After Pushkin Press, And Other Stories, Tilted Axis Press, MacLehose Press and Istros Books – another great small British publisher of translated fiction that I have discovered is Dedalus Books (@dedalusbooks). Dedalus started in 1983, and over the years, has invented its own distinctive genre, which it describes as a “distorted reality, where the bizarre, the unusual, the grotesque and the surreal meld in a kind of intellectual fiction which is very European.”
The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature, an anthology of nineteen short stories, looked very attractive to me. Lithuania is a country I (almost) know nothing about, and I do not think I have met any Lithuanian face-to-face, just interacted with a few online. The Dedalus volume is introduced by Almantas Samalavicius (born 1963), a cultural historian, critic and essayist, who is a professor at Vilnius University and has served as president and vice president of PEN Lithuania.
Gorbachev’s perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Samalavicius writes, led to the start of a second hard-won independence for Lithuania. The country had shaken off the yoke of the tsarist Russian empire before in the second decade of the 20th century (prior to this, Lithuania had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). Speaking of Russia, the author points out, “For nearly 150 years Lithuania was ruled by a foreign colonial regime that consciously and maliciously ravaged and ruined the country’s cultural and religious institutions, crippled collective historical memory and fiercely suppressed (but fortunately did not extinguish) even the merest manifestations of a desire for freedom.”
Because of historical currents, it is unsurprising that themes of national identity have been an important part of Lithuanian prose and poetry. The inter-war period of independence (after Lithuania was free from the Russian empire), writes Samalavicius:
was marked by a rapid, even feverish, period of creation of culture and cultural institutions but was followed by the occupation by the Soviet Union in 1940, which resulted in a new fifty-year period of colonisation. All of this left significant marks on the collective memory of Lithuanian society, culture and the body politic.
Soviet occupation brought mass deportations of citizens to Siberian gulags–of intellectuals, infants, everyone. After the Second World War, several writers and artists moved to the West. Those who remained could be persecuted even when silent–for not glorifying Joseph Stalin, for not supporting the Communist Party. Conditions changed somewhat after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech (“On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”) at the 20th Soviet Party Congress in 1956. A more moderate tone now emanated from Moscow and writers searched for newer, more diverse, bolder literary techniques, such as impressionism, interior monologue and highly individualised styles of expression.
The Dedalus anthology hopes to highlight some of the key concerns in Lithuanian writing over more than a century (the creation and loss and evolution of statehood, the quest for freedom and independence) without proposing a panoramic vision of the country’s literature. Although deeply rooted in a specific social context, the stories do have eternal, universal dimensions. Professor Samalavicius maintains, they ask questions like: “Who are we? Where did we come from? And where are we going?”
I have selected two very different stories for this post: “The Herring” by Vincas Krėvė (1882–1954) and “Handless” by Ričardas Gavelis (1950–2002). Krėvė is the godfather of modern Lithuanian fiction. He was known mostly for his rich and colourful stories that often depicted the influence of a traditional, pre-Christian worldview on the mentality of village inhabitants. Having being a professor at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Krėvė later emigrated to the US and taught at the the University of Pennsylvania until the end of his life. Gavelis, on the other hand, studied theoretical physics at Vilnius University. He is the founder of Lithuanian-post-modernisn, and frequently explored topics like illness, exile and murder. He used images of sexual coercion to offer commentary on power and corruption.
“The Herring” by Vincas Krėvė is a simple, direct rural tale of an old and infirm Jew (with a sick wife at home) called Kuslius who visits the house of a Catholic shepherd named Gerdvilius to exchange his herring for eggs. As Kuslius executes the transaction with Mrs. Gerdvilius, Marcela the servant steals a few fish from his bucket. She is later tormented by visions of heaven and hell, and ultimately motivated to repent and make amends. On the surface, the story may speak of naïve piety and credulity but deep below are weighty themes of guilt, justice and the value of kindness towards one and all, especially your supposed “enemies”, and the weak. I found it a rather charming narrative.
“Handless” by Ričardas Gavelis is complex and multi-layered, the story of a man called Vytautas Handless, who lives between past and present, and branches into multiple identities. A widower with adult children, Handless is unable to escape his cold and violent memories of the Siberian labour camp. He loses his grip on reality, on the current of time, on the expanse of space. As he dissolves, what remains is an image of a raft on a river flowing through a frozen landscape, carrying a piece of human flesh, screaming for help, for attention. A little confusing, this tale was pretty masterful on both stylistic and thematic levels. A full book by Gavelis that you can check out is Vilnius Poker.
Excerpt from “The Herring”:
The angel called over another smaller angel and said: “Take these herring and throw them out. We have our own food here in heaven; we have no need for earthly food. No need for herring here.”
The smaller angel was reaching for the herring when an angry voice was heard from behind heaven’s gates: “Give me back my herring! That’s the fish she stole from me!”
Horror-struck, Marcela recognised Kuslius’s voice. She noted that all the souls were moving away from her, and even God, sitting up high, was scowling. Marcela was afraid to raise her eyes, but she saw his fury from the corner of her eye. And that brazen Kuslius was still yelling at her from behind the gates. She’ll pull out his beard, she’ll even ask the shepherd to set the dogs on him! Doesn’t he deserve it? He should have told her privately, asking her to pay him for it, but not here in heaven, in plain view for God and the angels to see.
“Is there no justice even in heaven? Why won’t she return my herring? Even here the poor Jew is oppressed.” Kuslius wouldn’t stop.
“You’re a thief and yet you’ve come to heaven? Bringing stolen goods into the House of God?” The angel accused her, but Marcela was silent and dumbstruck–that’s how frightened she was. “You have nothing to say for yourself, no explanation for your actions? Let’s go see God. Let him punish you as you deserve!”
Excerpt from “Handless”:
Afterwards everything that took place felt like a dream in which nightmarish landscapes are more real than real ones, monsters are more alive than the most alive of men, and meaningless words have much more meaning than all the wisdom of humanity. But it was far from being a dream. It finally dawned on him, that he was caught in a horrible trap.
Everything here looked different than it had in the old days, but this had absolutely no meaning. Vytautas Handless visualised the old barracks and paths. He saw the hill that had now been levelled, the holes had been filled, he recognised every tree that had been felled long ago, he smelled the old odour that had dispersed heaven knows when–the odour of injustice and despair that could not be covered up, which had enmeshed the zone more tightly than barbed wire. And the people now looked quite different: gloomy, staring creatures and insolent kids wandered around, but he didn’t see them at all. While he was watching the kids, their faces kept changing and they became completely different. They became the faces of others, familiar and unfamiliar.
To learn more about Lithuanian literature, check out the following links on Culture Trip, British Council, Lithuanian Culture and Vilnius Review.
Featured: Old Town of Vilnius of User “CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons