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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

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by Jūratė Čerškutė

 
Gavelis review02Ričardas Gavelis (1950–2002), a prose writer, playwright, and columnist, is often named one of the most prominent writers of his generation. He outstandingly depicted the Soviet system, was its harshest critic in Lithuanian literature, and chronicled Vilnius in the early years of the independence. Without him, neither the map of Lithuanian prose of the late Soviet era, perestroika, and the first decade of independence, nor that of the cultural and public life of that time could be imagined. Gavelis was an exceptional figure: a physicist by education, a writer by vocation, and an intellectual aristocrat. Born and brought up in Vilnius’s gloomy, decrepit, and yet-to-be restored old town, Gavelis, it seems, inherited the DNA of the city. This inheritance allowed him to create unexpected literary images as well as convincing and effective metaphors of Vilnius that shaped its mythology a la Gavelis—modern and permeated with destruction. Gavelis was a total loner. He stood out for his consciously constructed, different prose, for his openly anti-romantic (and therefore potentially irritating) world perception, and for his authentic freedom and independence.

Gavelis made his debut with the collection of short stories Neprasidėjusi šventė (1976; A Festival that Hasn’t Started). In the words of his narrator, these were “the times of Lavonid [1]  Brezhnev,” when stagnation was at its deepest. His fame came later, in the heat of perestroika, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the height of activity of the Sąjūdis, a Lithuanian reform movement that aspired to the re-establishment of Lithuania’s statehood, eventually achieving it on 11 March 1990. For Gavelis, the year 1989 was par excellence. It could also be called the year of attack on the novel: from 1976 to 1987 he published three collections of short stories, and in 1989 alone two of his novels appeared. The literary magazine Pergalė (Victory) published the novel Jauno žmogaus memuarai (Memoirs of a Young Man) in its 1989 February and March issues. In November of the same year, Vaga Publishers published Gavelis’s best known novel Vilniaus pokeris (Vilnius Poker), which at that time was deeply shocking due to its open depictions of carnality, sex, and the ruthless dethronement of national myths and symbols.

However, when we look from today’s point of view, it is important and necessary to realize that the appearance of Gavelis’s first novels, in which the author meticulously dissected the Soviet order and methods of communist ideology and power, was expected and deliberate in the extraordinary and liberating fabric of 1989. This was the year of the fall of Berlin Wall, which broke through the Iron Curtain and essentially began the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The reform movement Sąjūdis reached its peak in Lithuania, and on 23 August 1989 the three Baltic countries—Lithuanian, Latvia, and Estonia—formed the Baltic Chain, demonstratively denouncing the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that had brought about Soviet occupation of these countries.

Gavelis’s hour struck at the dawn of Lithuania’s independence. He was the first writer of that time who promptly—during the collapse of the Soviet order—took an extremely sober and critical look at his time and its topicalities. In his work he harshly and thoroughly recorded and examined the developments of the time: the turning points in epochs and orders, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the activities of Sąjūdis and the advent of independence, social and cultural changes, and the emergence and regrouping of new structures of power and authority. He delved into the processes of the growing self-awareness of the nation and the individual, the attempts to rethink the meaning of being Lithuanian, the sovereignty of his country, and, eventually, his own identity. Gavelis’s full bibliography consists of four collections of short stories, seven novels, and numerous articles and columns on political, economic, social, and cultural issues that for the decade  from 1992 to 2002 he published in the daily Respublika (Republic) and the magazine Veidas (The Face).

Among Gavelis’s novels, Jauno žmogaus memuarai stands out for its volume, economy, moderation, and comparatively simple structure. It is Gavelis’s first published novel: it was written in 1987–1988, disseminated via periodicals in 1989, and published as a book in 1991. In the context of the writer’s creative path it is seen as the concentration of the main themes of almost all of his novels and the genesis of such metaphor-concepts as “the great community,” “class hatred,” “phantasmagorical spores,” “the syndrome of ants,” “a sexless metaphysical earthworm,” “prosthesis,” “Homo Sovieticus,” “the Lithuanian spirit,” and others. As accurate illustrations of the aspects of Soviet existence, these metaphors recur in the novel and create Gavelis’s unique system of Soviet imagery and a report on the Soviet order. On the one hand, it is a very typical Gavelis novel because it shows and dissects the Soviet order, the functioning mechanisms of its authorities, and the fates of the people it enslaved. On the other hand, it is highly untypical for Gavelis because Vilnius is almost absent from its landscape: the city is simply the novel’s default setting and does not feature in the way it does in Vilnius Poker (1989) or Vilniaus džiazas (1993). Here, the city simply exists without being personified or without the special powers of a significant character imparted onto it.

Jauno žmogaus memuarai is a novel of fourteen letters written by Leonas Ciparis to his fellow student, friend, and teacher Tomas Kelertas from the netherworld. Each letter has a specific theme and features key events, which are introduced with ancient Indian aphorisms. The thematic threads are complemented by Ciparis’s letters to prominent twentieth-century cultural, political, and public figures such as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, José Ortega y Gasset, Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas, Leonid Brezhnev, Emanuel Swedenborg, and others that are regularly interspersed in the letters to Kelertas.

The novel is constructed as a fictional and epistolary memoir which is perceived by the narrator and the letter writer Ciparis as an authentic testimony of his life. At the same time, it is a documentarily accurate memoir of the Soviet era that discloses connections between society, the system, and ideology, particularly with regards to the pattern of the functioning of the totalitarian power and the ideological network that enmeshes people in it. It is a story about living in a Soviet system when a person attempts to obey their own desires and not those imposed by ideology. “We were taught to be this and that, to mold ourselves to some decrepit or unrealistically ideal model that wasn’t designed by us. We were taught to change and crush ourselves, and to adapt, but nobody taught us to be ourselves,” writes Ciparis in his first letter.

The central characters of the novel, Leonas Ciparis and Tomas Kelertas, are antipodes, two fundamentally opposite examples of existence and (non)conformity to the Soviet system. With Ciparis, Gavelis depicts, with extraordinary precision, an individual caught in the trap of the Soviet system and his inner state of mind. He attempts to adapt to the collective rhythm and the sense of community, and he tries to live and work while suppressing his mind, ambitions, desires and intuitive understanding that everything is just lies and crushing deceit. To effectively articulate such an individual, Gavelis needed the character of Tomas Kelertas, who assumed a radically opposite stance, who was unruly, ironical and cynical. (Incidentally, it was after this novel’s publication that Gavelis’s critics argued that Kelertas was his most autobiographical character, an alter ego who would later appear in almost all of his novels, most prominently in the lively Vilniaus džiazas [Vilnius Jazz].)

It was with this novel, which was written during the Soviet period, that Gavelis introduced into public discourse and into his reflections and views the abovementioned metaphors that evolved into powerful system-reflecting concepts: GGI [2]  (God’s Great Injustice, according to Kelertas, is the foundation of the world order); the great community (the Communist Party), phantasmagorical spores (of communist ideology) transforming people into metaphysical earthworms, and others. All these images fall into the main structural and plot concept of the father-in-law, the father of Ciparis’s wife and the invincible king of the nomenklatura. Through this character, Gavelis not only revealed the core of communist power, ideological clichés, the scope of influence, and the roots of human evil but also showed the reader the all-enmeshing nets and the tyrannical observers’ presence in everyday life, for “the never-dozing eye of the Father-in-law watches everything.”

Besides the critique of the Soviet order,  reflections on being a Lithuanian and on the Lithuanian spirit (the twelfth letter) are also significant themes in Jauno žmogaus memuarai. The sentence “My task is to forge the non-existing Lithuanian spirit” put into Kelertas’s mouth is a creative maxim formulated by Gavelis after the Irish writer James Joyce. Searching for the Lithuanian spirit, Gavelis digs—pitilessly and without the romanticized, tearful facade of patriotism—under all grand myths of Lithuania and notions of Lithuanian identity, ironically questions the history of Lithuanian literature and asks, “So where is that Lithuanian spirit? How is it special? What miraculous device has determined what a Lithuanian must be like?”

Inspired by Joyce’s work, with the novel Jauno žmogaus memuarai Gavelis launched the same mission in Lithuanian literature. Gavelis wrote not only about his city but also about his nation and the orders under which this nation had lived during various periods. And although this description was very bold and shocking, “harshly” critical and provocative, it prevented past and history from being forgotten, hindered readers from feeling comfortable, and forced them to (re)think.

In 2016, twenty-seven years after the novel was first published, the United States and Europe are fighting particular wars, feeling tension both in reality and in virtual space, and suffering the crises of (ultra)nationalism that is categorically and militantly approaching totalitarianism. The simple question posed in Jauno žmogaus memuarai—“What could an intelligent person admire in that [Soviet –] phantasmagoria?” —again seems as urgent as ever. I hope it will be heard and reflected upon by readers of the English translation of this novel, who I wish to be open and attentive and to surrender to Gavelis’s text. Otherwise, just like Leonas Ciparis, who quotes Hamlet, we all may fall victims to that simple phrase, the rest is silence.

Seeing the English translation of Jauno žmogaus memuarai off in life, I wish it success equal to that of Vilniaus pokeris. Translated into English by Elizabeth Novickas, it appeared in the United States in 2009, and this year it was reprinted by Pica Pica Press. The critics of Kirkus Reviews suggested that it should be thought of as “The Matrix behind the Iron Curtain—unsettling and profoundly interesting.” The French translation of the novel appeared in 2015 (translated by Margarita Le Borgne, published by Monsieur Toussaint Louverture) and garnered considerable attention (in particular in the French national press) and positive reviews, which called the novel, in summary, effroyable et genial (frightful and brilliant). Here we should also add the key paragraph that imparts relevant and deserved global value to Gavelis’s work:

C’est le livre de toutes les grandes capitales modernes dévorées par l’apathie et la tentation de l’oubli. C’est le portrait d’un peuple dépouillé de son histoire. C’est Dostoïevski. C’est Kafka et Burroughs. C’est Kundera. C’est un piège. (This is a book about all the great modern capital cities devoured by the apathy and the temptation of oblivion. It is a portrait of a people stripped of their history. This is Dostoyevsky. This is Kafka and Burroughs. This is Kundera. It's a trap.)

 

1. The pun combines Brezhnev’s name, Leonid, and the Lithuanian word lavonas, “a corpse.”

2. In Lithuanian it is DDN, Didžioji Dievo neteisybė.

 

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