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Egidijus Rudinskas, A- The Garden of Memory, 36 / 50, 200. Etching, 32,5 x 39, 7 cm. From the MO museum collection.

by Aurimas Švedas

Towards the end of the year many of us succumb to the temptation to sum up, generalize, and rate what has been experienced, read, and seen. This text was conceived late in 2016 or maybe very early in 2017, while I was enjoying a cup of coffee with Marius Burokas, the editor of Vilnius Review. Alas, as it frequently happens, promptly given promises do not turn into texts equally promptly. Still, I do hope that a review of last year’s books written at the end of May has not lost its relevance yet.  The hope is enhanced by the realization that the text will be about books whose impact on Lithuanian historical culture will not be of a transient nature.


The Finale of an Ambitious Historical Saga

Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, Silva rerum IV, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 2016.

Silva rerum, a cycle of four novels (the first book was published in 2008, the second in 2011, the third in 2014, and the fourth in 2016) by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, a writer with a PhD in art history, is often described as the most “phenomenal,” “successful,” “memorable,” and “magnificent” saga on the history of Lithuania written in the epoch of independence or, possibly, in more than a hundred years if the point of reference is 1904, the appearance of the first Lithuanian historical novel. It is obvious that these epithets used by publishers, marketing experts, and journalists, should be approached with caution. Yet probably no one can refute the argument that Sabaliauskaitė’s books have become a cultural phenomenon in the twenty-first century.

The Silva rerum series narrates the history of the Norvaiša noble family and reveals to the reader a panorama of four historical epochs. In the first book, the history of the Norvaiša family is developed over the period of 1659 to 1667, after the horrendous incursion of the Russian army and the occupation of Vilnius and the rest of the country. Historians refer to this period vividly as “the Flood.” The second book focuses on the Great Plague and the Northern War, with emphasis laid on the period from 1707 to 1710, and the third book dwells on the events of the mid-eighteenth century. The second half of the eighteenth century, when at the junction of the Baroque and the Enlightenment the old state of Lithuania went through the autumn of its existence, is at the center of the fourth book.

Sabaliauskaitė’s  Silva rerum tetralogy is important in several aspects: (1) immense popularity and commercial success of the series drew the attention of readers, publishers, and the guild of professional writers to the genre of the historical novel and demonstrated the range of possibility offered by historical plots; (2) the author, who incidentally calls herself “a maniac of precision,” gave an important methodological lesson to the fraternity of writers for how the symbiosis of scholarship and art creates opportunities for the emergence of original and commercially successful (re)constructions of the past; (3) to the historical memory of Lithuanian society, Silva rerum has introduced the epoch of the Baroque and the period of the autumn of old Lithuania, which did not play any noticeably significant role in collective self-awareness before the appearance of this series, and (4) from a local (Lithuanian) phenomenon of historical culture, Silva rerum has been developing into a glocal phenomenon as first translations of Sabaliauskaitė’s novels have already appeared in Latvian and Polish.

When commenting on the success of Silva rerum, the author coquettishly remarked:  “Recognition came out of the blue because a different type of literature prevails in Lithuania: one that has matured on the peasant world-perception, that describes with sentimental feeling the unity of the individual with nature and its cyclic pattern, one that analyzes the existential tensions left by serf-like thinking in the mentality and is dominated by the issues of ontological helplessness, suffering, and guilt.”[1]

On the other hand, there is some truth in Sabaliauskaitė’s words, and for this reason the author’s self-reflection can also help us in considering why the whole Silva rerum series and its fourth volume are important.

1. Šiaurės Atėnai, 13 March 2009

 


An Aesthete’s Game with History

Undinė Radzevičiūtė, Kraujas mėlynas, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2017.

Historians dislike reviewing the kind of books that Undinė Radzevičiūtė, one of the most prominent personalities in Lithuanian literature, wrote last year: as soon as you get entangled in the questions about whether all the names and events in the book are real and described correctly from the academic viewpoint, you are bound to submerge yourself in an ocean of academic monographs, encyclopedias, and biographical digests while checking each detail. The writer insists that in her elegantly and subtly ironic story about the events in Livonia (German Livland, a historical region in the territory of present-day Latvia and Estonia) in the second half of the fifteenth century, the central event of which was the rise of Bernhard von der Borch to the 41st Master of the Order and his fall, is 90 percent true.”[2]

On the other hand, in this particular case a scholar’s temptation to delve into the “accounting of the sins” of the writer would not yield any tangible benefit and would just divert attention from things that are much more important: the images of the past that show through in Radzevičiūtė’s narrative. While still on the way from the print shop to the bookshops, the novel was already labelled as “the Lithuanian version of George R. Martin's Game of Thrones” in the country’s literary world. It is obvious that the analogy is not exactly accurate, yet it helps us to understand one thing: Radzevičiūtė succeeded in writing a novel that reflects the world of the political elite of the end of the Middle Ages, which was dominated by the seeking of power for the sake of power and the sickening fear of losing that power. According to the literary critic Virginija Cibarauskė, “by depicting history as a white-water river of violence flowing without any purpose or destination, the writer created a text that resembles annals or chronicles:  the events are recorded, but their interactions and the relation of cause and effect remain in the dark.”[3]

In this chronicle of Livonian history written on a computer in the twenty-first century, the idea recurs that the efforts of people who find themselves in this river of violence are mostly pointless. “One of the main ideas of the book is that the world often collapses both when nothing is done and when one tries to do one’s best to put it into order. Sometimes the efforts to put it into order even speed up its collapse,” the writer said in an interview.[4]

What will the role of Radzevičiūtė’s novel about the advance of the state of the Livonian Order towards terminal decline be in the historical culture of Lithuanian society? There can be no doubt that Kraujas mėlynas contributes to the enrichment of this culture in several aspects: (1) the focus on Livonia is a gift to Lithuanian society that offers an opportunity to expand the field of historical imagination (traditionally, this field was outlined by the boundaries of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or of ethnic Lithuania), (2) Undinė Radzevičiūtė reminds the reader of the possibility to approach history as an intriguing adventure (not very often do Lithuanian writers take advantage of this opportunity), and (3) approaching the past as a murderous thriller, the author simultaneously lets the reader feel that “there’s something more in it.” In her opinion, the something more is utter silence as a response to the existential questions raised by the heroes of the story.

2. Moteris, April 2017.
3. Naujasis Židinys – Aidai, 2017, No. 2
4. 15min.lt, 14 February 2017.

 

A Step into Prehistoric Territory

Rasa Aškinytė, Glesum, Vilnius: Vaga, 2016.

“I tried to show history as it was,” said Rasa Aškinytė about her novel Glesum in an interview.[5] The writer’s self-reflection acquires a new meaning upon the realization that the novel is set in the world of the Aestii tribes in the second and third centuries. Historians cannot not offer much information about this epoch and its people. To be more precise, they can hardly tell us anything at all, and what they can is based on Tacitus’s words about the aestiorum gentes in his work Germania written in 98 AD:

Turning, therefore, to the right-hand shore of the Suebian sea, we find it washing the country of the Aestii, who have the same customs and fashions as the Suebi but a language more like the British. They worship the Mother of the Gods, and wear, as an emblem of this cult, the device of a wild boar, which stands in for armor or human protection and gives the worshipper a sense of security even among his enemies. They seldom use weapons of iron, but they use clubs very often. They cultivate grain and other crops with a perseverance unusual among the indolent Germans. They also ransack the sea. They are the only people who collect amber—glaesum is their own word for it—in the shallows or even on the beach.[6]

Thus Rasa Aškinytė took upon herself the task of reconstructing the material and spiritual world of the ancient Aestii (the term is not an ethnonym but a collective geographical name that refers to a group of peoples that occupied a certain territory). In that, she made use of archaeological and mythological research, she had Tacitus’s narrative quoted above, and she took advantage of the benefits of historical imagination.

The result of the meticulous work of this experiment-prone writer is an engaging and hypnotizing story divided into seven parts named after the stars of Ursa Minor. Each part is further divided into seven chapters. Truth be told, I am not the first to admit I failed to perceive the significance of the graceful compositional structure of the novel. Nonetheless, this structure of the narrative is not an obstacle for the reader to enjoy the story of life of Gontis, the chief of one of Aestii tribes, and his family:   his proud wife Selija; his son Bentis, who is to inherit his father’s fate; his concubine Glesum, whom he caught during one of his uncountable journeys to the Roman Empire and brought back home; the former warrior Kirnius, who is always somewhere close by, taking care of the safety of Gontis’s family; and the old wise woman of the tribe—“the old hag with a leg gnawed off by wolves.”

With her novel Glesum, Rasa Aškinytė stepped into the prehistoric world, into a territory that is basically unknown either to Lithuanian writers or to readers of fiction about the old history of Lithuania. Another quiet revolution led by the writer is that the narrative of the novel emerges mostly from women’s points of view: most of the central and significant events are told by the female characters (Selija, Glesum, and the sorceress).

“Did the woman have a Renaissance?” asked the American historian Joan Kelly in 1984[7], and her question echoed wide and loud across academia and the society of her time.

“Was there a woman in prehistory?” Rasa Aškinytė’s novel Glesum helps us to find the answer to this question.

5. Bernardinai, 21 July 2016.
6. https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~wstevens/history331texts/barbarians.html
7. Women, History & Theory. The Essays of Joan Kelly, 1984

 

A Narrative about Moments (and Their Stories) Told in Light

Algimantas Aleksandravičius, Sūduva – Terra Sudorum – šviesos išpasakota, Vilnius: Vaga, 2016. A photography album.

“Historians don’t simply describe a moment in time.”[8] These words of historian and film creator Daniel J. Walkowitz became a reference point while I was browsing through books by the photographer Algimantas Aleksandravičius in which he renders the moments of history and the sites of memory in Lithuania as images. I borrowed the term sites of memory from the French historian Pierre Nora.

In the attempt to analyze the work of one of the most outstanding Lithuanian photographers, the following view of the British historian Peter Burke will be helpful: “Room should be left for what is called the impact of the historical imagination.”[9] Images allow us to face history and create opportunities to imagine history.

Aleksandravičius discovered his method and his unique style when creating portrait photography. The portraits were followed by series of works devoted to Lithuanian historical sites of memory. And then, in 2013, his opus magnum, or rather its first volume Žemaitėjė—mona meilė (Samogitia, My Love) appeared. The second photography album in the series, Aukštaitėj—aukšts dongs ė čysts vonva (Aukštaitija—High Sky and Clear Waters) and the third, Dzūkija—išskaicyta iš Dzievulio drabnų raštų… (Dzūkija—Read from God’s Tiny Writings…), appeared in bookshops in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Aleksandravičius reached the interim finish of his creative design last December, just before Christmas, with the photography album Sūduva—Terra Sudorum—šviesos išpasakota (Sūduva—Terra Sudorum—Told by Light).

So what new information can the photographer tell us about the history of Lithuania and the sites of memory that are the most important for our nation and our state?

While searching for an answer to this question, we can resort to the insights of the critic Virginijus Kinčinaitis about Aleksandravičius’s first volume, Žemaitėjė…: “Algimantas manages to dislodge the hinges of the memory of contemporary Lithuania that is dumbfounded by the rituals of consumption. He rewrites history by rendering it visually relevant.”[10] Incidentally, Kinčinaitis’s comment can be expanded upon: what the photographer is doing should be seen not only as a rewriting of history, but also as creation of a new narrative about the junctions of history and memory that is of a completely new quality in the context of historical culture of Lithuania

It is for this reason that when browsing through Sūduva—Terra Sudorum— šviesos išpasakota and looking at the sites of memory (for example, the place of death of the partisan Juozas Lukša Daumantas in Pažėrai or the homeland of the linguist Juozas Jablonskis in Rygiškiai) or frozen moments of history (such as the festival of the Bicycle March in Marijampolė in 2016) in Aleksandravičius’s photography we are given a fresh opportunity to experience the flow of time and to reflect on it.

8. Image as Artifact. The Historical Analysis of Film and Television, 1990, p. 37.
9. Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing. The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence, p. 30.
10. Literatūra ir menas, 21 February 2014.

 

In Place of an Epilogue

Having written about half of this text I realized that it would be impossible to squeeze all books that, in my subjective opinion, are worth mentioning into one review. That is why the second part of the review should reach readers sometime in August, and in it I will discuss Rimantas Kmita’s Pietinia kronikas: popromanas (Southern Chronicles: A Popular Novel; Tylo alba), Edvardas Gudavičius and Alfredas Bumblauskas’s Būtovės slėpiniai: Užmiršta Lietuva (Secrets of the Past; Alma littera), Dovydas Pancerovas’s Kiborgų žemė (The Land of Cyborgs; Alma littera), and Kęstutis Nakas’s Kai Lietuva valdė pasaulį (When Lithuania Ruled the World; Aukso žuvys).

 

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