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Danutė Kalinauskaitė is not a prolific author. So far, she has published only three books, but each of them was an event in the literary life of Lithuania and won various awards. Her novellas are dense and packed with images, fragrancies, scenes, and cultural quotations. Kalinauskaitė is one of the most masterful storytellers and an accomplished stylist whose language is thoroughly enjoyable. Her narrative, which is vivid, precise, polished, and abounding in cultural quotes, is regularly interrupted by witty sayings coming from different social groups, slang, sarcasm-tainted mass media clichés, and specific terms (of botany, medicine, and sewing).

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Danutė Kalinauskaitė Skersvėjų namai. Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2015.

Skersveju namai 2Danutė Kalinauskaitė is one of the most interesting contemporary Lithuanian prose writers. The author of three books, she combines the features of essay writing and the Lithuanian school of the short story and is recognized by her original style.  Although her latest book Skersvėjų namai (The Home of Droughts, 2015) consists of nine different short stories, the characteristic aspects of her creative work can be spotted in a single text.

Unlike in her previous highly acclaimed book Niekada nežinai (You Never Know, 2008) in which Kalinauskaitė focused on loss, in this book her emphasis moves to the experience of the present.  Family structure is indicated by the person themselves: it is the individual who has next of kin yet is separate and responsible for their own existence and for themselves as a home. This condition is familiar: it matches the view of the contemporary world when the hierarchies break down, authorities falter, and even the variable truths are thrust onto individuals. Possibly for this reason the individuals depicted in Skersvėjų namai are neither weak nor strong—they are constantly tested. The text is about the overcoming of these trials and the pull of danger. In this case, Kalinauskaitė’s book seems to recommend lingering over and reading intellectual, aesthetic, and attention-demanding texts.

Her work resembles a plant running wild. In simpler terms, what interests the author is not what happens, but how it happens. In the reader’s eyes, the text is filled not so much by the development of the plot as by somewhat unexpected additional layers. This is most obvious in the short story “Nekalčiausia archeologija” (The Most Innocent Archaeology): the narrator finds a shopping list in her shopping basket from which she gradually creates a story until at last the plot draws near to the narrator, as though replicating Cortazar’s short story “Continuity of the Parks.” In Kalinauskaitė’s words, the leaning towards “populating a shard-like home” finds a reflection in other short stories, too.  She elaborates on the ties of kinship which, it seems, do not have any connection with the plot; for a short time, the reader is transferred to different spaces and times, while one object is capable of telling a story. The author uses the rich context to put together a multi-directional picture.  Her strategy is to divide a detail into its constituent parts or to offer various story-expanding interludes as if they were independent events.  They constantly create and suggestively define their relation with the environment and the individual, and this makes the present time of the short story quite special.

Another outstanding quality of Kalinauskaitė’s writing is the depth of her texts. The readers of the short story “Dryžuoti” (Striped) will experience it. The backdrop for the central event is clear and moderate: a husband and a wife receive a visit from their relative, Janas, who has a criminal record. Charged with anxiety, the atmosphere of the short story makes the reader suspect that the long-unseen stranger has evil intentions or even brings a disaster home.  However, the impression is also created that two things are important—what might happen (breaking routine, make an introvert lose his patience), and what is already happening without any additional reason. It is a dynamic micro-world of sensitive, nuanced sensations: “scent […] a cantankerous thread twisting and turning from the ashtray day after day, which weaves a thin cloth, no, wait, it’s more like it’s fashioning a hard inner shoe sole made of loneliness.”

Skersvėjų namai make it obvious that a text is a spacious stage for cognitive perception—the world pours from the eyes. It is as though daily life is limited and imagination is “switched on.” Semantic qualities, which enable psychological characterization and contribute to the existential potential of the text, are also relied upon. Thanks to that, the striped furniture at home can mean prison stripes or the secret of the treasure from The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov, while the individual sitting on that furniture may turn either into a plaintiff or a defendant. The experience of such writing is close to the Lithuanian school of aesthetics in which the structure is motivated by elements that are distant at first glance, yet offer a text that is open to different interpretations at the same time.

Kalinauskaitė has many requirements for a prose text. According to her, “the reader’s goose bumps and tingling under the fingernails” have an impact on good literature. In Skersvėjų namai, this dramatic effect is achieved by linguistic expression. For instance, characters are mostly described not by their appearance but by the manner of their communication: uttered at the right moment, a word not necessarily found in a standard dictionary may be an important clue. In Kalinauskaitė’s text, language plays a role in revealing the power of the metaphor: it acts as a link between the sphere of the high authenticity of everyday speech and the sensation of some different world that is created by the narrator’s voice.  Probably that is why the critics draw a connection between the more abstract relationship with reality in Kalinauskaitė’s text and magical realism.  No matter what, the whole looks recognizable, but it seems more majestic and elevates the reader above the mundane and the banal. It accommodates both a soldier of Napoleon’s army and the modern individual.

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