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Saulius Tomas Kondrotas was born in 1953 in Kaunas. He graduated from Vilnius university. In 1986 he emigrated to the West. During the years of 2001-2004, he worked as a journalist for Radio Free Europe. Since 2004, he has been living in Los Angeles, California (USA). He published three collections of stories and novels A Glance of the Serpent (1981), And They Will Get Gloomy While Gazing Out the Window (1985). His works has been translated into 20 different languages around the world.

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Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

 

By Saulius Tomas Kondrotas

 

Imagine how the universe comes into being, apparently out of nothing. The first particle pops out of nowhere followed by a huge stream of particles that start interacting with each other instantly, the fields appear, first atoms get born according to physical laws that had never existed before. The atoms clump together led by that same logic, chemical reactions start, molecules emerge, all in colossal quantities, with incredible energy and speed. Pure magic.

I was in the first grade when I discovered our little town had a library. Out of necessity. I was very avid reader from the age of four. My grandma, who was almost illiterate herself, showed me the letters and how they add together to form words. It was like a puzzle at first. You would say a word and try to dissect it into sounds it's made of and then you locate the alphabet letters that match those sounds and (very clumsily) write them down before you forgot. And then when you read the letters you just wrote you got the oral word back in the air. Somehow, it looked like a very rewarding pastime for me, I could do it again and again. After a brief period of time, I was slowly reading simple children books with illustrations, then reading faster and faster, quicker than it would take to pronounce words aloud, I stopped reading separate characters, now I was reading the entire words, getting them imprinted into the brain as hieroglyphs. I loved listening to stories my grandma and other people were telling. Learning to read opened the tremendous basket of them, an endless river. I became an addict.

My parents had some books at home, like a hundred or so, and they were buying books for me at the rate of maybe two per month but, as a reader, I was faster and soon it became clear the river of stories wasn't endless. At grandma's house, I found a bunch of prewar books, I have no idea where they had come from, they were new books, and nobody opened them before me. I knew it because they were uncut and you had to read them with a knife in hand. Their leaves were still joined together at the fold. So I was reading those books with a sharp kitchen knife in hand, fascinating books, Jack London, Jules Verne, Karl May. Nevertheless, this bunch came to an end, too.

What I loved about books was that when you got to reading you just disappeared into the worlds their authors created. You were inside there, unconscious of your body left here turning the pages for you. It was like night dreams when you were fully immersed into action there and didn't remember that, in fact, you were in your bed sleeping. I love movies, too, but when you see a movie once, the next time, if you watch it, you already know what's going to happen, and the thrill is gone. There are a few exceptions, though, I have a few movies that I can watch again and again, like Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, or The Deer Hunter, but these are rare exceptions. With books, no matter how many times you read them, they still are portals into other worlds, every time.

I would read and reread my books, any books I managed to get hold of, for many times. The humongous story that came in four volumes, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, I read seven or eight times. This aspect of books, the ability to reread them and still enjoy, helped to alleviate my cravings but it wasn't a solution. I needed to find a more stable source of books but at such young age my possibilities were quite limited.

As a kid, I wasn't very picky reader. I read pretty much everything that came my way. All sorts of fairy tales, but especially One Thousand and One Nights and Wilhelm Hauff's fairy tales, adventures, American Old West novels, animal stories like Bambi, a Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten, pirate stories, science fiction, fantasy, dramatic and tragic novels, even ancient Greek and Roman translations provided they were not in the form of poetry or theater play. I have tried many times reading the Iliad and the Odyssey and always failed, the form keeps me conscious at all times and doesn't allow to fully submerge in the content. At the most early age, when I was just learning how to read, for this particular reason I skipped all rhymed children books.

I was reading from the moment I woke up in the morning, a book was always near bed. I was reading during meals, during breakfast and lunch, my grandma Isabella wasn't strict about that. If it was sunny outside, I would go out and play with kids or go fishing, or just run with the dogs, and I really enjoyed that, but if it was raining or too cold I would be equally enjoying it, for then I could just stay inside and read my books. At night, reading was a bit complicated because there was no electricity at the time and it was rather dark in the rooms. We had kerosene lamps everywhere - above the kitchen table, some hanging on the walls - but the kerosene cost money so only one lamp was lit, depending on your location, and the light was very dim. Sure it didn't stop me from reading but it was a bid of a struggle and my grandma wouldn't approve it. In her opinion, reading in such a dim light was ruining your eyesight. Eventually, when the time came to me to wear eyeglasses, to her it was a proof she had been right. Who knows?

The library was located on the second floor of a two stories building. The first floor was occupied by the post office and the militsiya, it's how police was called in Soviet times. Militsiya consisted of one heavyset deputy, who was drunk most of the time. He had a pistol and sometimes, when his delirious brain generated criminal chimeras, he would start shooting rounds. Naturally, people were scared and tried to avoid him. The post office consisted of two employees, a woman behind the counter who could help you to make a phone call or to send a telegram, and a skinny man who would ride a bicycle with a bag full of letters. He lived across the road from my grandma's house with his wife and two kids, a girl older than I and a boy who was my age. In those times, there was a custom to serve a shot of vodka to anyone who helped you with something, a handyman who fixed the latch on your door, a neighbor who brought back your stray chicken, and, of course, the mailman who delivered you an important letter. Thus, on numerous days, you could see the mailman sleeping in the gutter in the middle of the day, his bag open, envelopes and small parcels strewn around in the dusty grass.

Short of the drunken militsiya deputy who could shoot you on the way to the library, there was another creepy obstacle I had to overcome. When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, a massive armed resistance commenced. Young patriotic men, but also some women, grabbed whatever weapons they could get and took to the woods in droves to fight the invaders. My mother has told me every single boy from her class at school had gone (to never come back.) The Soviet response was fierce. Russian troops aided by local collaborators (the mailman, our neighbor, was one of them), raided remote villages and farms where the resistance fighters might be given support. Sometimes they would catch the armed men and kill them, other times they couldn't find any culprits and kill innocent to show off, to scare, or just out of drunken rage.

In those times, the photography was a cumbersome business. The camera was a rather big and heavy stationary box not suited to carry around, especially during the cold winter months when there are no roads just snow and ice. Thus, to document their killings and report to their superiors, the soldiers would bring their victims from those distant farms and lay down in the spacious yard of the library building. Then they would stick young fir trees around the dead bodies, as if those were laying in the woods where they found their death, and send somebody for my grandfather half a mile away.

My grandfather Kazimieras was a photographer, perhaps the photographer as there was nobody else doing it in a wide area. In normal times, he was busy taking photos of farmers, their wives and their offspring who came to the market and the church on Sundays. But in those early years of foreign occupation his business was pretty much dead and photographing dead bodies among the fake trees was what's left out of it. He wasn't asked to do it, he was ordered. He wasn't paid for it either. Soon, when the stream of dead bodies stopped and there was nothing left to take photos of, my grandpa was sent for ten years to Siberia, to a labor camp in Vorkuta, supposedly for telling people jokes about comrade Stalin. However, grandma Isabela insisted he just knew too much, an inconvenient witness to those local men who had chosen collaboration. My grandma's attic was full with boxes of glass negatives and prints of those atrocities, gory images of dead people piled among firs. Every time I had to cross that yard to get to the library or the post office, the images of bloodied disfigured men vividly came to my memory as if ghosts of the past were waiting for me there. For some strange reason, as far as I remember, the yard, unlike any other space in town, stayed grey and dusty. Not a flower there or a single blade of grass. Lifeless.

Once I crossed the yard, safely passed the militsiya deputy's room, and climbed the stairs to the second floor, I was safe among shelves full of books. The librarian, a bored elderly woman, would allow me to choose five books every time I came and take them home with me. Folks were mostly farmers and workers in Seredžius. They had no interest in books, neither had their children. Sure, there were a few educated people - a pharmacist, a doctor, and several school teachers - but during those years I never met anyone of them at the library. Not once. It seems I was the only visitor and it's not clear why the library even existed with no demand but those were the times of Communist rule so there must have been some decree from above. Universal education had been one of Lenin's main legacies, fortunately for me.

As time went, I was exhausting the library. The most interesting books, fiction, were consumed first, then went popular mechanics, popular physics, biology, math and similar. The books I was reading became less and less captivating. Works of history, especially Communist party history, written in dull language, memoirs, guides, manuals, self-help, journalism, academic books, I was still reading them however, out of thirst for reading, but by my eleventh birthday I was done with the entire library nevertheless. The last book I read from that library was a treatise written by Aristotle called On the Soul. I will remember that book all my life. It was totally impenetrable for my very young brain, it was a torture, and I couldn't understand pretty much anything. I was rereading chapters in hope the understanding will come somehow but it didn't. I took a heroic effort to continue nevertheless, very slow, but the words didn't make any sense the way they were interconnected. I didn't stop reading it because it was the last book in the library and I didn't have anything else to read. In the end, I gave up finally and read Three Musketeers for the nth time.

During that second part of the library, in spite of mundaneness, I learned a lot. At a certain point, under the influence of various books on biology, I decided I want to be a biologist when I grow up. At the same time I was fascinated about how the cosmic bodies moved and I even filled a notebook with drawings of various orbits. On the front page of the notebook, I wrote the title in all capital letters: TO OTHER PLANETS! I dreamed about space travel and was seriously into jet propulsion. The universe was amazing, the way it worked, all parts of it, the largest and the tiniest, was magic. At night, laying in my bed, I would try to imagine how wast the universe is, endless. That it had no boundaries was very hard to comprehend. I would send my soul onto a flight, with the speed of light and even faster, out there in space and try to reach the end of the universe. I never succeeded. It was a sure-proof method to fall asleep fast.

To this day, I find it the most astonishing that atoms and molecules interact via chemical bonds to form new chemical compounds, that the inanimate elements, minerals, can intricately join together to become organic matter and that, through even greater complexity, the matter can reach the point it contemplates and reflects upon itself. And it was the contribution of a little obscure library in a tiny town in Lithuania that opened my eyes and enabled to see this.

 

 

 

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