BALTIC BLOG: Banned in the Baltics

By bne IntelliNews March 12, 2014

Mike Collier in Riga -

Like every journalist who ever picked up a quill, pen or iPad, in the quieter periods of daily reporting duties, I dreamed of that great novel I would one day write. The surprising thing is that after years of vacillation I finally wrote it and after another couple of years hawking it in the Latvian publishing industry my book, "The Fourth Largest In Latvia" - a satire of politics, society, and foreign experts - finally hit the shelves on February 20.

I expected it to be controversial and - partly I must admit due to my status as a journalist with connections - there was strong media coverage on TV, radio, print and online. The first readers told me they enjoyed the book, with some even admitting to laughing out loud - a very un-Latvian reaction. Then on March 11, I awoke to discover my book seemed to have been banned.

Something odd had been happening for a couple of days. A friend in the US who had asked a contact in Riga to buy two copies of the book for her told me the shop assistant said the book had been suddenly taken off the shelves at the Jana Rozes bookstore, one of Latvia's main book chains. No reason was given. This tallied with something I had seen in the Sigulda branch of Jana Rozes - a pile of four of my books hidden behind the counter rather than out on the shelves where they should have been.

But it was only when I was then tweeted by numerous other people saying they had also gone into Jana Rozes and been told the book had been pulled that it became clear something really had happened.

My publisher, the small Apgads Mansards publishing house, asked Jana Rozes for an explanation on March 11, but they said nothing, causing social media to go into overdrive and seeing me do a fresh round of media interviews.

Rumours swirled that this or that member of the political elite had taken exception to being lampooned, apparently seeing themselves accurately portrayed in the collection of grotesque and absurd characters that populate the pages of my book. Some suggested a lawsuit was on the way and the bookstore had pulled the novel from fear of legal action.

I received dozens of supportive messages and people I had never met even posted pictures of copies of the book they had bought from other outlets. Friends in Estonia - never shy when it comes to scoring points against their Baltic neighbours - even set up a tongue-in-cheek support group declaring: "Aleksandr SOLZHENITSYN, Joseph BRODSKY, Miks KOLJERS. All banned in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the latter most recently in the Latvian SSR."

Meanwhile, the book quickly sold out in Liepaja, Latvia's third largest city (given the title it should really have done so in Jelgava, but more on that in a moment).

I have to admit all this talk of censorship and book banning did my ego no end of good. Instead of merely dreaming of being up there with Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Gogol, I now really had something in common with them. A few years' exile in Italy wouldn't be so bad after all, and even Siberia has its attractions at this time of year.

For a few hours, with Jana Rozes remaining as silent as the Tsarist-era censor, I mulled whether I should contact San Francisco's cult City Lights publishing house and ask to be added to their famous list of classic books that have been banned.

Then things got even stranger as people noticed it wasn't just my book that had disappeared. Another one had gone with it, called "Jelgava 94" by Janis Jonevs and also published by Apgads Mansards. A very well-written tale of growing up in Latvia's fourth-largest city during the grunge period, it was widely regarded as one of the best pieces of original fiction to appear in the last few years. Why target a book that had already been on sale for more than a year? Was this some pathetic attempt to ban books that depicted unwholesome family values and challenged authority?

Then, at around 6:00pm on March 11, Jana Rozes finally broke their silence. Their explanation was perhaps the most bizarre element of all. The reason they had belatedly removed both books from their shelves was... because it had a price printed on the cover.

This doesn't make sense to anyone who has ever bought a Penguin paperback - and indeed Penguins are available in Latvia. But under Latvian competition law (point 11 to be precise, according to Jana Rozes), it seems it is illegal to print the recommended retail price of a book on its cover, even though retailers including Jana Rozes are free to sticker the book with whatever price they want.

My publishers told me they had even offered to place blank stickers over the price on the books sent to Jana Rozes, but that the retailer said that by doing so the books would be classed as "damaged."

I was rather disappointed to hear Jana Rozes say this was "not censorship" but merely a rather petty little squabble over pieces of sticky paper. However, the net result was that my book got a lot of extra publicity and the less uptight retailers got some extra business, so I shouldn't complain. I hear something similar once happened to Chekhov...

The Fourth Largest In Latvia is published in English and Latvian, and will be available as an e-book via Amazon and other outlets from March 17.

BALTIC BLOG: Banned in the Baltics

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