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Dainius Dirgėla, from the series Vilnius in the Puddles, 2017

by Jūratė Čerškutė

 

At first glance, 2016 was a fairly ordinary year in Lithuanian literature: like any year before there was no shortage of books, and like every year it brought expectations and reasons both to grumble and to rejoice depending on the likings and hopes of readers. It seems that  things progressed quietly and consistently, without any major book-related or literary scandals (and for a second it occurred to me that—oh bother! —even without any trends).

Before embarking on summing up the year, on counting and naming the trends which made their distinct presence felt, I would like to offer some statistics from last year. According to state bibliographical information provided by the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, 383 books of Lithuanian literary fiction were published in 2016. This number includes the productions of small peripheral publishers, which make up the larger part of the annual flow of books with the most popular of the genres—poetry collections. How many truly good literary texts with the promise of living on into the future could we single out? I have counted up to ten truly good books of prose, with all sorts of allowances and reservations. Poetry books amounted to a similar number, or maybe there are fewer of those (personally, I think there are up to five books). If we take an even stricter look and rely exclusively on expert opinions then, after adding up all the texts of the Five Best and Twelve Most Creative of the year, we would have around fifteen books. Is it not a respectable number for the rather small amount of Lithuanian literature?

What texts and which authors of 2016 will pass the test of time and values and make their mark in the history of our literature is a question that can only be answered in the future. Meanwhile, considering it from the perspective of this moment, we should realize that in literary history a calendar year manifests as dates of publications of books, as actual lists of and awards to books, and occasionally as a boundary—not necessarily accurate and well-defined—of certain literary movements or trends. Where should we test our recall when trying to remember the books published in 2016? Some might browse through library catalogues, but it is much more likely that they will turn to the lists of books from that year: the shortlists of the Book of the Year, five in prose and the same number in poetry, and the twelve most creative books of the year. Here I would like to remind the benevolent reader of the differences between these lists. The twelve most creative books are selected by scholars of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore from all the books published during the calendar year, from 1 January to 31 December. The books promoted to the Book of the Year vote are written by contemporary Lithuanian authors and published from 1 September of the previous year to 31 August of the running year. A board of experts draws lists of five best books and then it is readers who vote for the Book of the Year in each of four categories: children’s books, young adult books, books for adults, and poetry (from 2012).

So here is the list of the twelve most creative books of 2016 (all lists are given in alphabetical order):

Eugenijus Ališanka, Stuburo tik punktyrai (Only Dotted Lines for the Spine): poetry;
Daiva Čepauskaitė, Aš tave užmiršau (I Have Forgotten You): plays;
Stasys Eidrigevičius, Giedanti gaidžio galva (A Rooster’s Cock-a-doodling Head: a narrative poem);
Dainius Gintalas, Adatos (Needles): poetry;
Benediktas Januševičius, Žodžiai (Words): eilėraščiai;
Giedrė Kazlauskaitė, Singerstraum: poetry;
Rimantas Kmita, Pietinia kronikas (Southern Chronicle): a novel;
Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, Uosto fuga (The Fugue of the Port): essays;
Sigitas Parulskis, Nutylėtų lelijų miestas (A City of Hushed Lilies): a novel;
Regimantas Tamošaitis, Vien tik zuikiai naktyje (Like Rabbits in the Night): essays;
Mindaugas Jonas Urbonas, Dvasių urna (The Urn of Spirits): novellas;
Tomas Venclova, Eumenidžių giraitė (The Grove of the Eumenides): poetry and translations.
    
The 2016 shortlist of five books for adults:

Eugenijus Ališanka, Empedoklio batas (Empedocle’s Shoe);
Danutė Kalinauskaitė, Skersvėjų namai (The Home of Droughts);
Kęstutis Navakas, Vyno kopija (A Copy of Wine);
Violeta Palčinskaitė, Atminties babilonai, arba Aš vejuosi vasarą (The Babylons of Memory, or I Am Catching Up with Summer);
Rolandas Rastauskas, Trečias tomas (Volume Three).

The 2016 shortlist of poetry books:

Eugenijus Ališanka, Stuburo tik punktyrai (Only Dotted Lines for the Spine),
Mantas Balakauskas, Roma (Rome),
Stasys Eidrigevičius, Giedanti gaidžio galva (A Rooster’s Cock-a-doodling Head),
Dainius Gintalas, Adatos (Needles),
Giedrė Kazlauskaitė, Singerstraum.

Giedrė Kazlauskaitė’s poetry collection Singerstraum was chosen the most creative book of 2016, while Kęstutis Navakas’s novel Vyno kopija and Dainius Gintalas’s poetry collection Adatos were voted Book of the Year 2016 in the adult book and poetry collectioncategories, respectively.

Thinking about these twelves and fives, their laureates, and their survival in the future, a simple question arises: will the awareness of the abovementioned names and books be the real picture of the literature of 2016 some years later? It will not, of course, but some of the relevant details of the mosaic of the general picture will. These details will no doubt be complemented by opinions about these texts and emphasis on trends and directions.

 

On the Trends

What are, then, the most distinct trends in Lithuanian literature from 2016?

1. The breakthrough of the historical novel: Kristina Sabaliauskaitė’s Silva rerum IV, Gina Viliūnė’s Magdalė, smuklės merga (Magdalė, the Inn Wench) and Imperatoriaus meilužė (The Emperor’s Mistress), Rasa Aškinytė’s Glesum, Saulius Šaltenis’s Basas ir laimingas (Barefoot and Happy), Regimantas Dima’s Bronislovas ir imperatorius (Bronislovas and the Emperor), and even Rimantas Kmita’s Pietinia kronikas (Southern Chronicle). We often hearthat the breakthrough and popularity of the historical novel have been brought about by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė’s series of novels Silva rerum, the first of which appeared in 2008 and became the Book of the Year. It became the most read Lithuanian novel of the recent years (here I have all four books in mind). Such facts would be just one of the reasons (which might be rejected by some) that would allow usto reflect why it is in recent years that the historical novel, and especially its popular variety, has flourished. Possibly the success of Silva rerum has contributed to a certain extent, or maybe it has been caused by the natural processes of literary development, when ideas lingering in the air become solid, so to say. Or maybe the time has simply come to slightly withdraw from the active building of reality (which was necessary after half a century of Soviet occupation) and turn back to history, to reflect on it and rethink it. In other words, it seems that the success of the historical novel and historical imagination at the turn of the next decade of Independence is a natural and routine development.

Considering the abundance of historical novels in 2016, we must note that one of the distinct appearances in the genre of popular historical novel was that of Gina Viliūnė, who indicated with last year's books that she was about to choose the path of the costume drama and the historical romance. Rasa Aškinytė offered an unexpected interpretation of history in her novel Glesum, which tells of life of the Aesti tribes and about the Baltic amber route to Roman cities in the second and third centuries (some find her interpretation too simple and therefore even narrow). Rimantas Kmita’s novel Pietinia kronikas is an interesting variant of the historical novel, and it is interesting because it is modern. The novel is set in the not-so-distant past of 1993–1995 (Lithuania declaredthe re-establishment of its independence in 1990 and thus triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union. Therefore, these early years of independence were brimming with all sorts of changes and processes in people’s attempt to find their way in the new world and the new circumstances of life).

2. Regionalism with a dialect: Rimantas Kmita’s Pietinia kronikas written in the dialect of Šiauliai and the narrative poem Giedanti gaidžio galva in the dialect of Panevėžys (although both cities are in the north of Lithuania separated by a distance of only about 80 kilometers they have their own distinct dialects). Last year this seemingly insignificant trend proved to be truly vibrant as it attracted large numbers of readers. Stasys Eidrigevičius, a Lithuanian artist and book illustrator who has been living in Warsaw for over thirty years, wrote an excellent narrative poem about his homeland—the vanished village of Lepšiai and those dear to himwho lived there—in his native dialect of the people from the south of the Panevėžys area. This book is valuable not only for its literary quality and the line of the author’s personal life, but also as an object of art created by the designer Sigutė Chlebinskaitė.

The vanished and finished life of Šiauliai during so-called “jungle capitalism,” or gariūnmetis[1] in Lithuanian, is recreated by Kmita in his first novel. Unlike Eidrigevičius’s narrative poem, Pietinia kronikas does not provide a translation into standard Lithuanian, so everything in the novel is written in the dialect of the city and one of its residential areas interspersed by the period’s slang and all the attributes of life in those times. Historical and rapidly changing time is the backdrop against which the protagonist Rimants Kmita is living his life, which is packed with quests of becoming and meaning. Indeed, it is a highly unexpected and therefore a very interesting and tragicomic example of the bildungsroman.

3. Shifts in the Lithuanian essay: Eugenijus Ališanka, Empedoklio batas, Aidas Marčėnas Kasdienynas (Daily Records), Gintaras Bleizgys Jautis (A Bull), Regimantas Tamošaitis Vien tik zuikiai naktyje (Like Rabbits in the Night), Sara Poisson Grožio mašina (The Beauty Machine), Mindaugas Kvietkauskas Uosto fuga (The Fugue of the Port). Enjoyed by readers, the Lithuanian essay that gravitates towards the novella and was pioneered by Rolandas Rastauskas, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė, and Sigitas Parulskas was apparently absent last year, which led to claims that the Lithuanian essay has weakened or become out of breath. The books by Eugenijus Ališanka and Aidas Marčėnas serve as a proof of this claim: although well written, they are somewhat unconvincing. On the other hand, it seems that the Lithuanian essay is turning back to reflect upon cultural phenomena, and Mindaugas Kvietkauskas’s Uosto fuga is the most distinct example of such culturally engaged essay-writing. Regimantas Tamošaitis offers an unexpectedly cultural and playful version of the essay with his book Vien tik zuikiai naktyje. Sara Poisson’s second book of essays Grožio mašina was an unforeseen stunner: it contains some good essays—I would like to single out the one about the unknowable and unretouched Vilnius spreading beyond the rail tracks and the safety of the Old Town. The essays on the author’s relation with literature are also worth mentioning.

4. Texts unconstrained by trends: every year there are books that defy the fashions and trends of that particular year. They are simplygood, unique works by well-known and prominent literary figures. They are always accompanied by the opposing flows of popular literature—novels that do not compete for the textual and stylistic quality of elite literature.

Thus, when thinking about this out-of-trend group of 2016, I see the novel Vyno kopija by Kęstutis Navakas, a famous poet and the laureate of all major Lithuanian literary prizes. The novel stands out for the unconscious and intricate fabric of its text: its plot resembles a dotted line and is packed with quotations from basically all literary genres, world music, cinema, and literature classics, with constant replays of a vast diversity of myths, symbols, and awareness.

The sixth novel by Sigitas Parulskis,one of the most outstanding contemporary Lithuanian prose writers, Nutylėtų lelijų miestas, also fits into this category. The author says that this novel is like a farewell to adolescence that can be attributed to the first flow of the novel, which abounds in unfounded expressions of carnality. It is covered up by the extremely strong second line of the novel about the past (the novel consists of two parallel narratives, a structure known to readers of Diary of a Bad Year by J. M. Coetzee). The story of the father and the son, which becomes the main part of the stories of the past, is probably the key element of the novel and a key to understanding the text.To put it simply, Parulskis is being Parulskis, like never before and like always.

 

Beyond Trends and Lists

In my own view, last year was the year of the novel even if it occupied modest positionsin the list of twelve. However, I cannot deny the presence of really good books of poetry.However, there was no such prominent poetic breakthrough as, for example, in 2014. At least I did not see it last year. Of all the poetry books that appeared in 2016, I would single out Eidrigevičius’s narrative poem Gaidžio giedanti galva, Kazlauskaitė’s Singerstraum (at the same time admitting that I personally find her earlier book, Meninos, stronger), Gintalas’s Adatos (the poet’s second collection that appeared nine years after his first book Boa), and Tomas Venclova’s Eumenidžių giraitė. On the other hand, it is obvious that, unlike in 2014, there was no shortage of novels as Lithuanian prose abounded in them last year.

I think that the last year was good, just as good as a literary year should be. You can always find that something is missing but, on the other hand, these novels appeared and the wait for their release was filled with expectation and intrigue: Rimantas Kmita’s Pietinia kronikas and Tomas Vaisieta’s Orfėjas, kelionė pirmyn ir atgal (Orpheus, a Return Journey). These are texts that make you read, think, laugh, and disagree. In 2016, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė completed her tetralogy Silva rerum, an indisputable favorite among the readers. The prose writer Valdas Papievis was awarded the National Culture and Arts Prize. And yet, for many a reader one of the most interesting texts was not literary fiction but a proof of life—the historian Aurimas Švedas’s book of interviews Irena Veisaitė: Gyvenimas turėtų būti skaidrus (Irena Veisaitė: Life Should Be Transparent) in which he talks to Irena Veisaitė, who is one of the most outstanding twentieth-century Lithuanian cultural figures, a German philologist, a theater critic, and a long-standing chair of the Open Society Fund Lithuania. The story of Veisaitė’s life covers the key turning points of the twentieth century: the interwar years, an escape from the ghetto, experiences of the Holocaust, occupation, and the Soviet period, as well as her curiosity and desire to build a free and independent Lithuania. Thus life should be transparent and sometimes can be more interesting than literature, but the latter should also retain its qualities: literature should be interesting, inspiring, searching, revealing, and surprising, provoking the reader to disagree and rethink. It should not necessarily be transparent: more importantly, it must be open to new ideas, creative, top-quality, and riveting.

 

1. The beginning of the 90s in Lithuania sometimes is referred as “gariūnmetis”.  Gariūnai market, located around 20 minutes outside the city center was one of the biggest outdoor markets in Baltic States. One could get everything there (cheap and of bad quality).

 

 

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