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Sigitas Parulskis is one of Lithuania’s most fêted and influential contemporary writers. He is a Lithuanian poet, playwright, novelist, and literary critic. Parulskis is ironic, critical, and often very provocative. He likes to explore the trauma experienced by Lithuanians of his generation, who grew up under Soviet rule and came of age during the country’s transition to independence. The less brutal and more beautiful side of his writing explores the loneliness of being human and the nature of reality with unsurpassed sensitivity and depth.

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by Elžbieta Banytė

 

Sigitas Parulskis. Nutylėtų lelijų miestas, Vilnius: Alma littera, 2016

Nutyletu leliju miestas 2

At the Vilnius Book Fair launch event of Sigitas Parulskis’s latest book, Nutylėtų lelijų miestas (The Town of Unspoken Lilies), the literary scholar Jūratė Čerškutė said, “Sigitas Parulskis no longer needs to be introduced.” “But why?” the ironic author was quick to interrupt. “No one ever introduces me anymore. I would quite enjoy hearing a list of my achievements.” Only a fool or a person with no sense of irony (sadly, I have noticed that these qualities tend to double up and to complement each other) would take everything Sigitas Parulskis says or writes seriously. However, you have to admit that there are few other writers who are so prominent and well known to everyone, from grade school students to pensioners, as Parulskis: a poet, essayist, author of novels and short stories, and a laureate of the Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts. On the other hand, sometimes a famous name can overpower the relationship with his works. Nutylėtų lelijų miestas is the writer’s nineteenth book, and the internet community has branded it as an “unexpected novel.”  It is time to ask: was it really unexpected?

It seems paradoxical that the unexpectedness of the novel lies in how much readers were awaiting and hoping for it, at least intuitively. This novel represents the best, the most original and the most controversial qualities of Parulskis’s earlier texts. Nutylėtų lelijų miestas is provocative and poetic; it explores the path of God-seeking in a way specific to Parulskis and is psychoanalytically linked with the author’s perpetually discussed topic of the father-son relationship and its problems—all presented with some surprising structural decisions. Nutylėtų lelijų miestas shows two streams of information both in terms of graphic presentation and narrative technique. The top half of the page tells the consistent story of Simonas, a forty-five-year-old intellectual, and of his love and sexuality. Before starting the novel, Parulskis even supplies instructions for reading his book: “This book is made up of two streams of narrative that are graphically separated into the top half and the bottom half. However, there is only one story and the streams should be read simultaneously. They entwine and complement each other and, finally, merge into one.” (p. 5). Thank you, Mr. Parulskis, for the nice instructions, but they do little to ease the reading of the novel: the boundaries of the top stream and the bottom stream do not match, so you keep a finger on the spot where you finished reading the “bottom” and then come back to it once you are done with the “top,” and so on. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t take it too seriously, as Parulskis has admitted that part of his instructions on reading his texts suggests reading while riding a bicycle. In the end, one thing is obvious: the two streams really do complement each other and merge into one. A lot like the postmodern novels of Cortázar or Coetzee, Nutylėtų lelijų miestas is, in a sense, “hypertextual”: you are supposed to follow references, as opposed to the natural flow of the narrative, which leads to a variety of different strategies for reading the novel. The readers become part of the creative process, as they get to choose if they will read the whole top stream or the bottom stream first, if they will read both at once, or read the top first, drifting down to the bottom from time to time, only to read the novel again from the bottom. The text provokes its readers to examine it like a precious stone: studying it from all sides, turning it over, reading and rereading.

Simonas, the protagonist, lives with the talented intellectual psychiatrist Ana and is involved in an affair with his student Salomėja. The affair is purely sexual—Simonas has no interest in her vulgar, teenage essence. He tries to leave her, but Salomėja shrewdly uses him, makes threats and even forces him to bring a car from Amsterdam. As revenge for his unfaithfulness, Ana wants to frame Simonas for murder by attempting to cut the head off a corpse found in the woods. The detective element of the novel brings the first narrative stream closer to the second one at the bottom half of the page. In this half, the reader sees fragments of Simonas’s life which, in one way or another, explain or elaborate on the present narrative moment and the psychological states Simonas experiences in the first stream. According to the literary critic Jūratė Čerškutė, the second narrative stream is more poetic and metaphysical: Parulskis the poet is more prominent that Parulskis the narrator. All of the fragments are concluded with the phrase “That’s what he told me.” From the top narrative stream we know that Ana was Simonas’s psychotherapist, which means the bottom stream reflects what Simonas has told Ana as a woman and a therapist. This duality, as well as Jung’s quote in the epigraph, shows that the text is asking to be analyzed from the psychoanalytical aspect. Ana’s attempt to decapitate the corpse in the top stream corresponds with Simonas’s memories of his father’s murder in the bottom stream. The severed head, from a psychoanalytical perspective, can be linked to the loss of a hierarchy. Once the top of the hierarchy—God, the father, the head—has been removed, Simonas’s life becomes complicated: his relationship ends, he is unfaithful, he immerses himself in drugs and alcohol, and has one one-night-stand after another. In a way, it is an autopsy of a man’s damaged consciousness and subconscious. Not only the information disclosed to Ana (and, in turn, to the reader) is important, but also what has been unconsciously suppressed and is hinted to in references and metaphors (for example, Simonas never mentions his mother; however, once he comes across the headless corpse of his father, he runs to hide in the hollow statue of the Virgin Mary, which is symbolic for a return to the mother’s womb).

As you can see from how long it takes to just briefly summarize the plot and narrative structure of the novel, Nutylėtų lelijų miestas is a complicated text in terms of intertextuality, psychology, reading experience, and style. Issues like the relationship with film (Simonas watches many films and teaches script writing) and Simonas’s search for God and the nature of his sexuality are all worth analyzing thoroughly. The author also admits that there are flashes of his own biography in the novel. You would think that all this would be enough to attract the curious contemporary reader, and yet… Probably because of the dense text and unusual structure, the novel, having been released at the very start of 2016, has not been reviewed by a serious critic. Usually novels by Parulskis, who is one of the most prominent faces in the field of Lithuanian literature, cause a considerable commotion: this was the case with Murmanti Siena (The Murmuring Wall), and especially with Tamsa ir partneriai (The Dark and the Partners), a novel about the Holocaust. The writer has said that his latest novel, which was to be released for his fiftieth birthday, could have become either a monument or a headstone. In my opinion, it is definitely a monument, which merges the ironic, poetic, crass, vulgar, provocative, immune to clichés and sentimentality, and masculinist (one who likes to create a half ironic portrait of an anti-feminist) voices of Sigitas Parulskis. Only an exceptionally talented author can control such a diversity of intonations, images and, finally, lexicons. All that is left is to wish that readers and critics discover and read this novel over a few times and succumb to the provocative game established by the author. That does not mean that you should blindly adore the novel and not question the need to include so much sex, alcohol, and death, but these thoughts are triggered by almost all examples of Parulskis’s work. These are not nice, cozy books: they contain too much flesh, dirt, and marginalized experiences, but at least you can argue and discuss these texts, something that cannot be said about many mediocre novels. Without delving into complex literary theories, we can put it in a very simple way: to the readers, a good book is one that encourages thinking and can break through the shell of everyday life; one whose fragments, images, and phrases haunt readers several days after the novel has been returned to the library; one that stays with the reader a long time after and, finally, invites the reader back into its world. Nutylėtų lelijų miestas is exactly that kind of novel: it encourages the reader to pay attention to both what is written and to what is not written and why and is suppressed. According to Antanas Škėma, the classic writer of Lithuanian literature who emigrated to the USA, “in literature, everything is beautiful, even disgusting things.” So that is what I wish for all the readers of Nutylėtų lelijų miestas—to discover the beauty beneath the repulsive and the vulgar.

 

 

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