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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Cage

Alberts Bels

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To purchase The Cage

Title: The Cage
Author: Alberts Bels
Genre: Novel
Written: 1972 (Eng. 1990)
Length: 149 pages
Original in: Latvian
Availability: The Cage - US
The Cage - UK
The Cage - Canada
  • Latvian title: Būris
  • Translated by Ojars Kratins

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neat variation on what one can do with the mystery novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Cage begins by introducing Valdis Strūga, a thirty-two-year-old who works for the Division of Criminal Investigation in Rīga, in (the then still Soviet Republic of) Latvia, the first chapter ending with him arriving at the office and meeting the woman who brings him the case that is then at the heart of the novel, the disappearance of her husband, Edmunds Bērzs. The first chapter is, however, very much an introduction to Strūga, following his early morning routine, describing his background, circumstances -- he has been married for six years and has a four-year-old son --, and physical condition -- he's suffering from gout, for example. There's some reflection on the nature of his work -- "Strūga's job was concerned with the weaknesses and deficiencies of human nature and with gaining a better understanding of these weaknesses and deficiencies" -- and basically the first chapter presents the character and his position in this society and time in a nutshell.
       So also the second chapter, rather than starting off as a back and forth between Edīte Bērzs about her husband's disappearance presents how the events unfolded entirely from her perspective but still in the voice of an omniscient narrator, a character study in reaction to an unexpected event. Only once what she has experienced in the previous few days has been described does the narrative zero back in on Strūga's office and any exchange between the two. In this way, the couple -- the wife and the missing man -- are introduced, along with their lives and lifestyle.
       As Strūga will eventually realize, the Bērzss are much like he and his wife are, from a specific tier in society, leading similar lives, moving in similar circles:

They were lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, poets, writers, musicians. They were the middle intelligentsia. Strūga, too belonged to them, and, frequently, gathering the facts about Bērzs, he had the feeling he was looking for himself.
       Bels had already hinted at as much, with Bērzs three years older (and hence also a more advanced case of gout) but otherwise physically practically the mirror image of Strūga. The suggestion is, of course, that their fates are practically interchangeable, that they are just two representatives of a broad class of people who are all more or less in the same boat (or, of course, cage ...).
       A third figure eventually also is described similarly closely, but from a different background and having followed a different path. He is the one responsible for Bērzs' disappearance -- even as he kept his hands clean regarding the final disposition of Bērzs -- but eventually finds himself on the run, and then surrounded by the police: "Driven into a cage ? Almost. They'd done it" -- even as he always felt caged:
     He carried his cage with him everywhere. Only death could set him free. Or sincere regret.
       The cage of the title would appear to be metaphorical -- certainly at this point .....
       For much of The Cage the story unfolds basically as a police procedural: Bērzs' fate remains unknown, and the story focuses on Strūga's investigation, leading him also to learn more about the various people Bērzs had been in contact with. Without any real clues or traces of his disappearance, there's long no way to know what happened to the missing man -- or even whether he disappeared of his own accord or whether he was the victim of a criminal act.
       A respected architect, Bērzs was devoted to his work. One of the reasons his wife was quickly worried when he did not return home after spending the weekend visiting his parents was because it was unthinkable that he would skip work or miss an important meeting. Edīte admits:
He was a very strange husband, but in all other respects a good husband and man, except for this incomprehensible inertia when you brought up anything else but his job.
       There is a rival at the office -- then promoted, when Bērzs remains missing -- and Strūga also has to consider whether Bērzs was having an affair: there is that fiancé of a woman living near his parents who apparently got jealous -- and who, Strūga is told, works for the Committee for State Security. Retracing Bērzs' steps -- or rather, his drive -- Strūga suspects he may have been hijacked, but, frustratingly, for a long time there's no trace of the car either.
       The case becomes one of public interest, too, its ambiguities, and everything that could be read into it all the more reason for it to be of wider interest:
     The mysterious disappearance of Edmunds Bērzs was a topic of much discussion. Some saw it as a sensational event, others as an everyday occurrence. Some complained about the helplessness of the militia, others optimistically believed that the militia would solve the case in a few weeks. Various motives were mentioned and various chains of events imagined.
     Talk centered on this important question: had society lost in losing Bērzs, or had Bērzs lost in losing society ?
       Discovery of what happened to the car eventually leads to what amounts to the perpetrator -- and the explanation for the crime:
He wanted only to let that darling of fortune know how dark and gloomy was the other side of the mirror, how close to the abyss Bērzs live, how uncertain and insecure his seeming unshakeable existence really was.
       And he: "felt he had accomplished that".
       Strūga has his man, and: "Bērzs's disappearance had almost been cleared up" -- except for that biggest of loose ends: what the hell happened to Bērzs, of whom there is still no trace ?
       Only in the final third of the novel does the story shift to Bērzs' perspective, recounting what happened that fateful day when he vanished -- and what happened after.
       As it turns out, Bērzs found himself with quite a bit of time to reflect, and his reflections are existential, on the smallest -- how to survive in the moment -- and largest -- how to live in this society and system generally -- scale. Of course there is a cage -- but, craftily, Bels is of course suggesting there has been a cage all along, that life itself means finding oneself caged .....
       So too Bērzs is led to wonder: "maybe the cage is a subtle form of madness ?" and some of the larger lessons would seem to apply equally to life in the Soviet Republic (or indeed anywhere):
It makes no difference whether you're born in it or come to it through force of circumstances. A cage doesn't change. A cage cannot be justified. You must not find mitigating circumstances for the cage. You simply have to live in it, not even trying to talk to it. Live as long as possible. Even if it's obvious that the bars of the cage are stronger than the life of a single person. Longer lasting.
       And, indeed:
     As Bērzs considered his life out in the world, he concluded that he had often lived according to someone else's will and advice. He had run like the squirrel in the steel cage.
       The Cage is, basically a police procedural mystery, but unusual in its presentation and approach, more concerned with characters -- and their roles in (a much more structured) society -- than spinning out some clever crime and its resolution. Bels has a lot say about the everyday, and how the various characters live and their smaller and larger hopes and aspirations. Among the storylines is Strūga's arguments with his wife about when and where to vacation (with, typically, Bērzs a similarly avid skier as Strūga is), while among the more memorable scenes from the novel is of the inspector taking off his shoes and his bare feet sinking into the "warm and yielding" soil as he lends a hand to Bērzs' parents harvesting their potatoes when he first goes to interview them. There is a eventually turn to the slightly surreal in the story, but with its reflective focus it is not much of transition from what came before -- and seems even less so with the conclusion, in which things are neatly tied up, the reader left almost forgetting what a fantastical voyage s/he has been led on.
       The Cage is an impressive variation on the usual mystery novel, or even the usual social novel, both light entertainment and yet deeply (but not heavily) philosophical. It is a product of and commentary on Soviet (and specifically Soviet Latvian) life of those times, but also on more basic existential questions. And it is good entertainment, a neat little product of its times (and socio-political circumstances) that still holds up well (and also, incidentally, provides some interesting glimpses of everyday Soviet life in those times, in both domestic and professional spheres).

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 October 2019

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Reviews: Alberts Bels: Other books by Alberts Bels under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Latvian author Alberts Bels was born in 1938

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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