‘Return to Latvia’ by Marina Jarre. A profoundly moving memoir.

The late Italian writer, Marina Jarre (1925-2016) is virtually unknown in the UK. Two of her books Distant Fathers and Return to Latvia have been published by Vessel Press and translated into English by American writer Ann Goldstein. I have read both books and am now eagerly awaiting book number three.

For those of you who have read, Distant Fathers, you will know that it charts Jarre’s early life spent in Northern Italy in the mountains during WW2. In it, her father features fleetingly, is brilliantly drawn as a charmer who is capable of great tenderness. Unfortunately he is not the most faithful of husbands. Jarre was separated from  him as a child, through her parent’s divorce and the war. Jarre’s Jewish father stayed in Latvia and Jarre joined her mother’s Protestant family in Italy.

In Return to Latvia, Jarre, now a grandmother, is haunted by her father’s disappearance. She cannot forgive herself for ignoring a pleading letter he wrote to her in 1941 when he was trying to flee Riga: – ‘you, too are Jewish’ he tells her. Months after this letter, Jarre’s father disappeared from her life. 

Jarre’s return to Latvia in September 1999 is not only the story of Jarre’s attempt to retrace her father and to find the causes of his death. It is also an attempt to process her complex feelings towards him and the holocaust. 

This is a story of Guilt with a capital ‘G’: “I carried the weight of an inappropriate mourning, in which serious personal experiences were so tightly interwoven with the atrocity of history that I couldn’t present myself in a clear and unambiguous way” Jarre talks of “an undirected grief” – the hardest one to endure.

This is a fascinating book – not only a memoir like Distant Fathers, but a travelogue, an essay on the quest for truth. Along her journey,  (after many false starts) Jarre starts to grapple with what really happened to the Jews living in Riga during the Nazi occupation. The Rumbula massacre makes difficult reading.

This is also the story of the love she discovers for her father. Tender scenes surface in her. She recalls him reading his beloved Russian newspapers and she, trying to distract him. Instead of shouting at her, he fends her off with his hand gently as if she were “a kitten”. The aching regret is almost too hard to bear when Jarre writes: “Of his voice I retain only an echo. I no longer know what name he used when he told me to leave him in peace to read his newspapers. What name he called me—if he called me anything—when he ran after me in the alley…, to pick me up in his arms and kiss me, weeping. The last time we saw each other”.

Return to Latvia by Marina Jarre is published by New Vessel Press. Publication date February 21, 2023. A memoir translated by Ann Goldstein.

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