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reflections on belonging

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Editorial

Warm greetings to all of you, our critical readers and charitable critics. More than once I’ve been asked (as I’m sure all of you have as well): Where can I read your poetry? Your prose? Who are your most interesting writers? What is Lithuanian literature like? What is most important to the writers in your country?

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Editor's word from the new issue:

 

Warmest Greetings,
Our dear and, I hope, faithful readers – this is now the third Vilnius Review, the English anthology of Lithuanian literature. I have collected here the most interesting and diverse literary work of the past year – and this was a truly international year for Lithuanian literature. The Baltic countries (including Lithuania, of course), were the market focus guests of the London Book Fair. For this occasion, more than twenty books by Lithuanian authors were published in the UK, as well as various anthologies and collections. Most of the work in this journal has not been published in book form in English. Therefore, I hope the samples of poetry and prose presented here will interest not only readers but possible publishers as well.

This time, the anthology opens with prose – an extract from Pietinia kronikas [Southside Chronicle], the first novel by Rimantas Kmita, a poet, essayist and literary scholar. This novel, a coming of age story set in the 90s in Šiauliai during the time of “wild capitalism”, became a sensation, selling a record number of copies for a novel. Written in the dialect of Šiauliai, in informal speech peppered with swear words, slang and other, not always politically correct, language and themes of the time. According to the critic Virginija Cibarauskė, “The protagonist’s teenage years coincided with the teenage years of the whole of Lithuania as an independent state in its transitional stage, a trajectory that began with it being like everybody else and led to its discovery of its own uniqueness.” On top of that, the novel is genuinely funny, and that is a rarity under the rather gloomy skies of Lithuanian fiction.

Kmita’s novel echoes the themes of the extract from Lietuviškos apybraižos [Lithuanian Sketches] by the renowned writer Herkus Kunčius. This novel is also set in the time of “wild capitalism”, but with the surprising addition of the Princess of Monaco. Her strange and macabre adventures in Lithuania are described in a dry, somewhat sardonic, style. The reader meets a whole gallery of motley personalities (some real, some invented) that populated those times: marketplace sellers, artists, mafiosi… The critic Ramūnas Čičelis claims that in this novel, “Kunčius tells the history of Lithuania from the 18th century until the end of the 20th century. It is told through accounts of various foreign rulers' visits to Lithuania, where they experience a kaleidoscope of adventures and witness what Lithuania is like. The paradox is that all these guests of the author's homeland originate from countries that at different times either occupied Lithuania or sought to do so. Lithuanian Sketches presents a classic example of postcolonial literature.”

An entirely different kind of fiction follows this – an extract from the novel Šulinys [Well] by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė. The book is based on real and horrible events in Lithuania’s recent history – a mother threw her child into a well. Nevertheless, this is not a novel of rigorous realism. Černiauskaitė is an excellent stylist, her writing clear, lyrical, and full of Proustian deviations. She does not condemn her main character, but tries to understand. She perfectly captures the provincial atmosphere of longing, including its beauty, and she masterfully intertwines the relationships of the people there. According to the critic, Lina Buividavičiūtė, “what I found the novel speaking about most clearly has already been covered and depicted in literature. It is trauma that, constantly changing, reaches across several generations – trans-generational trauma. It is parents who grew up in the dark and pass the darkness onto their children. Parents who are trying to nurture the light. This involves encounters, intersections, non-meetings between the shadowy side and the predominant aspects of the personality, the fragile balance between good and evil.”

The life of contemporary thirty-somethings is reflected in the latest novel by Gabija Grušaitė. She writes of the Instagram generation traveling freely over the globe – everything is within reach for them, but the search for freedom and happiness has become a routine. Grušaitė’s characters meander from New York to Thailand, from Thailand to Malaysia, but everywhere they are followed by their own inner emptiness, the meaninglessness of their lives. Certainly, there have been plenty of similar novels written these days, but as I said in my review, “what makes Stasys Šaltoka different? A particular, hardly perceptible (but perceptible nevertheless) Eastern European melancholy; and practical common sense (not to be mistaken with cynicism!) accompanies the ability to see behind the mask of social media. (...)The author manages to illustrate the twenty-first century games that we call life – playing with surfaces and constructed virtual identities where people don’t die but fall out of context to be immediately forgotten. Her characters are not attached to anything: they’re free of commitments and not troubled by lack of money, and their home is the entire world, or better said – everywhere is the same for them. They are consumers and quick-consumption media-product producers.”

The essay form is represented by a sample from Giedra Radvilavičiūtė’s new book Tekstų persikiojimas [The Persecution of Texts]. The Lithuanian essay is a strange bird: it combines both reality and fiction; it is more reminiscent of a short story or novella than a real, classical essay. The literary scholar Rima Bertašavičiūtė discusses what makes this kind of Lithuanian essay unique: “intertwining autobiographical details, contexts and wordplay often make these essays difficult to translate, and even translated they are not easy to read. Most of these essays – and especially those written by Radvilavičiūtė – create a literary self-portrait, establishing an identity whose life is inseparable from texts. (...) Radvilavičiūtė’s essays prove that storytelling and discussing ideas are not two separate literary genres, as many would say. They are both methods of world cognition, determining each other’s possibility. If you’re capable of telling a story, you’ll be capable of reasoned argument, or perhaps your story will become your argument. And this is indeed a modern approach, suiting the twenty-first century – an age of PR, ads, and ‘little’ histories.”

This year’s poetry is no less varied than the prose – from the classical texts of Aidas Marčėnas and Kęstutis Navakas, to the debut poets. First-time poets were quite interesting this year. One of them was Parisian resident Karolis Baublys. There are not many LGBT authors in Lithuania, so Baublys’s Geležinė vėjarodė is rather unique. The ornamental, somewhat baroque and aestheticized poems call to mind the writings of earlier Lithuanian emigre poets such as Nyką-Niliūnas and Algimantas Mackas. According to the critic, Virginija Cibarauskė, “The Iron Weathervane is a deeply conceptual book that deals with both the history of masculine desire and its various forms, and the history of its genesis (…) masculinity is seen as a problematic, complex phenomenon, encompassing both individual psychological aspects and cultural contexts.”

Another notable debut was the winner of the First Book Contest, Greta Ambrazaitė. Her poems are intense, personal, expressionistic, and contain surreal motifs. Her work concerns itself with the dis-harmony between the surface of the world and inner experience, or inner life.

Another Vilnius Review poet contains within both an inner man and an inner woman. Dainius Dirgėla’s internal monologues and dialogues are witty and full of contemporary detail. They shine a light on all the difficulties and absurdities of the contemporary world, questioning stale familial and societal roles.

This year’s anthology also contains a generous serving of specially commissioned essays for the Vilnius Review from the section called “Reflections on Belonging”. Lithuanian writers and writers of Lithuanian origin have been writing about literature, translation, language, gender, identity and belonging. Are we, as poet and translator Rimas Uzgiris puts it, "post-colonial, post-identity, post-home"? Or do we belong somewhere? Is language our only home? What does it mean to write – in one language, in two, in several languages? What is lost in translation? How does mobility and migration affects our life and literature? These and other themes are reflected on by different writers, translators and essayists. The present journal contains the thoughts of Agnė Žagrakalytė, Antanas Šileika, Sandra Bernotaitė, Rimas Uzgiris and Paulina Pukytė.

One more thing to look for in this anthology is the interview with translator and erudite, Romas Kinka, resident of London.

Finally, the reader is invited to get to know two extracts from new graphic novels: Miglė Anušauskaitė’s witty and catchy tale of the French and Lithuanian semiotician Algirdas Julius Greimas, and the sensitively told story of one of Lithuania’s most painful historical episodes – exile to Siberia – by Jurga Vilė and Lina Itagaki.

To the discovery of something new – happy reading!

Marius Burokas
Editor in Chief
Vilnius Review

 

 

 

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