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Kęstutis Navakas is an aesthete, poet, essayist, and—since this year—a novelist. His surrealist texts based on free association and word play resemble dreamlike mazes that you do not really want to find a way out of. Space, time, epochs—everything is interlaced. Real personalities, literary personages, fiction—everything and everyone are witty, never short of words, and take pleasure in their right to exist. The readers must just accept the rules of the game and enjoy themselves. Oh, and they must not to attach labels, either to the author or on his works—they do not stick to these texts.

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Graphic Novels

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by Elžbieta Banytė

 

Kęstutis Navakas, Vyno kopija, Vilnius, Tyto Alba, 2016

Navakas review02

In Lithuania, Kęstutis Navakas is something close to a cultural institution: a laureate of numerous prizes, the National Culture and Arts Prize among them, a member of various juries, a literary critic, and a translator. He writes almost everything one can imagine: essays, poetry, humorous texts, and something resembling satirical poetic dramas. Now the time has come for a novel. Probably only a person of such mastery and talent can play this orchestra of genres, intonations, ideas, and intertextuality.

“Orchestration” is, I think, a very apt word to describe Navakas’s literary games. And the instruments are abundant: active in this text are the intertextuality of arts, cinema, and literature, and jokes from the Facebook page in which Navakas lives a life parallel to “real” life, so the music score must be created and inner structures highlighted with utmost care. To prevent this medley from becoming meaningless schizophrenic chaos, the scores must be polished with a jeweler’s precision and a theme for each of the instruments be defined.  Still, the result resembles Schnittke’s First Symphony: at first, it is clear that nothing is clear, but internal structures prevent the text from falling apart into unrelated fragments. And that is why reading Vyno kopija is on par with listening to a concert of complex classical music: one must rush headlong into it, preferably without clicking on the pause button; otherwise some phrase might remain loose and disconnected, and a peculiar “black hole” will open, will suck the intensity out of the text and will leave the reader with the impression of chaotic water. 

What is this novel about? Hard to say. The main character K. returns to earth for one day after his death and his adventures expand the field of themes to infinity. It is a book about everything and about nothing.  A little bit about Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania that constantly makes its presence in Navakas’s texts—this time it is an abstraction in a dream. The book is also about existence in a text: is it more real than being in the world? Or is the world just one huge text in which somebody records us and keeps re-recording? It is about the essence of textuality. Does a text exist? Is there something beyond? Does the main character exist? What can we consider existence in a text? The novel is therefore plaited with numerous threads. There is nothing non-textual or beyond-textual in it. All that is said in Vyno kopija has been said somewhere else or at least points to another text of some medium; in other words, everything is copied (or maybe appeared in a vivid dream caused by wine or even opium intoxication?).

Facing such literary intoxication, you no longer know what to do. The epigraph of the novel features—not by accident—Baudelaire’s famous dictum, “intoxicate yourself, unceasingly intoxicate yourself.” However, here the novel extends help and proudly offers a piece of advice: “When you no longer know what should be done, all you have to do is to go to bed or quote something” (p. 138).  The first part of this advice comes from Jewish folklore, and the second from literature. Because, as the author says at the very end of the novel, “literature is exceptional only to the extent that it can be quoted” (p. 196). If somebody put their mind to deciphering all the references to art, cinema, and literature which are generously placed throughout the text, they probably wouldn’t be bothered after a while and abandon the task.  Or they would realize, halfway, that not all the quotations are of equal weight: there are some which trigger an amused chuckle but do not carry a structural meaning. They, too, point to a certain cultural layer—that other, elitist, not of the Harry Potter, Twilight, or Batman type, although some elements of pop culture emerge occasionally. But what is more important is why and what is quoted.

It is not hard to realize that this novel is an obvious example of postmodernism leaning towards the avant-garde. Deconstructed linear narrative and traditional space-time are a factor: the character can teleport himself, travel through time, and even return from death for one extra posthumous day of life. How many times have we heard that any end is the beginning of something else? The key quotations are recurring, for example, from Thelma and Louise, The Odyssey, or Gantenbein. They place landmarks in K.’s chaotic path. Incidentally, K. is not only a reference to Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle (K. is the main character in both of these novels), but the first letter of both the author’s name and of Kafka’s surname.  This could also be one argument why Vyno kopija is not necessarily a two-hundred-page-long joke (although nothing prevents us from reading it in this way). On the deepest level it is an essay-like reflection about the individual’s inner side: imagination, the desire to play, arts, music, literature—culture in the most general meaning—indeed shapes a person and protects them from spiritual death.  That is probably why K., whose “genuineness” or “existence” in the context of this novel should bother us, returns to Estera from all of his adventures (it is not clear whether they weren’t just a dream) and, as always on weekends, is getting ready to go to the market to buy herring, cheese, and vegetables.  

It is therefore obvious that postmodernism in Lithuania is still alive and at times explodes in an intoxicating avalanche, mimicking wine’s ability to get us drunk, leading readers into the jungle of intertextuality, filling their heads with games, puns, ramblings with existential aftertaste, in short, with a carnival in which everything is constantly changing.  Kęstutis Navakas admitted that Vyno kopija can be encapsulated in a four-page story because on the level of ideas, it would not suffer much. Still, as I have already mentioned, it is not who/what, but how and why that matters. Such books invite you to play and complete an intellectual puzzle: they won’t tell you a story, won’t make you cry, and won’t make you reflect on things.  Irony and the never-ending act of quotation—the (dead?) echoes of dead words by dead authors—distance the reader from the text to the extent that renders talking of “empathy” or “identification with” pointless.  You either enjoy the text or hate it, and it is up to the reader whether he or she will venture to play the proposed game.

We might think that postmodernism has run out of steam in the West, that games of this sort bore everybody out of their minds and a basis is again being sought in reality, but in Lithuania “everything is late as always.” Such whimpering arises from the failure to understand that for a long time our socio-cultural and political conditions differed from those in the West, and that is why we haven’t played our literary games to the fullest extent.  These games are essential because they test the Lithuanian language. For example, I could never imagine that Dodekaedras could be a character’s name. It turns out it can, at least in a novel like Vyno kopija. To be honest, I keep grumbling that Lithuanians “can’t stop playing” and “don’t say anything” but these are addressed to all sorts of the nurturers of newspaper puns whose main principle of aesthetics is “the sillier the better” and who stuff language with anything they find simply because they cannot keep it under control. On the other hand, it is not at all relevant whether the text is about Aunty Mavis’s hardships or about K.’s schizophrenic posthumous day: what matters is that it is written with talent. That is how Vyno kopija is written.

We could complain that Lithuanians are incapable of designing a decent classical narrative: everything is poetic, lyrical, blurred, wilted, soft, and slobbery; there is no plot, there are only characters’ feelings and descriptions of the setting (terribly poetic, too), and therefore unbearably boring. And again, Navakas has written yet another piece of nonsense and has revealed nothing. He hasn’t, because this book is not about telling things. Also, it can only be called a novel because the novel as a genre is the most undefined of all: you can put into it almost anything that is of more extensive volume and not rhymed. 

In the words of the main character of Fight Club, “everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy. The insomnia distance of everything, you can’t touch anything and nothing can touch you.” I would like to replace the word “insomnia” with “wine” and wish the readers a good intellectual read in which “spiritual contacts” can hardly be expected, but the intellectual pleasure will be there if only we allow ourselves to feel it.
  

 

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