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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Alberts Bels

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To purchase Insomnia

Title: Insomnia
Author: Alberts Bels
Genre: Novel
Written: (1967) (Eng. 2020)
Length: 179 pages
Original in: Latvian
Availability: Insomnia - US
Insomnia - UK
Insomnia - Canada
  • Latvian title: Bezmiegs
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jayde Will
  • With an Introduction by the author
  • With 'The opinion of the Literary-Scientifc Expert Commission'
  • First published, in a censored edition, in 1987, and in an uncensored edition in 2003

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative, and impressive voice(s)

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Insomnia is largely narrated by Eduards (also called Eddy) Dārziņš, a successful economist certainly not lacking in self-confidence -- considered an: "authoritative scientist" who notes: "at the age of thrity-one I was able to achieve a level, which a rare few achieve only at sixty years of age" -- who lives in small flat -- a room, basically -- in a communal house (with shared bathroom and kitchen) in 1960s Riga. Successful enough to afford a larger flat, he nevertheless stays in the cramped and inconvenient quarters --:

the bohemian slumbering deep within me wouldn't let financial concerns burden him, or, most likely, it was me who decided that it was not worth losing time and energy busying myself with the improvement of my life. My spiritual nourishment came from the economic bulletins of the more developed countries, the estimates and projections of the more developed countries
       His willingness to put up with the daily wait to use the bathroom and the inconvenience of the shared kitchen suggest he's not quite the solitary technocrat he makes himself out to be; at one point he inventories all his possessions and they do include an impressive two thousand books crammed into the tight living quarters, so there's a cultured side to him too. Still, he makes grand claims of how pleased he is to remaining unattached, to people and things, relieved to have been able to avoid marriage so far, and without any family of his own. Indeed, he claims he prefers to avoid most anything to do with other people, to be either socially or politically involved or active, summing up:
I don't want to burn and I also don't want to bring logs to the fire. It's enough for me to stand on the side and watch.
       He's certainly not bought into the Soviet ambition of betterment, but then he doesn't believe humanity can be bettered, regardless of the system or circumstances.
       For all his claims, he nevertheless sticks around in the cramped room and this dwelling, and it's hard not to think that the main reason is that it does make him part of a small community, and that he does see his place in it; his living quarters are also a sort of safe retreat: he may feel ambivalent about it, but: "Between my four walls I can feel like a human being, and that is the hardest, because I feel how I am loved". He might not be close to his neighbors -- and neighbor Aster's nightly nightmare-screams must be annoying -- but it still makes for human connection and some sense of the domestic; for all his talk of how good he is at his job and what an important position he holds, his narrative keeps away from the workplace. Instead, it focuses very much on this unusual house and its inhabitants, the world he moves in; Insomnia isn't quite a house-story, but the building, and those living there, are very much its structural foundation. So also the novel, divided into three parts, gives voice to the tenants in its middle section: between the two parts narrated by Dārziņš are a series of monologues (mainly) by the others who live there, some describing their perspective on the same events Dārziņš has described, some not quite as focused on these.
       Pleased with being nearly an island unto himself, Dārziņš has nevertheless fallen in love, hard. He's been in a relationship with the dancer Ulrika for a while now, and his feelings for her are deep and intense, but she's on tour at the time -- and he's not entirely displeased: "I was silently ecstatic about our separation", with a month all to himself. But the novel begins with his (supposedly so welcome) solitude being shaken yet again (and his claim that he prefers to stay and watch from the sidelines, rather than get involved, undermined): he spies a young woman on the street, apparently on the run from something; he tosses down his keys and invites her in.
       The attractive Dina has stumbled for a while from place to place as a sort of kept woman, a live-in girlfriend that the men either tire of or become too demanding of; she's been making do in the gray area that is close to if not outright prostitution. She has no (house-)hold -- but instantly adapts to Dārziņš' cramped quarters, effortlessly falling right asleep. As the title of the novel suggests, this is one thing Dārziņš struggles with: "I have slept horribly the last few years, quite horribly". The contrast to this woman he has briefly pulled into his orbit is a striking one -- with much of their interaction on very different planes, Dina deep asleep while he remains wide awake, or she barely awake as he insists she take a bath for example, allowing herself to be more or less led like a doll.
       Insomnia is very much a night-novel, much of the world around Dārziņš enveloped in darkness and in a(n admittedly not always easy) slumber -- just before dawn the building still: "sleeping in a morning drowsiness, it was dreaming its last dreams". Meanwhile, mostly wide-awake Dārziņš looks on, troubled to his core:
     At times it seems to me that the world is one massive mistake, a massive question mark, an opened wound, a cry of pain, a misunderstanding, a scratch of black ink on the canvas of the Universe, and I can't sleep at night.
       But Insomnia is more than just a novel of tortured night-thoughts and a chance encounter and its consequences. A great deal of personal background and history is slipped in, from Dārziņš' own to that of his neighbors -- leading, eventually, also to reveals such as why Anders screams in the night like he does ... -- and Dina's own odd path. Beyond that, Dārziņš' narrative takes unexpected, fantastical turns -- vivid visions of historic pasts, Dārziņš seeing himself a participant in and witness to events, from the 13th century conflicts involving the Brothers of the Sword -- a Church-led effort to conquer the Baltic pagans -- to the Nazi occupation of Latvia in World War II. Occupation by the foreign is obviously a major theme here -- not least the ongoing Soviet occupation of the time, which is also repeatedly addressed.
       The middle part of the novel includes (indeed, concludes) with: 'Bailiff Dārziņš's Monologue', this historical alter-self that is also a close reflection of his present-day self. Dārziņš is a foundling, and in the monologue the character similarly is of unknown heritage -- "yes, yes, no one knows if I am a Latvian, a Russian, a German, a Swede, a Dane, a Lithuanian, and Estonian, a Pole, a Czech, a Finn, however I have put down roots among these people".
       Insomnia is a dark novel, but also one of striving for belonging and connection. National identity and the struggle of the less powerful (Latvia on a national level, Dina on the human one, among others) and the (arguably often devastating) compromises that are made are a significant part of the story, but Bels' tale is also very much a personal-universal one: if not exactly an everyman, his Dārziņš nevertheless is hardly unique to (1960s) Latvian society.
       Insomnia also particularly impresses formally. The present-day realist narrative is already very strong, but Bels very effectively shifts his scenes and characters to other eras; the middle section of monologues is a welcome and well-handled complement to the basic story -- all the way to creative pieces, such as:
Monologue of Dračūn's
Younger Daughter

     (She was studying in the last year of secondary school, and no one knew what the younger daughter really thought.)
       Unsurprisingly, the Soviet authorities didn't really know what to make of this novel, and it could long not be published. Usefully -- and very entertainingly -- this edition comes with the transcripts of the official report -- by a "literary-scientific expert commission" -- of everything wrong with the novel (from their perspective).
       Their conclusion:
     The novel Insomnia , even if we do not take into account its anti-Soviet mood and stance, possesses no artistic quality of any kind. In reality it is not a novel, but a pamphlet hostile towards Soviet rule.
       Rest assured, it's considerably more than that -- and very much possesses 'artistic quality. Indeed, the book stands up remarkably well (better than some communist empires have ...), showing it is much more than just a product of and reflection on Soviet times and circumstances; its belated translation is very welcome.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 April 2020

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Insomnia: 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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