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in the shadow of death
2 february 2023
I was led to the work of Rūdolfs Blaumanis by the very interesting 1966 film The Swamp Wader, directed by Leonīds Leimanis. A tale of class antagonism and tortured love in the days of the Baltic German aristocracy, The Swamp Wader helped kick off a rich era of Latvian filmmaking that worked in the spaces provided by intermittent Soviet cultural "thaws." But I was unable to find The Swamp Wader in English, and in fact the only translated work of Blaumanis' that I could get hold of was the short story "In the Shadow of Death" (1899), rendered into English by Uldis Balodis and published by Paper + Ink in their attractive series of small-scale paperbacks.
"In the Shadow of Death" is not very long. To American readers, it will recall Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat." Blaumanis' story is more populous, and instead of a boat it makes use of a Baltic ice floe, disintegrating under a large company of fishermen. Alliances form and shatter under the grave pressure of the situation. For food, there are the fish they've caught; for water, melting the ice they stand on; for hope, little to none.
I don't know whether Crane and Blaumanis even knew of each other's existence. Stories of survival-or-doom are perennially popular, but they may have flourished especially in the drawing-rooms of comfortable readers in late-imperial Europe and rising-power America. When you have a roaring fire and plenty of reading lamps, you may be drawn to stories of extremity. Crane's story was apparently his own experience; one imagines that Blaumanis' was imaginary. But "In the Shadow of Death" gathers an eerie power, all the same.
Blaumanis, Rūdolfs. In the Shadow of Death. [Nāves ēnā, 1899.] Translated by Uldis Balodis. N.p.: Paper + Ink, 2017.