skujiņš was at the forefront of Latvia’s Third Awakening, the movement that helped forge the country’s identity as a sovereign nation free from Soviet influence. Fiercely patriotic, his writing is rooted in Latvian history, but has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including this new edition of Flesh-Coloured Dominoes, lucidly translated by Kaija Straumanis.

Baroness Valtraute von Brīgen’s husband, Eberhart von Brīgen, has disappeared while fighting in one of the Russo-Turkish wars that took place in the late 18th century. A letter informing her that Eberhart was hit by a cannonball and blown to such a pulp that that ‘there was nothing left to bury’ has not settled matters, and so a despairing Valtraute seeks the advice of the notorious occultist (read: charlatan) Count Cagliostro, who supplies her with an enigmatic alternative explanation of her husband’s fate: ‘Where there were two, now there is one’.

Skujiņš’s 18th century is far from naturalistic; instead we are plunged into a parodic world of séances and amber-clad Romanov palaces, replete with cameos from caricatured historical figures – Cagliostro, Denis Diderot, Catherine the Great. Everything here is done with a sly wink; the serious is farcical and the farcical is serious. Our third-person narrator makes knowing interjections, stating that ‘the eighteenth century has its idiosyncrasies, after all!’, and characterising a particularly shady episode in the halls of an elaborate manor as being ‘like a comic opera!’.

Much like a comic opera, the characters we encounter resemble actors on a stage, struggling to sit down due to their ‘bulky crinoline’ dresses; their inability to embody the period fittingly is made up for as we indulge, with Skujiņš, in histrionic absurdity. At times, this feels like a comment on the inherent impossibility of the historical novel; often, it’s pure farce. The real explanation for Valtraute’s husband’s whereabouts proves fittingly Rabelaisian: Eberhart’s body was not blown to bits but severed in two by the cannon fire, leaving it up to a maverick surgeon, Gibran, to save him. He succeeded, by sewing Eberhart’s lower half onto the torso and head of another injured soldier, Captain Bartolomejs Ulste.

As a novelist, what do you do when you’ve revealed your hand so early on? Valtraute’s composite husband provides wonderful tragicomic absurdity, from a seedy slapstick scene, vaguely reminiscent of a bawdy English restoration comedy, in which he tries to convince Valtraute that his lower half is indeed Eberhart’s (‘Madame, come, come closer! Your soft hands have the opportunity to find tangible proof’) to a discussion in which Cagliostro suggests that grafting the heads of decorated generals onto ‘youths and men of the lower classes’ might be a viable step ‘towards the equalisation of humanity’. But as the story continues to unfold, Flesh-Coloured Dominoes becomes a different novel altogether. The potency of that mutant image – which, contrary to the claim made on the blurb, strikes me as owing more to Bakhtin than the Surrealists – is never again achieved in Valtruate’s narrative, which becomes less intriguing, more taxing, and at times dangerously convoluted. There is a sense, sometimes pleasant, sometimes jarring, that reading this novel is like engaging in a game of dominoes with the author himself. It feels collaborative, up until the very moment when Skujiņš decides to leave you in the dust.

The second strand of the novel focuses on the coming-of-age of our first-person narrator during the Second World War, and his relationship with his de facto parents: his Grandfather and the baroness Johanna. Skujiņš skilfully alludes to the horrors of Nazi occupation (during which almost the entire Jewish population of Latvia was wiped out) through the gaze of the narrator, who is initially uncomprehending but soon becomes worldly. Even though the two stories appear to be poles apart – one carnivalesque, the other realist – they both serve to reflect the emergence of a Latvian self-image. The former asks what physical attributes make a person a person, while the latter asks what makes a Latvian a Latvian.

When, at the start of the war, Johanna is ordered to be repatriated to Germany through the Nazi-Soviet population transfers, a complex series of events take place involving the discovery of a Jewish ancestor, Johanna’s subsequent arrest by the Gestapo, and her eventual release on the basis of a genealogical technicality. Here Skujiņš is at his more vehement, taking aim at the stupidity of the Nazi project and its attempts to divide people based on bloodlines. For Grandfather – perhaps the closest thing in the novel to a mouthpiece for Skujiņš himself – Johanna’s tribulations show that nationality is not bestowed by genetics but forged through shared experiences. And how could it not be in a country that spent the 20th century being tossed like a chew-toy between Soviet authoritarianism and Nazi terror? For the characters in Flesh-Coloured Dominoes, the German invasion feels hopelessly predictable: ‘There’s nothing to make of it’, Grandfather remarks. ‘Out of one pair of claws and right into another. We got to know one psychopath, God help us survive the next.’

There’s no doubt that Skujiņš is a powerful writer, and Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is a clever, intricate novel, with flashes of comic brilliance in both of its stories. It suffers from this intricacy though; neither the tender relationship between grandfather and grandson nor the emotional intensity of their experiences of war is given enough breathing space, trapped instead beneath the weight of tricksy metafictional machinations and meandering historical detail. Skujiņš seems to want us to take his ruminations seriously, but when so much of his novel is smoke and mirrors, it’s a hard ask.

Review by Michael Delgado.

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is out now and available from all good booksellers. To buy the book, visit Arcadia Books’ website.

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