Photo by Monika Požerskytė, courtesy of Lithuanian Culture Institute

Interview by Jurga Tumasonytė



Prose writer Undinė Radzevičiūtė’s debut in the literary field was marked by her novel Strekaza (2003). An unconventional author incomparable to other Lithuanian writers, she instantly received glowing reviews by critics and a wide readership. Her novel Žuvys ir drakonai (Fishes and Dragons) was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature in 2015. Her fifth book, Kraujas mėlynas (Blue Blood), was published this year. With her usual humour and style, she tells the story of a dangerous and ambitious aristocratic family living across the border of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania during the Middle Ages.

JT Your most recent novel Blue Blood starts with a backstory–the beginning of a search for ancestors from Courland. You deliver the story of the women of your family who snort about “Undynė not giving a whit” about the history of the family, as well as the crows that you’ve encountered at the Tallinn writers festival. When one of the crows that had been sitting in the trees flew at your head, protecting a hatchling lying on the pavement, the birds reminded you
of your family’s coat of arms that depicts three jackdaws. Can you remember the backstories of your other books and if so, what are they?

UR Most of my books have to do with the places I live in. I’ve lived in Vilnius’s Chinatown for seven years. It was there that I started writing Fishes and Dragons, a book about eighteenth-century Jesuit missionaries in China. My books are usually about something I find very interesting or very important; I suppose you could say every book is another part of my inner biography.

JT The period depicted in Blue Blood transports the readers to the fifteenth century. You mentioned in an interview that the principal material you were collecting included “the Livonian chronicles, the Order’s statute, a list of Baltic nobility, works by historians on the history of Livonia and the Borch (Burg, Borg) family, information from the electronic archives, information gathered by communicating with other people searching for their Borchian origins, and, eventually, knowledge about surviving Livonian castles.” After that, you did detective work. What facts, perhaps unused but delightful or disappointing nonetheless, have remained off the record in your book?

UR There are not too many facts on one specific family from the fifteenth century and therefore I used everything I found. However, I found something related to my childhood while researching the material on the Borchs.
Back when I was at school, there was a rumour that our geography teacher was déclassé and her family deprived of a mansion. During the Soviet times, senior students would be sent away to do some work for a month in a work and recreation camp every summer to help the farmers in the countryside, and there we’d live in a mansion nationalized by the communists from our geography teacher.
Our teacher was large, clumsy and had a single dress in khaki that she would wear every day like a uniform. She would often walk backwards during the lessons, and once, as she was approaching me backwards, I ostentatiously imitated a slap with my hand. Right at that moment, she stepped back, and I happened to slap her for real. Across the most indecent of places.
And nobody punished me, because everyone to whom I had to explain what I did would have a big laugh and send me to someone else so that they’d decide what to do with me.
More than 30 years later, collecting material on the Borchs and investigating the castles of Livonia, I found the medieval castle that used to belong to the family of our geography teacher, and I cried.

JT The code of thinking of medieval people probably differed greatly from ours – what challenges have you faced while interpreting the facts you collected?

UR Not so much a code of thinking than a way of thinking. If a modern person wants peace, that means that they don’t want war, and that’s not necessarily the case with a medieval person. Judging from the Livonian chronicle, the Master of the Order wants war and peace in almost equal measure. Or, for example, the master admits that the war was wrong, not bellum justum, and then punishes everyone who didn’t take part in the war and takes away their land. Logical reasoning would be taught at the universities in the Middle Ages. And someone who has graduated from university could hold a high position: to become a bishop or a counsellor of a ruler.
And facts are not difficult to interpret. It’s the blank period between the facts that’s difficult to interpret. Let’s say that a promising baron in Livonia marries a princess of a fallen empire, and in a year, one of the wedded couple dies on a remote Greek island. It takes nearly half a year to travel from Livonia to that island. What happened? Why did one of the couple suddenly turn up on a remote island after the wedding? You need the imagination of a detective in cases like this.

JT At the end you state that Aunt Liucina will probably not be pleased with the novel: “Much better for everyone in that book to walk in white clothes with ostrich feathers in their hats, ride in circles around the lake, and dance and sing.” There’s no sentimentality in your novel. Why, without a trace of scruple, have you depicted the leading character Bernhard von der Borch as an ambitious villain? Why haven’t you provided him with more honesty or compunction?

UR You are looking at the character through the eyes of a modern person. He was not a villain but someone with a vision, and for that vision, he could do anything and sacrifice anything. From the perspective of a medieval person, his crimes are not that bad.
And as for the compunction… It’s something a modern person feels, and a medieval person had an immense feeling of guilt created by Christianity. The leading character Bernhard von der Borch has that very strong feeling of guilt.
And he repents all the time.

JT Before taking on the archives, what meaning did your family’s story of you being descended from barons have to you? And how did it change after all the work with the historical material and the reconstruction of events, turning them into literature?

UR My family’s story about the decline in status of my great-grandparents always sounds very sad and very funny at the same time. This humorously sorrowful story can be read in its entirety in the prologue of the book Blue Blood. And when I took on the historical material, I was overcome with different emotions entirely. It was a great surprise and horror.

JT Do you think that Eastern Europe still exists with its specific experiences and literary traditions?

UR I can’t say anything about Eastern Europe’s specific experiences and literary traditions, because I live in Northern Europe. In Lithuania.

JT What traditions and rituals are important in your life?

UR Only that of drinking tea. Although it is said that rituals create a sense of security, they also very clearly set the limits of a person. And limits are the least desirable thing for a writer.

JT You have just finished reading the English translation of your novel Fishes and Dragons. Have you found sentences you would say are untranslatable into that language? I’m also curious how you reacted to other translations of your work – did you have to do a lot of editing?

UR A pleasant thing: everything I wrote was possible to translate into English.
An unpleasant thing: certain rules of sentence structure exist in the English language, and a poetic text almost begins to seem like a factual one when you stick to them. Various additional little words and articles appear and they look like these linguistic parasites in a sentence. They disrupt the rhythm of a sentence and destroy its beauty.
I conversed a lot with the translator Romas Kinka, and I think the English translation will be very close to the Lithuanian original. Ninety-eight percent, I think.
I haven’t read the German translation of Fishes and Dragons, because I only know five words in German and they better not be said out loud. In cases like this, all you can do is trust the translator.
And the Estonian publishers surprised me. They translated the book straight from Lithuanian, and the editor revised the text with a German translation beside her to be able to compare.

JT What are your impressions of the communication with readers and publishers abroad?

UR Those with readers and publishers – pleasant. And the journalists surprised me. Especially the German ones.
Not the journalists themselves, perhaps, but their questions:
Don’t you think Lithuania’s military budget is too large? What is your opinion on Trump’s election? What emotions do the nineties provoke in you? How would you advise Angela Merkel?
No, that last question was meant not for me but for another writer.
“In truth, I am apolitical,” I tell the German journalists. “Every kind of politics is a temporary thing, while an artist looks for eternal, fundamental things and wants to talk about them. Nothing can be more dangerous for an artist than to become an instrument of state or political power.”
“I can’t restrain myself from asking,” a German journalist working in Switzerland tells me. “Are you going to write a book about Jews?”
I’ll give you three guesses what I said to him.

JT Is the term “women’s literature” acceptable to you, and why?

UR I can’t answer this, because I’m interested, exclusively, in men. In the broad sense of the word. As men, as writers, and as characters. In Blue Blood, out of 50 characters 45 are men, 2 are cities, one is a country, and only two women.
And they are princesses themselves.

JT You have mentioned humour being one of your principal weapons. When was the last time you had to use it?

UR When both aunts to whom the book Blue Blood was dedicated refused outright to come to my fiftieth birthday.
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