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"Its nice to meet an author, who came to literature not from the stage, not from journalism, not from kitchen, but from philosophy. That means - she came from mind and freedom" - Donatas Petrošius.

Rasa Aškinytė has a Bachelor’s degree in History, a Master's degree in Philosophy, and she almost completed her PhD in Science of Education. She teaches at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences. Since 2006, she is involved in different projects of the Council of Europe Pestalozzi program (Strasbourg) in various countries - Germany, Cyprus, Kosovo, Montenegro, Norway, France, etc. She is a member of Lithuanian Writer's Union Since 2012. Her main hobbies are writing novels and letters, also finding lost or thrown away things. Rasa is the author of four novels and one book for children. Her two novels – “The Easiest” and “The Man Who Needed Nothing” are published in English. The novel "The Man Who Needed Nothing" was selected as The Best Adult Book of the Year 2014.
Her new novel Glesum (Latin for amber) tells us about a self-sacrificing and docile woman of the tribe, a mother, dutiful and passionate, wilful, and yet ambitious. She lives according to the traditions of the Aesti. The novel takes place in the second century in the land of the Aesti people.
Paradoxes, a ‘healthy’ sense of humour, a philosophical spirit, and a visual, poetic language are all characteristic of the author’s style. As Emilija Visockaitė stated, ‘The analytical, scalpel-wielding Aškinytė has no peer in Lithuanian literature. She appeals to scholars as well as hipsters. And I mean that as a compliment.’

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Rasa Askinyte review 02Rasa Aškinytė, a historian and philosopher, is the author of four novels. Žmogus, kuriam nieko nereikėjo (The Man Who Needed Nothing), voted the 2014 Book of the Year, was the most successful. Critics emphasize the conditionality and irony of her prose. The author calls the style of her novels psychedelic. The model of Aškinytė’s artistic world is structured as an antithesis to the traditional worldview of Lithuanian prose, which is dominated by the psychological-introspective type of the character: an extremely sensitive individual submerged in his or her moods, sensations, and memories. Meanwhile, Aškinytė’s characters stand out for their indifference both to themselves and to the world around them. She not only records the state of mind of the protagonists who are bored and numbed by endless flows of information, but also delves into a polemic with the tradition of lyrical prose. Due to their abstraction and conditionality, her novels resemble absurd parables for the twenty-first century.

Aškinytė’s fourth novel, Glesum, is an attempt at a new genre in her context. In Latin, the title of the novel means amber, a commodity that the Aestii people depicted in the novel traded with the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries. Glesum is also the name of one of the novel’s female protagonists. The period described is a time of prosperity for the Aestii tribes. Not much is known about the life of these tribes, but historians assume that the social order of the Aestii was close to matriarchal. That is why women are chosen as the main characters of the novel: Glesum, a slave brought from the Roman Empire by the tribal chief Gondas, his ambitious wife Selija, who is jealous of his new woman, and the sorceress of the tribe called “the woman with the wolf-picked leg” by everyone.

The historical novel has reached its peak in the context of contemporary Lithuanian prose. It was triggered by the trilogy Silva rerum (2008, 2011, 2014) written by the art historian Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, which tells about the history of the Norvaiša family, a noble family of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Like Silva rerum (Latin for “a forest of things”), Aškinytė’s Glesum is based on historiographical material. On the other hand, unlike the Baroque epoch, which we have vastly more information about, evidence of the life of the Aestii in the second and third centuries has been found only in burial grounds, archaeological sites, and several mentions in the works of Tacitus, Ptolemy, and others, mostly Roman historians. To some extent, the shortage of historical material becomes an advantage for Glesum: a want of factual data allows the author to freely interpret the facts and to create her own version of the Aestii world. However, she does not resist the temptation to render the realities of the tribe, which lived in the second and third centuries, in a too modern or, on the contrary, too fantastical manner.

As befits a historical adventure novel, the life of our forefathers, or to be more exact, of our foremothers, is brimming with passions. The driving force here is the eternal struggle for power and survival by overcoming oneself, one’s fears and desires. The theme of a woman’s destiny is the basis of the plot of the novel. In spite of the liberties taken with historical unknowns, the moral is basically traditional: weakness turns out to be the woman’s strength. The strength of the sorceress resides in her knowledge of the future; her weakness is that she cannot change it. Although Selija, the charismatic antagonist, is a slave of her own vanity and passions, she recklessly strives to take fate into her own hands. Meanwhile, at first sight Glesum is submissive and indifferent to everything. As a slave, she is forced to accept her fate unconditionally. On the other hand, her ability to allow herself to be ruled her fate is also a condition of survival. Such a universal problem is metonymically emphasized by the episode of the woman persecuted by wolves in the snow that opens and closes the novel:

Nothing could be seen except snow, and more snow. And wolves. For now, they were keeping their distance. But they had begun furtively making a large circle around her. The woman’s nostrils flared. She quietly breathed in the air saturated with aggression and the instinct to live at any price.

The woman was not afraid. This land had never been hers, it had never belonged to her. Just like her life.

The woman did not know how to grieve. She did not know how to cry. She did not know how to feel compassion. She did not know how to wait or to hope. She knew only how to fight and to live. The woman knew how to look a wolf straight in the eye, and based on scent in the air and the beating of their two hearts, to determine which of the two was the stronger. (p. 13).

Compared to the women, the male characters are too bland. Often it seems that the male characters are used only to create the opportunity to show the external world—the outskirts of the Roman Empire—and to describe the amber trade. For example, Bentis, the son of Gondas and Selija, who had fled his father, is simply an excuse to take a look at the daily life in the homes of rich Romans. However, their daily life follows the typical pattern of affluence, feasts, and the like.

In general, Aškinytė shows the uncomfortable world in which the Aestii live: hatred, intrigue, competition, and horrific experiences—deaths, wounds, and disease—permeate their lives. Although the surgery performed by Glesum’s father is impressive, who knows if its depiction is historically accurate? Some of the horrific episodes are poorly motivated from the artistic point of view and are intended only to shock or scare the reader; basically, characters are not radically changed by their experiences. In this respect the characters are not psychological personages but types such as the enamored husband, the vicious wife, the witch, and the like. The unusual division of the novel into chapters, which critics have also called cabalistic, also lacks motivation. Each of the seven chapters bears the name of one of the stars of Ursa Minor. The first chapter is named after Polaris, the star that the graves of the Aestii tribe in Aškinytė’s novel face (incidentally, the tribe’s environment is located in the present area of Kaunas). In addition, each chapter is divided into seven parts bearing the name of one of the seven fluids of the world.

Aškinytė writes in minimalistic sentences, giving preference to verbs. In this respect the world of Glesum is the total opposite of both Sabaliauskaitė’s syntax, which is rich in epithets and imitates baroque splendor, and the more general tendency of Lithuanian prose to overuse descriptions. A specific impression of authenticity is rendered by the emphasis on the characters’ belongings that fulfil the function of their identity, status, or even their inner world. The pictures of objects—Kirnis’s shoes with tiny bells, Glesum’s hat, Selija’s bracelets, the shards of broken Roman glass vessels that the Aestii bring home to their children as toys—are based on descriptions of artifacts found by archaeologists in Aestii burial grounds.

The combination of the detailed and the abstract, the obscure laws of cause and effect, and the absence of psychological motivation in the novel create the effect of a historical tale and an experience of the absurd, accompanied by the highly subtle black humor inherent in Aškinytė’s earlier novels. For example, Selija’s recurrent attempts at suicide and her desire for and expectation of death may appear scary and mystical on the one hand and comical on the other. Kirnis’s attempt at self-immolation, which seems to imitate an offering to the dead, is no less comical, although it simultaneously resembles ancient myths.

From mid-day everybody gathers in the square at the cemetery [...]. Bonfires are everywhere. It is warm. The dead are remembered, the living inspected. [...] Everyone is busy settling important matters, yet some weird stench pervades the air. O Mother of Gods, Kirnis is burning in full flame in the middle of the bonfire, and just think, he is standing quiet as a pole at the stake. Not a sound, only the crackle of wood.

The men want to pull him out, but the fire stops them. They implore and hurl abuse. They try to put the fire out with water. They spit, beating the fire with furs, but they catch fire too. Sparks fly around and children clap their hands. It has never been so beautiful. Kirnis is standing stubborn in the middle of the fire, doing nothing.

The old woman with the wolf-picked leg looks and looks at him, and then she loses patience. “Get out of there,” she says.  Kirnis gets out (p. 164-166).

Specific attention to suicide, which in Aškinytė’s novel acquires a comical touch, is to be associated with the narrative of suicide as a noble death that takes a special place in the memory of Lithuanian culture.

In the general context, the novel is valuable primarily because its subject matter is an epoch that, due to its distance, has attracted little notable attention from Lithuanian novelists. Aškinytė’s Glesum, with the writer’s ability to draw vivid pictures and with her specific and subtle sense of humor, which douses the pathos characteristic of the texts based on cultural memory like water, differs from the popular historical novel with its distinctive features of a neutral style, an abundance of action, elements of eroticism and horror, and typified characters.

 

 

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