As you cannot fail to have noticed, Latvia celebrates its centenary next year. Everyone likes round numbers, so this is a super opportunity to raise the profile of the country and provide a showcase of all things that are Latvian and great.
I got a foretaste of this at the London Book Fair last week. First, I should say I was genuinely impressed by the efforts of the people manning the Latvian stand to promote Latvian books. They moved, they talked, they smiled, they gave information. That may not sound like much, but looking at some of the other stands it was like comparing the Industrial Revolution to the Stone Age.
Some of the Middle Eastern countries had stands consisting of nothing but elegantly attired ladies standing immobile for hours on end in front of a selection of biographies of serious sheikhs. I'm just guessing, but am fairly sure all these biographies drew the conclusion that the sheikhs in question were visionaries who were doing great things for their people with rather little discussion of their massive personal fortunes.
But my favorite stand consisted of one fat man sitting on a chair, surrounded by thousands of copies of the current edition of Newsweek. Behind him were dozens of posters of the front cover of the current edition of Newsweek. The man didn't even have a table. A sign said "Take one." The fat man just sat there reading the current copy of Newsweek. The current copy of Newsweek featured on its cover the beaming, shiny face of Kim Jong-Un, looking like a polished ham. Never have I been less tempted to pick up a magazine. The stand resembled a disturbing modern art installation.
In contrast, the Latvian stand had a wide selection of good books with interesting covers. Yet I cannot help feeling we could learn something from the sheikhs and the corpulent dictator. What we need is some central personality we can promote as an embodiment of Latvian national genius.
It's nice to tell people about good books, but it's a lot easier if you have a genius. Explaining the plot of Faust or King Lear takes a long time. Saying "It's by Goethe" or just "Shakespeare" prompts immediate acceptance that whatever it is, it is worth reading.
Latvia does have some artistic geniuses, but they are in annoyingly hard-to-market areas. Conductors Maris Janssons and Andris Nelsons would probably qualify, but performers are much less useful than composers or artists as they interpret instead of creating product.
Had he been born in New York rather than Riga and made his name writing songs on Tin Pan Alley rather than in the Soviet Union, Raimonds Pauls would probably be acknowledged worldwide as an American genius rather than a Latvian "Maestro". There are lots of very good Latvian writers and painters, but probably none of them would be spontaneously described as "geniuses" by even their most ardent admirers.
The one acknowledged literary genius in Latvian history is Rainis, but it would be hard to get him to spearhead the centenary for the simple reason that he has been dead for nearly 90 years. We need someone living who is able to stand in front of TV cameras and receive adulation while exuding charisma. Estonia has Arvo Part to fulfill this role. His recordings sell by the thousands. They do not require a fat man to sit on a stand giving them away.
It would be nice if a genius would arise spontaneously in the near future. But time is limited. If we are to have our genius in place and established in time for the centenary we need to hurry.
The national genius is like God: if he (or she) doesn't exist, you have to invent him (or her).
Here is what I propose: announce a tender for the position of official state genius. Give it a couple of weeks, see who applies and what they have to offer, be it heartbreaking novel, soaring symphony, masterful painting or whatever. If no genius appears, the authorities will just have to select someone, the way the Athenians used to select their rulers from reluctant citizens.
But then it is up to all the rest of us to acknowledge, establish and continuously reinforce the status of our genius over coming months. It might be considered a patriotic duty. At all and any opportunities we must attest to the genius of this individual and the power of their creation, even if we do not believe it. Indeed, in a way it will be even better if we don't really believe this person is a genius, because it will make our pulling together for the greater good and making everyone else believe they are a genius all the more satisfying.
When we have our undisputed genius in place, everything else follows: the school of other geniuses who show his or her clear influence; then the rebel geniuses who react against the main genius and finally the post-genius geniuses who deconstruct and play around with the genius' towering legacy in an ironic manner, while acknowledging that none of this would have been possible had not the original genius been a definite genius.
So don't be shy. If you are a genius, step forward. It's a fun job. Schools and streets will be named after you. People will make statues of you and the central bank will almost certainly put you on a coin, if not a banknote. You'll get to meet lots of other geniuses, too -- and see if they are all they are cracked up to be.