Return to Latvia

Mari­na Jarre; Ann Gold­stein, trans.

  • Review
By – February 20, 2023

Mari­na Jarre (19252016) was born in Latvia to a sec­u­lar Jew­ish father and an Ital­ian Protes­tant moth­er. When their mar­riage dis­solved in acri­mo­ny, her moth­er spir­it­ed ten-year-old Mari­na and her sis­ter out of Latvia to Italy, where they lived through World War II. Their father, Samuel Ger­soni, remained in Latvia and, fol­low­ing Nazi con­quest in 1941, per­ished there along­side most of the country’s Jews. After the war, Jarre became a wife, moth­er, and teacher, and, in lat­er years, an author. Until recent­ly, her work has not been well-known either in or out­side Italy. How­ev­er, in 2021, trans­la­tor Ann Gold­stein — who has done so much to bring mod­ern Ital­ian writ­ers to Amer­i­can audi­ences — pro­duced a ren­der­ing of Jarre’s 1987 mem­oir, Dis­tant Fathers (I padri lon­tani), which intro­duced Amer­i­can read­ers to her work at long last. Return to Latvia, which Jarre wrote in 2002 fol­low­ing a two-week trip to Latvia with one of her adult sons, rep­re­sents her final reck­on­ing with the father she hard­ly knew.

The title of Dis­tant Fathers can be under­stood in the gen­er­al sense of ances­tors,” for the book is as much about Jarre’s rela­tion­ship with her moth­er and her Protes­tant fore­bears as it is about her lack of rela­tion­ship with her father. Hard­ly a con­ven­tion­al mem­oir, it moves from scene to scene and theme to theme in an asso­cia­tive collage.

In Return to Latvia, Jarre uses some of the same for­mal tech­niques, recount­ing frag­ments of the jour­ney she reluc­tant­ly under­took in her sev­en­ties and the child­hood mem­o­ries those frag­ments evoked. Some of her nar­ra­tive has a com­i­cal over­tone: she and her son blun­der about Riga, try­ing to locate her child­hood milieu. But the book builds in inten­si­ty as Jarre, after return­ing home to Italy, combs through doc­u­men­tary mate­r­i­al and traces the his­to­ry of the Ger­soni fam­i­ly and the Jews of Latvia. As a result, she man­ages to piece togeth­er a his­to­ry of her Jew­ish ances­tors and to uncov­er rela­tion­ships of which she was unaware. Her quest cul­mi­nates with a recon­struc­tion of the trag­ic events of Novem­ber and Decem­ber of 1941, when the major­i­ty of the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of Latvia was mur­dered by the SS and Lat­vian death squads. The book ends with a polem­i­cal account of how, as of the ear­ly 2000s, Latvia had not yet come to terms with its com­plic­i­ty in the Holo­caust. Ann Goldstein’s lucid trans­la­tion ends with Jarre and her son inad­ver­tent­ly com­ing upon the spot in the Rum­bu­la for­est, near Riga, where her father and many of the Jews of Latvia were mas­sa­cred. There, at a memo­r­i­al stone, in a moment both ten­der and haunt­ing, Jarre para­dox­i­cal­ly finds her father most alive in her memory.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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