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PART OF THE Another World ISSUE

‘The conversation had turned out to be incredibly silly. To a certain extent even insulting. It had turned into a kind of exercise in making excuses: he wasn’t believed, but he objected, stubbornly persisted, and tried to prove what he was saying.’

Vagabond Voices bring us the best in translated fiction. This month they release a modern classic from one of Latvia’s most esteemed novelists, Zigmunds Skujins. Nakedness opens with the protagonist, Sandris Draiska, nervously knocking on the door of Marika Vitina, the girl he has been exchanging letters with while in the army.

 

Extract taken from Nakedness
By Zigmunds Skujins
Published by Vagabond Voices

 

With every moment that he stood there, Marika’s value seemed to increase whilst his weight seemed to decrease. His fired-up courage soon collapsed.

‘Allow me to introduce myself: Sandris Draiska, demobilised Special Forces Yefreytor…’

Now everything was supposed to change in an instant. She might even fall into his arms with unexpected impetuosity. That really could happen.

Sandris! It’s you! This is crazy! My goodness! And what a fool I was in not recognising you. In my wildest dreams I never could have imagined that you would be in a suit. Oh, and how I look! I’ll be right there! Wait one moment! But not behind a closed door. Please come in!

 Sandris, you rascal, why didn’t you warn me? That’s not fair. You caught me completely off guard. Look how my heart is racing…

‘What do you want?’

‘I’ve arrived.’

‘That’s hard to deny. And will that be all?’

This was some kind of a mistake, some kind of idiotic misunderstanding. But they were so strangely similar – perhaps he was misled by the retouched, shadowy photograph. Maybe Marika has a sister, possibly even a twin sister.

‘I’d like to see Marika Vītiņa.’

‘Then please look faster, I have to get to work.’

That couldn’t have been a joke. She was saying that with complete seriousness.

‘You’re Marika Vītiņa?’

‘Do I have to show you my papers? Are you with the police?’

‘No, I already said – I’m from the army.’

‘Extremely interesting.’

‘And the most interesting thing is that we should know each other. You’ve sent me forty-nine letters. And have received just about as many in return.’

‘Letters? What letters?’

‘Well… in my opinion, completely normal ones.’

‘Then where did I send you these ‘completely normal letters’ to, if I may ask?’

‘To the army unit.’

In the front hall, buttoning his shirt, appeared a tall young man, wide in the shoulders and thin in the waist, fairly similar in appearance to him, they even had something in common in their faces and movements.

‘What’s going on?’ the young man asked. He probably didn’t feel all that comfortable.

‘Come over here, Varis, listen to this unimaginable fantasy.’

‘Maybe you should invite this person in. It’ll take a little time to figure this one out, I think.’ The young man looked on with a sly grin and winked. She immediately stepped back from the threshold; this movement apparently was intended as an invitation. The young man, sticking his hands into the pockets of his black bell-bottoms, let them pass, underscoring with all his behaviour that he was a bystander with no intention of interfering in their conversation. The room really did have four beds. One of these had been sloppily covered with a chequered blanket. Expensive curtains fluttered at the open window, while last season’s radio-gramophone cowered shyly between suitcases piled up behind a three-doored wardrobe.

‘Please sit,’ said Marika. Everybody stayed standing.

‘So, I’ve written you forty-nine letters…’

He wasn’t angry any more, just deeply amused. Judging by how quickly her face cleared, her harsh coldness in no way reflected her underlying nature.

‘My poems were printed in the magazine Liesma. After that you began to write to me. I received your last letter two weeks ago.’

‘Could you show me these letters?’

‘Unfortunately, no. They stayed in Riga; too large a stack to carry them all around with me. But I can show you the photograph that was in the third letter.’ Opening his wallet, he felt Marika’s stare on his fingers and purposely tried to lend his movements an indifferent quality. The conversation had turned out to be incredibly silly. To a certain extent even insulting. It had turned into a kind of exercise in making excuses: he wasn’t believed, but he objected, stubbornly persisted, and tried to prove what he was saying.

‘Here it is.’

Marika looked first at one side of the photograph, then the other side, and shrugged.

‘Truly interesting. Well, Varis, what do you have to say?’

The young man’s bright, puckish cheek wasn’t shining nearly as brightly as earlier.

‘A pretty picture. My gut tells me that it’s something I’ve seen before.’

‘So, the picture is yours?’

‘I guarantee it. But I didn’t send it to you. I didn’t send you anything. It must have been some kind of a stupid joke.’

‘Very possibly. I just doubt that someone would write fortynine letters as a joke.’

‘A complete mystery. Varis, what do you think?’

‘Excuse me, but when did you receive this photograph?’ Taking a long and careful drag on his cigarette, the young man lifted his head.

‘About a year ago. No, not quite that long. The poem was published in February of last year. In winter, in any case.’

‘Ancient history,’ the young man said. ‘I got mine long after that.’

Marika shot Varis a lightning quick look, almost like a slap to the face. ‘Don’t be an idiot. You heard. He got the last letter two weeks ago.’

‘Well, then somebody’s writing them.’

‘And gets letters in my name? Ha. Why?’

The young man pulled the cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket again.

‘I guess I forgot to offer you any. Let’s poison ourselves together, if it’s alright with you. My gut feeling is that we’ve got a reason to get to know each other. Varis, Son of Tenis, Tenisons.’

‘Aleksandrs Draiska. Thank you, I don’t smoke, I’ve got other vices.’

Varis’s eyes flashed darkly. ‘Oho! I guess I didn’t hear you quite right. What did you say?’

‘I’ve got other vices.’

‘Smoking isn’t a vice… Aleksandrs Draiska… Smoking is a weakness. Sure, sure, the world is full of all kinds of strange happenings like those letters. Sometimes you have to wonder about them just like the gypsy did: dad’s white, mom’s black, where did the black twins come from?’

‘It’s a vice to brag about weaknesses,’ Marika added.

‘I think it’s an even bigger vice to hide weaknesses.’

Varis’s answer sounded cool and distant, but it was aimed only at Marika and lingered as long as the glance they exchanged. After that Tenisons resumed his decidedly friendly chattiness.

‘I also didn’t smoke in the army. And you know why? I had to quit while I was at the gasoline depot. I came for my first guard shift and the sergeant major was at my pockets right away. He threw the matches in the toilet; all I heard was the gurgle of the water. “From this moment on you’re a non-smoker,” he said. “It’s not possible to quit smoking that easily,” I tried to object. “A real soldier can do anything,” the sergeant major replied. “I, for example, have quit smoking thirty-five times already.”‘

‘That’s from Mark Twain.’

‘Could be. Our sergeant major knew his literature. Yeah, military service – what a strange thing. While you’re assessing the wreckage, it feels like the end, but when you get home and you’re living as a free man again it’s nice to reminisce, don’t you think?’

‘You know that better than me, I haven’t lived too long as a free man.’

‘The most important thing is to take off your uniform. And right away it feels like you’ve got a completely different head attached.’

‘For the moment I somehow don’t feel it…’

Tenisons had undoubtedly shifted the conversation to army matters on purpose in order to give him a chance to understand his situation. His initial surprise gave way to disappointment, which was difficult to hide. He didn’t feel so much deceived, as ashamed. He’d made a fool of himself.

 

Nakedness by Zigmunds Skujins is published by Vagabond Voices, priced £9.95

 

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