Short Review: The Captive by Skomantas (Tales from the Baltic 1)

The Short Reviews Series

The Captive by Skomantas, translated by Mara Almenas (Tvermė, 1998).

Tales from the Baltic 1.

Baltic fiction—literature from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—is not incredibly common in English translation. In fact, the Baltics have long been a “mystery” in the European world, like Albania: close to the major centers of power, and yet largely unknown outside of their people’s borders. In the past, I’ve jumped when given the chance to read Baltic fiction (e.g. my review of Latvian author Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk [Mātes piens]). I recently read Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish (2015) [Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu (2007)], a historical fantasy novel based on pre-Christian folkloric traditions of Estonia, with no doubt a touch of authorial invention. Few novels do what Kivirähk’s does by blending a little-told period and place in history with magical elements, critique of major ideological institutions (the Catholic church, Westernization, colonization), and sheer inventiveness (there are scenes of men hibernating through the winter in snake dens, ancient Neanderthals living into the Middle Ages and training giant fleas for fun, and a man who survives out of pure spite for his enemies by turning into a snake after his limbs are lopped off). So I wanted to know what other fantastical fictions might have come out of the Baltic and be available in English.

Not much, but I did discover a set of 5 novels called the Tales from the Baltic series, published in English, by a mysteriously mononymic Lithuanian author, “Skomantas.” It would appear that Skomantas is not a real author’s name, but potentially a pseudonym for a number of authors writing historical Lithuanian adventures for young adults. This website (a Lithuanian Encyclopedia Britannica, of sorts) claims that “Skomantas” is a series of books, rather than an author. But Skomantas is listed as the author on the front cover of all five books I have, as well as on their spines, title pages, and copyright pages; but, a blurb in the back of each book does refer to “the Skomantas series.” It’s possible there’s a translation issue at play, but at least the English editions, of which there were only five, are branded under the Tales from the Baltic series, written by a person named Skomantas (who may be many different authors). In any case, this confusion doesn’t surprise me, since the novel is filled with translation, spelling, and grammatical errors—and I do mean filled: they appear several times on every page (this didn’t detract from the novel; I’m sure if I published a Lithuanian translation of something in a country with few professional Lithuanian copyeditors just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it probably wouldn’t be error free).

For whatever reason, the first five Tales from the Baltic books were translated into and published in English in the 1990s by a Lithuanian publisher, Tvermė, but not circulated in the wider Anglophone market. My guess is that they were translated domestically for tourists (especially returning émigré) visiting Lithuania in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Lithuania’s transformation into a post-Soviet republic. Tvermė seems to have published a number of “learn about the Baltic” kind of books, including Of Gods and Holidays: The Baltic Heritage, for an Anglophone audience in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Having been published in Lithuania in the 1990s, the Tales from the Baltic series is not easy to find in the US. When I first looked, there were no copies in a reasonable price range (I can now see a few on Amazon for somewhat reasonable prices). I was able to find all of the books for cover price via Knygų Klubas, a Lithuanian bookseller, and used Google Translate to get through the order process. Unsure if they’d arrive, since the website didn’t charge me any significant shipping fees aside from what seemed like domestic prices, and I bought all five books and had them shipped to the US for less than $30, I totally forgot about the books until they arrived a month later to my happy surprise.

All of this major—and hopefully useful?—context aside, what’s The Captive about? And is it worthwhile?

The Tales from the Baltic novels all take place during the Northern Crusades, a Christian colonization and proselytization movement in the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries led mostly by Germanic knights and their liegemen (i.e. the Teutons) after the Crusades in the Levant went to shit and the Catholic Pope needed someone else to fuck over and steal from. At the time, the lands that would become Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia were largely pagan, and had managed to beat back the Vikings, Mongols, and Rus, while establishing occasional relations with Poland. Some urban centers had been Christianized around Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius, but tribes of Baltic peoples like the Ziemgalian, Samogitians, Cuoronians, Prussians (not the same Prussians who would later be at the center of the German Empire and its elite, but a Baltic people speaking a now-extinct language related to Lithuanian and Latvian), and others resisted (see image below). These the Teutons came to kill, enslave, and “civilize” by force via the same process that would take place across the Global South in the centuries that followed.

The story begins with young Uvis and his teenage brother, Daubaras, crossing the Lielupe river in pursuit of a stag Uvis has shot; it’s his first hunt, a marker of his coming manhood, despite his young age. The brothers are sons of a Samogitian chieftain (Zaubartas son of Zvelgote), but they’ve strayed into another tribe’s territory, that of the Ziemgalians, who are both hostile to the Samogitians and at war with the Teutons. A happy, carefree pair, they kill their deer and bed down for the night, but are awakened and capture by a group of German soldiers. Daubaras is killed and Uvis enslaved. He is briefly present for the siege of a Ziemgalian fort called Mezotne, escapes, but is recaptured and brought to live as the slave of a candle-maker in Riga (modern Latvia). Uvis grows up, learns German, fights with a gang of bullies, helps his master’s daughter get free of her tyrant mother (a sexist caricature of a fat, greedy, unsatisfied hag) to become a nun, and is sold, to his happy surprise, to a circus troupe that he has been watching perform in Riga. He becomes a performer, an integral part of the family, but is still technically a slave. Eventually the troupe leaves Riga thanks to the father’s thieving, and they spent the last quarter of the book travelling the Latvian and Lithuanian countryside. The book ends on an obvious cliffhanger, with Uvis aware that he could easily escape back to his family some 5-6 years after his disappearance.

The prose is plain and unadorned, not really interested in the experience and senses of this medieval Baltic world; it focuses instead on plain action and doing. The novel is spare on historical details; there are a great deal scattered in the first 20 pages or so, to set up the characters and region, and also in the final chapter, when Uvis is travelling the countryside and getting in touch again with the Baltic peoples. In between, the novel could be set almost anywhere at any time prior to gunpowder invention, as if the frame of details at beginning and end is enough to sate a reader who has come for that. Only the name Riga and occasional reference to the Teutons and local tribes give the setting any further sense of place. It’s a great tactic to learn from, if someone wants to quickly set the scene for a historical fiction work, but it left me wanting so much more than “Skomantas” offered.

The plot is also simplistic: struggles with a mean mother, trying to gain favor in a household, dueling with street gang bullies, and so on. It is, in short, a nice little adventure that only gives a tiny taste of the medieval Baltic world, about as much as reading a Wikipedia entry on the Northern Crusades would give you (probably less), with some minor anecdotes about Baltic pagan beliefs (especially the goddess Medeina, similar to the Greek Artemis, but also the protectress of the forest and hearth).

For all the effort to acquire the novel, and for what it ultimately offers, I’m not sure it would be worth acquiring or reading for most readers. I have an interest in historical fiction and fantasy that goes to unlikely times and places and so I’ll continue with the next novels* (they’re potentially written by different authors, so they might be better—or worse).


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