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Vidas Morkūnas (b. 1962) is a Lithuanian prose writer, poet, and literary translator. He graduated from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in 1992 with a degree in screenplay writing. He is the author of three short story collections: Manekeno gimtadienis (“The Birthday of a Manequin,” 2001), Reportažas iš kiaušinio (“Report from an Egg,” Lithuanian Writers Union Publishing House, 2012), and Pakeleivingų stotys (“The Wayfarers’ Stations,” Odilė, 2019); Morkūnas is also the author of a collection of poems titled Nekropolių šviesos (“The Lights of Necropolises,” Lithuanian Writers Union Publishing House, 2015). He has translated many books from English, Polish, Russian, or German. Creative works by Vidas Morkūnas have also been published in major Lithuanian literary magazines. He is a member of the Lithuanian Writers Union and of the Lithuanian Association of Literary Translators. Vidas Morkūnas has won several literary awards for his poems and short stories. For his short story Mirtis (“Death”), Vidas Morkūnas received the A. Vaičiulaitis Award – one of the most significant literary awards in Lithuania. Vidas Morkūnas lives in Vilnius, his wife, Anita Kapočiūtė, is also a writer and translator. Together, they have raised three children. The creative works of Vidas Morkūnas are based mostly on the play and possibilities of imagination; the author uses real-life details and enjoys developing context around them.

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

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Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

 

Writer, poet, and translator Vidas Morkūnas could be presented as an author who, on the one hand, is somewhat distant from the Lithuanian literary center (at least in terms of publicity), and on the other, as someone who significantly expands and enlivens the literary field with his uniqueness and individuality. His ability to construct texts, imagination, and a sense of language are undoubtedly worthy of every literary gourmand’s attention.

Your work is characterized by a distinctive, authentic style but also an ability to write concisely, creating microworlds in very short pieces. Still, don’t you think that writing short stories is today “dangerous”? I mean, finding readers for this genre is perhaps even more difficult than for poetry, which is said to have more or less the same number of readers regardless of the country’s size.

“Danger,” I think, lies elsewhere. A writer is as much of an artist as a painter, director, or composer. And an artist shouldn’t speculate about how many audience members his future work will have. I write when I have a good or potential idea, and the goal is always the same—to realize that idea perfectly within my own creative power. I don’t think about the number of readers. Most of the time when I write I don’t even know if I’m going to make it public. So “dangerous,” in my opinion, is not a lack of readers’ attention to the genre, but the thought of that potential attention or neglect. Think of how many masterpieces of art we would have been deprived of if their creators had thought of the future appraisers and audience members. On the other hand, authors who care more about the abundance and opinion of the audience than the quality of the work shouldn’t suffer by writing unpopular short stories or poetry. And I hope they don’t.

I would say that language precision, lexical diversity, and a laconic style are the cornerstones of your work. From where do you learn language? What, beyond reading books and practicing translation, has contributed to the development of your linguistic sense?

I sometimes feel too deeply sunk into the cult of language. For instance, when wandering around a botanical garden I realize that I’m admiring beautiful Lithuanian plant names more than the blossoms or leaves. What my essential foundation of language was, now I can only guess. Probably a diverse linguistic environment. I grew up in Naujoji Akmenė, where the borders of Aukštaitija, Samogitia, and Latvia come together. During my childhood, most of the local population had come from elsewhere—naturally, with their own dialects. There were also prisoners building a concrete factory, and soldiers. Our family interacted with Latvians a lot, and as my parents were pure Samogitians, we were in constant contact with our relatives in Samogitia. So I grew up in a linguistically rich environment. It’s now difficult to trace exactly when I became absorbed in autonomous studies of linguistic potential. They may have been what developed the linguistic sense you mentioned, if I really have one. I enjoyed all kinds of stories—interesting, curious incidents—from an early age. However, it took many years for a certain creative program to develop: to create a textual narrative, not through a simple arrangement of events (they came, they said, they left, etc.), but through syntax and lexicon. This requires a thorough knowledge of the mother tongue, its potential, and its various nuances. And this is why I’m so enjoyably continuing to develop my language knowledge and skills.

Many of the characters in your latest book, Pakeleivingų stotys (The Wayfarers’ Stations), are depressed, victimized, and abandoned by others, as if waiting for something but not getting itlet’s say, “people in the margins.” What attracts you to such characters as a writer? And are they prototypes of people you’ve met or have been close to in reality?

I once heard the legendary theater director Dalia Tamulevičiūtė say to her students: “Only a feverish person is interesting on stage.” I wouldn’t say that I used this phrase as my creative credo, but as you can see, it has remained in my memory. “People in the margins” and marginal situations always interested me. When I encounter such people (not necessarily in person), I soon find inspiration, an opportunity to write, or creative interpretation. It’s like a sudden spark. Sometimes they even seem to deserve to be immortalized in literature. And yet I ask myself: is there a person in this world whose life can’t be portrayed both in one way and another? Both strange, intriguing and a participant in various events, and at the same time as completely boring? Most likely there is no such person. The writer only needs to make the right choice of viewpoint. By the way, I recently picked four art albums off the shelf. It was only later that I realized that two artists had ended up living in a psychiatric facility, one committed suicide, and one was killed by a bohemian lifestyle. So…

Most of the characters of Pakeleivingų stotys have prototypes. This is what the title means—that for me, in my life, those people were passengers. However, it’s true that there are few accurately conveyed situations in the book. Everything’s processed literarily: some circumstances are made up and in some cases adjusted to find the aforementioned viewpoint. The point was not necessarily to depict a particular person, say, a relative, but to find the literary “core” of the intended text. If I failed to find this core, I would give up the character and the writing about them. I also gave up on pieces of writing, albeit with pity, in which I felt unable to obtain a literary quality that would satisfy me.

The stories in this book are organized into certain thematic blocks: bevardžiai (The Nameless), bedugniai (The Abyss Ones), turtingieji (The Rich), raudonkelniai (The Redpants), beginkliai (The Unarmed), etc. What made you choose this way of organizing the stories?

Since the book is about people and their stations, those people needed to be sorted out in some way. I didn’t want them to look like a homogeneous crowd. Chapters, in my opinion, didn’t fit here, so I categorized the characters. Of course, there might have been “Blonds,” “Neighbors,” or something else, but I felt I wanted a bit of metaphor that would expand the space of interpretation.

Whenever I’m placing works into a manuscript or a future publication in the cultural press, I think of Buñuel and Dali. When assembling The Andalusian Dog, they tried to avoid any logic in the sequence of shots at any cost, so that the film had no hint of a coherent narrative. However, we all see that narrative—each of us a different one. I guess this is how a viewer’s or a reader’s consciousness is constructed. When arranging Pakeleivingų stotys, I also tried to avoid the impression of a cohesive narrative, so that no two identical character categories would appear together, and no detail or image would repeat itself fragmentally. But at the same time, I kept in mind that no matter how I arranged it, the reader would still see the whole work in their own way.

There was one story I really couldn’t find a place for in the manuscript. While searching for where to insert it, I detected a curious thing. It turned out that four texts that accidentally ended up next to each other had their characters’ prototypes living in the same quarter of a small town. In the context of the book stories they were almost neighbors. Mysticism? Coincidence? Unknown paths of subconsciousness?

The stories in the book often link the past and the future: some seemingly simple episode directly or indirectly affects the characters’ future, like for the loader Rulis, who’s loading jars of tomato sauce and suddenly drops and breaks one, but the outcome of the scene itself provokes laughter. Immediately, it is suggested that a similar situation will happen many years later, though much more tragic and macabrea scene of betrayal and murder. In this story, the actions of the protagonist seem to be determined by the environment (kad į trinką – lyg tyčia patogiai, tik griebk – bus įkirstas kirvis [...] (“that an axe will be nearby, hewn into a log – so conveniently there, as if on purpose, waiting to be grasped”)), as if there was no alternative choice. Generally, it seems like the fates of the characters in the book are most often predetermined, and they don’t seem able to change anything. Why?

Perhaps such an impression arises because most of those fates have already been realized, completed. If I were writing a longer story, where the character had the space to make a decision, it’s possible they would make it. I repeat: it’s possible. I’m not saying they would choose. However, if you’re asking whether my worldview determines such a direction, I answer, “No.” I don’t think that human destiny is predetermined. Just when writing these texts, such an expression seemed the most appropriate from a literary perspective.

The book is replete with ironic criticism of the Soviet system. For instance, there is one character, Elvyra S., who has been leading morning exercises for employees of a company that manufactures parts for brass instruments her whole life. Her exercises are very specific, as the goal is to play a deer as accurately as possible, imitating animal behavior (the staff does not do as well as Elvyra would like). This personality, I would say, conveys the state of a naïve idealist unconditionally believing in the ideals of the system and denudes the absurdity of their behavior. And while some of the characters in other texts, such as Egmontas Ž., do burst out and say what they really think of the system and their system-loyal colleagues (–Menkystos jūs visi, prisitaikėliai [...] [“You’re all meager little worms, you conformists (…)]), their efforts are useless, and nobody pays too much attention. Are these separate attempts of rebellion really meaningless?

This is a really interesting interpretation. I would, however, like to debate. You see Egmontas Ž. as a rebel, though what I had in mind for him when writing was a hopeless conformist [smiles]. Let us think: a man worked for decades with people that he, as it turns out, despises, and later, when he retires, he’s not at all bothered by accepting tons of presents from them, feasting with them, or listening to their flattery. He only expresses his feelings—and not even by saying them, but by whispering them—before closing the door (that is, he knows that he won’t have to listen to the answer, and he may never see those he finds despicable again; that is, he doesn’t need to be ashamed of those nasty words). Egmontas Ž. only needs that little inner “rebellion” himself—to please his ego, perhaps to calm his conscience. I wouldn’t regard Elvyra S. as an idealist or see her as confronting the Soviet system in any way either; she’s just this measly little lady, for some reason convinced about her genius, deep down probably even happy that everyone around her are “nitwits.” If we were speaking about the Soviet system, I’d say such people were a priori not able to rebel against it. There was a kind of symbiosis: those people fed the system, the system fed them. It’s also very curious that you mentioned these two characters in your example. In the context of the book they were spouses.

One of your most memorable poems published in the book Nekropolių šviesos (The Lights of Necropolises) is a text about home, where “you do not live / only breathe / day and night you cut and you stick […].” The end of the poem sets a hopeful mood, as if liberating from the shackles of daily life, mundanity, and alienation from their surroundings and from themselves, giving perspective and directing them towards the light. Is the subtext of this poem related to religion and afterlife? Or can we understand the end of life to be bright?

Although I do believe in God and am a practicing Catholic, I avoid anything that may sound like a statement of faith or declaration of views in my writing. If I remember the circumstances in which I wrote the text you mentioned, it was led more by intuition, and I didn’t purposely talk about the afterlife. At that time, I wrote quite a few poems about darkness as well. Some of them also appeared in the book. Maybe then I just needed a counterweight, so I was striving for a light in that poem. The understanding of the end of life can be very bright, as long as you’re far from that end yourself [smiles]. It should be the other way around, but unfortunately, the closer the end, the dimmer the light. The body, the moral debts—it’s good if we can at least perceive them. Other earthly weights overpower us, dragging us into to a particular twilight, and probably only a few of us are meant to emerge back into light when the end comes.

At the back of this book you wrote, “To pronounce the world differently. Let it be with a lisp. Let it be with a whisper or a painful sigh. I choose this opportunity for poetry. Not grandstanding pathos.” What do you mean by “grandstanding pathos”? Does this “type of creative work”or rather an artist’s attitudebother you? And do you consciously choose seclusion in the literary field?

“The grandstanding pathos” to me is, if one may call it that, applied literature—literature meant to fight for or against something. Even if the purpose of this fight is the most noble, we shouldn’t take such works very seriously from a literary point of view. When the circumstances are right, they can actually perform some historical function, or one of consolidating society or its individual groups, maybe some other. But when such applied works are included in school textbooks, when they become canonical without any indication that they are purely circumstantial and were needed in certain historical contexts—this, to me, is a sign of a lack of maturity in the general literary field.

If I’m persistently writing commercially unattractive work, only care about its quality, and have no interest in what is relevant to the wider readership, then you could probably say that I’ve chosen seclusion deliberately. On the other hand, I don’t refuse to give interviews, I don’t ask critics not to write about me, and I don’t forbid the dissemination of my books, so perhaps it would be more correct to say that I don’t object to that seclusion. Essentially, it satisfies me.

Some of your stories, in their tone, reminded me of Daniil Kharms and Etgar Keret’s stories. What short prose do you read yourself? Which authors are most influential and interesting to you?

I became fond of Daniil Kharms and other OBERIU writers many years ago when I was working with theater director Oskaras Koršunovas. I read everything by Kharms and his companions I could obtain. This was a unique phenomenon in Russian culture, which flourished—as it sometimes happens in the history of art—in the least favorable conditions. However, I don’t think Kharms or any other OBERIU members influenced me much. The closest and dearest to me are my fellow Lithuanian writers: Ramūnas Klimas, Bronius Radzevičius, Juozas Aputis, Danielius Mušinskas, Saulius Šaltenis, Danutė Kalinauskaitė—they’re all true short story and novella masters. Speaking of other, foreign authors, I once read a lot of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Earlier, I really admired Julio Cortázar, though perhaps his novels more. And Jorge Luis Borges I never particularly liked, even though I probably read all of his creative work. And I do admit that he’s written masterpieces. Many of the authors I read could be mentioned with a good word—Sherwood Anderson, Raymond Carver, and Wolfgang Borchert, among others—but the dearest to me are my own Lithuanian writers.

Maybe ten years ago, while reading short stories by the Serbian writer Goran Petrović, I recognized the metaphorical mindset of the author and found details I already knew— I wrote in a similar way when I was around 30. It was a pleasant, yet somewhat frightening surprise, a strange, mysterious similarity between two completely unrelated authors.

When reading foreign literature, including the works of various prize winners, I often get the impression of a more or less similar style. The subjects, issues, attitudes, and separate details in the works are different, but there is a relatively similar way of structuring the sentence and developing the narrative (I find the works from Eastern and Central European countries, for instance, the works of Polish, Czech, Hungarian contemporary writers more interesting). Is stylistic assimilationif you agree with my assumptionrelated to the process of globalization? What do you think style consists of, and how important is this dimension when you choose what to read or translate next?

I totally agree with your assumption. I don’t know if it’s directly related to the processes of globalization, but mastery in literature, and not only in literature, is devalued. Why? Because mastery, genius, and distinctiveness frighten the average reader (often a snob) who has to buy up the entire print run. Distinctive work is only interesting to a few, while the purchasing mass needs a uniform textual mash. I don’t intend to object to the authors’ right to write such work or to the readers’ to read them. What’s wrong is only that this establishes a universal attitude that literature is nothing but a certain number of words. Some writer who becomes famous all around Europe for a week (yes, I guess globalization it is) may be familiar with their novel’s setting— say, the European Parliament—but asking them about real things in literature, such as syntax, textual organization, or nuances of writing techniques, is pointless. I’m sure they wouldn’t understand what we’re talking about. Why you find more interesting things in the regions you listed, I wouldn’t dare to speculate. It would be very banal, though perhaps the simplest, to think that the writers of those countries haven’t yet been swallowed by the capitalist machine. Especially since I don’t believe such a thing really exists. I keep recalling the very apt rhetorical question of our writer Renata Šerelytė: why do so many people want to be called writers? Obviously, it is a very favorable time for such people. Wrapped up in a kind of illusionary bubble, they travel around the world, present and sign their books, teach others to write, and believe in their distinctiveness, while thousands of others are doing the same. The image is dreadful. As I said earlier, what happens in the text in terms of storyline doesn’t interest  me. Therefore, when choosing what to read, if the author is not very familiar to me, I first check whether their sentence is alive, how it is constructed, whether it contains a certain charge, which I call “internal information.” Style, in my opinion, is a kind of imprint of the writer’s personality in the text. There are many ways in which the personality can be imprinted, but the most important things are the author’s sense of language and ability to use it as a tool.

Of course, translating a stylish text is much more enjoyable and interesting. But when choosing a translation, sometimes there are other criteria to consider: what the publishing house is, how much time I will have to translate the text, how much additional information will be need and so on.

You first write both poetry and prose on paper. Why? Do you think that moving to a digital format would have an impact on your writing process and subsequently on the results?

Indeed, I wrote on paper from an early age, on individual A4 pages. Prose I sometimes write on both sides, sometimes on one, and poetry strictly on one side. This is a very long-standing attitude: one poem occupies one sheet. I only use notebooks to write down fragments, ideas, or metaphors. The work reaches the computer essentially complete, and then only minor corrections occur. It is probably only natural that I choose my creative writing pens very carefully. Certainly, not just any suit me. When I write by hand, I can feel the text better. I get used to it. Also, when writing prose, if I immediately edit something, interchange segments or something, I need to see the previous version—see it crossed out—so sometimes I put arrows or other symbols that are only understandable to me in the text. This makes working on a piece of paper more convenient for me than on a monitor. Yet the most important factor is a deep connection to the piece. If I started typing right away, there would definitely be changes. However, I don’t know which ones. As they say, don’t fix what’s broken.

When I was trying to find information about your first book, Manekeno gimtadienis (The Birthday of a Manequin [2001]), on the Internet, Google hurried to offer me an article called “An Impressive Body Model Celebrates Birthday Naked.”  What’s your opinion about the Internet and its impact on our society? What helps you filter, select, and systemize information?

There are many benefits to the Internet, and only three negative things come to mind: the Internet can be used for criminal purposes, destructive false information can be spread, and it can cause addiction. It is true, however, that these three downsides are extremely dangerous. For me, the Internet is an indispensable source of services and useful information, the ability to acquire anything from anywhere in the world, like a book or album of rare music, as well as the ability to watch animals live or see a recording of a concert or other cultural event. Or behold! When I was writing one text, I necessarily needed to see some of my childhood stuff. I thought it would have certainly forever disappeared in the fog of the past. And that would have been the case, if not for the Internet!

Sociologists could tell you more about the impact of the Internet on society. I will say only this: I hope that the public appreciates the Internet adequately without emigrating to social networks or virtual reality. I know that there are people who hate the Internet and those who worship it outright. Hopefully, these are only rare extremes.

As the years go by, I realize more and more which information I really need and what is simply wastes time. That’s probably what helps me deal with information. Just like the habit of always knowing what’s been put where.

You’ve travelled as far as a creative house in Greenland, and you even had your creative evening there. When and where was this exactly? Did the trip arouse interest in climate change?

After having waited a year and a half for my turn, I spent May 2011 about 700 km north of the polar circle on a tiny island in Greenland. Both the island and the town in it are called  Upernavik. The Town Museum invites artists from all over the world, provides them with a living space for a month, a bunkhouse, heating and water. Travel expenses and meals need to be taken care of by yourself. As I understood it, mostly artists and photographers go there, and writers are less frequent. Before going back home, representatives of visual arts leave some of the works created there for the museum and the town, and I had to “pay” with a creative evening. Getting to Upernavik alone is a serious challenge, not to mention a month in such a spectacular environment. That island is a mountain sticking out of water with an airport runway on the ridge. On three of its sides, Upernavik is surrounded by the identical but uninhabited islands of the archipelago, and the town itself overlooks Baffin Bay, which is in sight of Canada. In the bay, of course, there are icebergs. And in the stores, not only our usual hot buns, milk and potatoes, but also seal, shark, whale meat. What is there to say? I consider this trip a gift of fortune. I didn’t see any obvious changes in the climate then. Or I didn’t recognize them. But I knew that, at the same time, the Arctic Forum on this painful issue was taking place in Nuke, the capital of Greenland, and that Hillary Clinton was participating in it, among others. The trip itself may not have aroused interest in climate change. But understanding how fragile we are after all was more effective than the information offered by the Internet or the media.

 

 

Translated by Alexandra Bondarev

 

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