There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity of attempting the latter. It has quite possibly the most misleading, inaccurate cover copy of all time. Surrealism is an overused term, applied to anything odd, just to the right of realism, but Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is the most straightforward work I’ve seen called Surrealist. This isn’t a criticism of the book itself, it couldn’t be, but when you go into a story wanting the unsettling, funny, and strange, then encounter dry, if beautiful and emotional verisimilitude outside of a few occasions, it is hard not to be disappointed. In addition to claiming Surrealism, the copy tells us that Skujiņš’s novel is split into two parts: the eighteenth century and the modern world. By modern world it means the era of World War II, and with a child protagonist, very much of that wide genre of storytelling.
But enough with the damned throat-clearing and correctives, a book needs to be seen on its own actual terms. Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is a novel with a sense of physical detail that gives the time periods and their characters lush life and a nuanced creation of how those characters interact with each other—both in their emotional connections and in the single touch of the fantastic, where lives separated by time intermingle and overlap. It is the story of a family in a Latvian town surviving the multiple occupations, Russian and German, of World War II, and how just as that history can’t be separated from the past, neither can the individuals from one century to another.
In the eighteenth-century chapters, Baroness von Brīgen mourns her husband’s death in battle until the performing clairvoyant Cagliostro leads her to believe that her husband has survived in some form, telling her “Where there were two, now there is one.” This, and the name of a man, a Captain Ulste, who was recorded as having died with her husband, compels her to visit the Ulste family, where she finds the man alive. He tells her of a doctor supposedly capable of performing miracles, including sewing his top half to the bottom half of her husband. Recognizing the bottom half in the way that lovers do, she sleeps with Ulste and becomes pregnant. And here is the dominant trope of the book, two discrete parts making a new whole, then continuing on in the world to create more. Whether it be people and their nationalities, machines, countries, concepts (“The combination of man and horse has a certain nobleness to it”), magic tricks, the trope runs rampant.
In the twentieth-century portions a boy and his half-Japanese step-brother are raised by his grandfather and another Baroness, who has an uncertain relationship with Grandfather (as he’s called throughout). When Grandfather’s last name is revealed to be Ulste the two histories start to solidify their own cleaving. This is further complicated when the Baron von Brīgen returns to his wife alive and whole, top and bottom. Upon learning of his wife’s pregnancy, he is unable to come to terms with the result of his and Valtraute’s independent actions, and ends up killing himself before the birth of her child. This series of events is the single potentially fantastical core that runs through Flesh-Coloured Dominoes. For a while, following Cagliostro and his colorful retinue (a hermaphrodite chambermaid, a dwarf, a German with five chins, a raven-like astrologer) there’s hope that more of the impossible will occur, but once his later miracle is shown as mere trickery, that hope dies. The eighteenth-century chapters become the period fiction of a baroness and her life among the aristocracy and play clear second-fiddle to the twentieth-century chapters.
In this, there are skillful recreations of life. Readers are familiar with the modern means of showing characters’ awkwardness or boredom, and Skujiņš introduces them to older fidgeting: “The audience can sense something, the tension builds and expands, women in tightly pulled corsets gasp for air in shallow breaths and nervously flick their fans. The men fiddle with their little phials of cologne, bringing their moistened fingers first to the tips of their noses, then to their earlobes.” These small movements of people create a living period, a recognizable variation of our own time, and of the twentieth century of the book. Skujiņš also portrays the morality of the era both as performed and as lived: sex outside of marriage is officially frowned on, but it’s acknowledged that everyone is doing it, often; women dress in their corsets, covering themselves fully, but happy to use the wide skirts to their advantage and publically pee in a garden.
The two periods reflect each other in ways big and small, both showing the fight of the traditional and the modern, both showing hope and fear for the future of culture, both showing characters facing down their ignorance of history. This ignorance is something the novel works against. Flesh-Coloured Dominoes serves as a primer for Lativian history, including asides like Louis XVIII temporary court in Jelgava. In her afterword, translator Kaija Straumanis explains that the original Latvian text contained footnotes, outlining history or explaining phrases from foreign languages, which she blended into the actual narrative. That these are as unobtrusive as they are—only in retrospect do a couple phrases stick out as being incorporated footnotes—shows how well she handled this challenge, one too often performed with stiffness.
Less balanced is the book itself. For the first half or so, the historically older chapters are more interesting, with their potentiality for the magical, for that reality to be somehow different from that of the chapters closer to modern life. In this half, the World War II sections do little to be distinguishable from any number of other tales of that war and the Holocaust. It is material we’ve seen before, separated mainly by being Latvian, with those cultural and historical touches. At some point, however, the balance tips, and the later sections are the more compelling.
The personal relationships of the family members become more complex, more intimately seen. They grow, as relationships should, and the book is the better for it. The narrator and his brother become more familiar with the world, with Grandfather and the Baroness, and more capable of acting and understanding others’ actions. Grandfather is the focus of the narrator’s attention from the beginning, and the way he shapes the boys eventually becomes the shaping of the narrative itself. He creates the narrator’s sense of the world by teaching him what to pay attention to, how to see whole stories instead of one side.
Further unbalancing Flesh-Coloured Dominoes are the ending chapters, suddenly set in the actual modern, our time. They feel extraneous, extending the novel without gaining much. There seems to be an effort to make sure the reader didn’t miss anything, confirming things we already sensed or spelling out ideas already present. What is new could have been incorporated more smoothly, earlier.
While a book hard to settle into, with a structure that is weighted oddly, there is still much to enjoy. Descriptions are exciting along the way, and what Skujiņš has enthusiasm for shows through. Characters, even minor ones, have unique voices: “The pale man’s voice sounds hollow, as if he were speaking from the bottom of a barrel.” Similes refuse the obvious: “He sits frozen, his portly body jammed crookedly into the chair like a misshapen candle in the socket of a slender candlestick.” Facial expressions are physically elaborate, and express much: “If there was anything to read in his motionless face, its features cut as if out of dried-up glue, it would have been mouldy, fly-flecked arrogance and a complete lack of interest in the scene in front of him.” In the end, whether through unsettled expectations, a lack of consistent quality, or too much excess material, Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is not a book that will live on in my mind, but Skujiņš writes skillfully enough that any future translations of his work are worth consideration, if hesitant.