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Eugenijus Ališanka is one of the most translated Lithuanian poets: he has had more than ten books published in English, German, Russian, and some rarer languages like Slovenian and Finnish. Ališanka travels extensively, often spending time at various writers’ residences abroad and participating in events and festivals. He is also a prolific translator of poetry from English and Polish (selected poems by Tadeusz Różewicz are forthcoming this year), and an ambitious intellectual thinker. He is also a good, thoughtful essayist: he mixes cultural references with travel impressions and writes a lot about literature in the contemporary world as well as the author’s image and self-image.

Biography taken from Lithuanian Culture Institute

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Eugenijus Ališanka, Empedoklio batas, Vilnius, Tyto Alba, 2016

Alishanka review02Eugenijus Ališanka (b. 1960)—a poet, translator, and essayist—stands out in the field of Lithuanian literature primarily because he is not a philologist. He graduated in math from Vilnius University. This aspect is frequently linked to Ališanka’s “intellectualism” or “constructivism” as his texts abound in philosophy, metaphysics, and echoes of literary theories. On the other hand, critics have discerned a growing element of autobiography, which particularly concerns the early twenty-first century, in both his poetry and prose. In Ališanka’s words, “years have been passing by and wisdom or the stupidity of life has been doing its job. [...] I came to be interested in daily things: details and trivia that eventually have come into my writing. One could say I have come to the surface of life. Yet life’s surface should be understood not as superficiality but as a relief. Speaking of depths, you always feel you have lost something because you cannot give it a name, and therefore you walk along bypasses and search for a depth in the signs offered by the surface.”[1] In Ališanka’s latest book of essays Empedoklio batas (Empedocles’s Shoe), it is not the daily minutiae that perform the function of the signs displayed on the surface or the relief of life, but the cultural context that is the foundation of the narrator-writer’s identity.

Ališanka is one of the first in Lithuania who, in the late twentieth century, addressed the then relevant notion of postmodernism. Postmodernism, which is understood as a specific inner condition, is dealt with in the book of essays Dionizo sugrįžimas (The Return of Dionysus, 2001). Postmodernist world perception is linked with the flourishing of chthonic imagination—eroticism, intoxication, violence, the vanishing divide between the subject and the object, and deconstruction of the stable center and of the structures based on oppositions. In Empedoklio batas, too, the multiplicity of meanings and the intoxication it brings about remain among the key aspects of the writer’s artistic world. Autobiographical elements such as travels and participation in poetry events, episodes of daily life, and carnal experiences fuse with intertextual references and result in never-ending chains of associations.

Often, it is a seemingly insignificant object of reality that turns into a source for associations: it may be an event or a phrase once read that suddenly returns to mind. Ališanka’s essays resemble a rhizome because his texts are of a non-linear, ramifying structure. Some current event frequently recalls a text that the author has read, and the latter triggers an episode from the past. Thus something always duplicates and reiterates something else, and this action propels the text forward: “No doubt my story reminds the reader of something, and this story resembles to me the story of Calvin, and to Calvin it recalls Napoleon’s story, which resembles Diogenes’ story, which reminds Diogenes that the world is will and image” (p. 54). One of the most successful examples in the collection of such an intricate text is the fantastic, rambling “Karštis Vienoje” (Heat in Vienna, p. 129–146).

On the other hand, although individual texts are, doubtlessly, extravagant and enriched with unexpected and witty associations, literary allusions, and ironic parallels, even the most surprising move becomes predictable when repeated a number of times, and the game becomes boring. In addition, this strategy is not new in Lithuanian literature. First of all, it should be linked with the so-called school of Šiaurės Atėnai that attracted considerable attention at the end of the twentieth century and whose most prominent representatives were the writers Giedra Radvilavičiūtė, Sigitas Parulskis, Sigitas Geda, and Alfonsas Andriuškevičius, who published their texts in the cultural weekly Šiaurės Atėnai.

Although Empedoklio batas is introduced as a collection of travel essays (the author ironically refers to this genre as “long-distance essays”), the prevailing theme is that of writing about writing. The narrator is not just a traveler, but a travelling writer to whom all experiences are important primarily as material for future texts. Special attention is given to memory, its fickleness, and the impossibility of recording  reminiscences with precision and accuracy. This constantly escalated need to write and the theme of writerly impairment quite often hints at the exaltation of the writer’s profession, or simply monotony.

The title of the book is a reference to the literary biography of the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles. To convince his contemporaries of his immortality, Empedocles jumped into the crater of Etna, but the volcano spat out his sandal and thus “betrayed” the philosopher. In the context of the book this story becomes a conceptual metaphor asserting that the author’s immortality, presumably imparted to him by his texts, is just an illusion: what will survive will be not texts but a shoe, in other words, empirical reality: “Empedocles is right. I am a fool. All that has already happened, and this text with its arms and legs, its words, commas, and exclamation marks hovered in a black hole, w czarnym punktu, even when I was still not present; my love was not enough for it [the text], to live longer than the author. This text will crumble into words, commas, and question marks before the day when I follow Empedocles into the crater and the crater will spit out a shoe. My shoe or Empedocles’s. A shoe cannot vanish completely” (p. 96–97).

Memory is unreliable because often it is difficult to draw the divide between a memory and a dream, a memory and a book read, between the so-called autobiographical experience and narrative structures from cultural memory used to convey this experience. Support for the legitimization of personal experience is sought in canonical literary texts: “yes, a writer is entitled only to his humble story, but what should be done when the story is void of a plot? A fairly good writer borrows, and a very good one steals” (p. 40). The most successful instance of such a “theft” in the collection is the essay “Hakuna matata” (p. 147–222), which consistently demonstrates a total discrepancy between the literature that shapes the expectations and notions of a person of culture and the actual experience. The canonical text-model that Ališanka looks to in the essay is Ernest Hemingway’s novels Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The narrator of “Hakuna matata” is a writer who is about to reminisce about and describe his travels in Africa. Like Hemingway, the protagonist aims at writing “an absolutely truthful work” which could, at the same time, compete with creative fantasy. On the other hand, the experience of his travels in Africa is permeated by constant fantasies about perceived danger and robberies, as well as associations triggered by dreams, films he has seen, and music he has heard. The fragments of the text are separated by quotations from Hemingway’s abovementioned novels. When experiences recorded by the protagonist of the essay and by the American writer are paralleled in such a way, the lack of distinction between them becomes obvious.

Although the protagonist of Ališanka’s essay speaks about a hunt, it is actually a hunt for images and impressions: he is armed with a camera, not with a gun. Thus, unlike in Hemingway’s novels, a “gunshot” for Ališanka’s narrator is just a metaphor. Hemingway’s travelers in Africa experience the feeling of liberation from the clutches of civilization and feel capable of fulfilling the mission of the “real man,” a hunter. Meanwhile, Ališanka’s narrator in the foreign land is oppressed by exhausting discomfort and the feeling of alienation; to him, safari parks, exotic Africa, and the land reservations for the native people are just spectacles intended for affluent tourists. The symbol of the unattainability of Hemingway’s odyssey is the summit of Kilimanjaro the narrator did not see: “At last he sees the location where Kilimanjaro is supposed to loom. He has no doubt it is his last chance, but the damn mountain is enveloped in a black cloud. The sparkling chariot of Helios is passing above them across the clear sky, while the slopes of that damned mountain are flooded by rivers of rain, and instead of disappointment he is overwhelmed by anger” (p. 216). Therefore, unlike Hemingway’s characters for who travels in Africa were a completed trial of initiation Ališanka’s narrator feels not satisfaction but anger, despair, and at the same time, relief at escaping from an alien and threatening territory.

In other essays from this collection the journeys are less exotic: they include various writer’s residencies, Vienna, and neighboring Poland. Due to their eternal wanderings, writers are compared, with irony and by reiterating the romantic concept of the damned genius, to biblical Cain, a fugitive and wanderer whose doings are doomed to fruitlessness in “Apie keliaujančius rašytojus” (On Travelling Writers, p. 17–28). Fruitlessness is also the permanent need to write, the eternal inability to complete a text, to muddle through the ever-functioning principle of associations that never stops generating new references, which are the end in themselves and which are trying for both the narrator and the reader.   For example, in the essay “Wurst pikant”’ (p. 29–59) Proust’s madeleine and the whole concept of bringing back lost moments is ironically compared to a slice of a boiled sausage he ate in Vienna (for reasons unknown, this kind of sausage used to be—and still is—called the “doctor’s sausage” in the post-Soviet sphere). It reminded the writer of the year 1992, when very soon after the re-establishment of independent Lithuania a member of a group of Lithuanian writers in Vienna was so impoverished that he could not afford a coffee in a cafe. He was unexpectedly taken to a supermarket and offered some Austrian sausage.

 

1. „Poezijos pavasario“ laureatas Eugenijus Ališanka. Per gyvenimo paviršių – į gelmę“, interviu autorius Mindaugas Nastaravičius [Eugenijus Ališanka, the Laureate of the Poetry Spring.” Interview by Mindaugas Nastaravičius], 15min.lt.: http://www.15min.lt/naujiena/kultura/asmenybe/poezijos-pavasario-laureatas-eugenijus-alisanka-per-gyvenimo-pavirsiu-i-gelme-285-219631 (accessed on 28 September 2016).

 

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