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Undinė Radzevičiūtė (b. 1967) is a Lithuanian writer. Her multicultural and multi-layered books are notable for their intellectual black
humour, and her writing is a fusion of East and West, philosophy and the everyday.

She completed her art history and theory studies at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, and after four years left her doctoral studies for a job at an international advertising agency. She worked as creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi (Vilnius), Leo Burnett Vilnius, and other advertising agencies for more than ten years.

In 2003, 2011, 2013, 2015 her books were shortlisted for The Most Creative Book of the Year (Lithuania). In 2011 and 2013 her books were shortlisted for The Best Book of the Year (Lithuania). Her fourth book Fishes and Dragons won the 2015 EU Prize for Literature, was voted by PEN Centre Lithuania as one of the best books of the decade, and has been translated into eight languages.

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by Jūratė Čerškutė

 

Undine Radzeviciute review 02

Undinė Radzevičiūtė made her literary debut in 2003 with the small 88-page novel Strekaza. Her appearance in the literary field was open, powerful, and different: she consciously dissociated herself from the Lithuanian literary field and her sincere confession was placed on the back cover of the book: “I have never loved the L. [Lithuanian – J.Č.] language because of its agrarian nature.” In 2013, when interviewed on the occasion of her third, so far best known (and, in my opinion, her best) novel Žuvys ir drakonai (Fishes and Dragons), her answer to the question about her relationship with Lithuanian literature was the following: “It is obvious that I have no associations with Lithuanian literature. I just write in this language.” This non-Lithuanian aspect that accompanies the reception of Radzevičiūtė’s work like a label or a visiting card points to several distinctive features in her books: universal content and a field of themes void of specific Lithuanian realities, national memory, or emotional history; anti-sentimentality and irony that is sometimes referred to as black – Radzevičiūtė is called a master of black irony; a frugal and laconic style; sentences as short as (control) shots, which are interrupted by punctuation at the climax of meaning, thus producing the effect of irony or ambivalence.

After ten years of speculation – to a greater or lesser extent and in one way or another – about the dimensions of Radzevičiūtė’s un-Lithuanian nature and otherness, the truth finally surfaced in 2017, on page 9 of her fifth novel Kraujas mėlynas (Blue Blood): “Our family came to Lithuania from Courland. From Mitau [Jelgava in present-day Latvia – J.Č.]. In 1919.” Although Kraujas mėlynas is not a story of a family relocation, it is mentioned in the novel. It is a story about the writer’s ancestors, the Borchs, who are listed among the Baltic barons; their coat of arms bears three black jackdaws and their history takes the reader to the times of medieval Livonia dense with conspiracies, betrayals, war, and machinations, as well as poison (oh yes, the notorious cantarella). The author reflects on the present effect of the poison: “I have always felt that there is some kind of strange poison in the blood and in the relationships within our family, and it is not that someone has poisoned us, but rather that we did that to ourselves” (p. 8).

Putting aside the poison that brought fame to the Borchs, the Borgs, or the Borgias, attention should be focused on the space and time period of the novel: medieval Livonia, our past neighbor. It appears that Kraujas mėlynas is the only other text in Lithuanian literature, after Petras Dirgėla’s novel in two parts
Joldijos jūra (The Yoldia Sea, published in 1987–1988), which deals with the Livonian Order.

Kraujas mėlynas is a novel about the history of a famous and grand family whose present representatives (including the author) and forebears are separated by almost six centuries, and who form harmonious and framed narratives in the book. The framing narrative – that of our times – is the story of the search for the author’s ancestors, which, it should be noted, does not annoy the reader and is not a stumbling block in the novel. (Here I must confess to my weakness of being annoyed by the trick of intertwining the past and the present, a technique frequently exploited in historical novels and which is often a hopeless, undeveloped, and lame tool for “enlivening” the plot: it actually works the other way around and drags down the plot.) In Kraujas mėlynas, the story of the present is good because it is authentic and it locks down (without intentions of participation) that framed story of the past – fifteenth-century Livonia, the life in those times, the backdrop of the Livonian Order, local realities and conspiracies, and, of course, a game of thrones specific to the era. It is this medieval story that is the central narrative and the focus of history in the novel Kraujas mėlynas.

The whole novel, including its opening “present” or personal pages, reads true. The author said in an interview: “It is a 90 percent authentic story. To be more precise, 90 percent of the facts are authentic: who sailed where, who married whom, who died where, who deprived somebody of something, who tortured and killed whom, who poisoned whom, who came to a final reckoning with whom… It is only the interpretation of these facts that is mine.”

Authenticity starts from its main character Bernhard von der Borch, Grand Master of the Livonian Order from 1471 to 1483. These years fill the main time frame of the novel, while Bernhard’s rule is central to its plot and setting. At the end of the book Bernhard looks back on the years of his rule and reflects on his merits: for the first time in the history of Livonia he forced Riga to obey the Order, he prevented a second Grünwald in Livonia, and, as befits a true Borch and a relative of the Italian Borgias, he poisoned Sylvester Stodevesher, the double-dealing archbishop of Riga.

Writing about the twelve years when the power of the Livonian Order, no longer war-proof or war-ready, was waning, Radzevičiūtė not only brings to life the main heroes (real historical personalities) of that period but also the realities and circumstances of life, postures and demeanors, codes of conduct and honor, the virtues and vices of knights, machinations and internal wars, revenge and betrayals – in short, everything that involves the novel’s fifty heroes in Terra Mariana. It was a land where the knights had, from the beginning, felt an aversion to the clergy due to their undignified double-dealing (which is intensified by the episodes in Rome and the portrait of the pope, not to mention the famous relative Rodrigo de Borja), and “the archbishops have always betrayed the Order.”

In other words, Radzevičiūtė reconstructs a model of a medieval society (admittedly, a specific society, because we mostly see only the inner life of the Order), the world of rules and subordinations that is balancing on unconditional compliance, almost blind faith, and submissiveness to personal vainglory, nature, and instincts. A model that has hardly changed over the course of centuries, as is recurrently emphasized in the novel: “After all, it’s like everywhere else: everything depends on family relations and on patronage” (p. 36); “You can’t get along without coffers in Livonia. Just like in the rest of Europe. Coffers rescue castles and even kingdoms” (p. 45); “Educated burghers are very dangerous people” (p. 93).

You often hear that a historical novel is good when the authentic research material and historical sources do not weigh down the novel. Kraujas mėlynas is Radzevičiūtė’s second historical novel after Žuvys ir drakonai and it shows how well – possibly even too well – the author integrates historical material into the fabric of the novel in fulfilling one of the central obligations of the historical novel, that of providing information about the past. Therefore, it is not incidental when the author directly addresses the reader: “If you think that the knights did not swear when trying to catch a servant who has stolen their shillings and trousers, when stumbling over stones and bricks, or when stepping into dung, you have the wrong idea of the Middle Ages” (p. 74).

When asked about the material and sources for Kraujas mėlynas, Radzevičiūtė claims it took her a year to collect the material: “I made use of all possible sources: the Livonian chronicles, the statutes of the Order, artefacts, archival material, and works of historians who wrote about the Livonian Order and those who researched the origins of the family of the Burgs, Borgs, and Borchs. I visited castles. Because the more fragments you collect, the more authentic the world you create will be.”

I have already mentioned that there are fifty characters in this novel of six chapters, and the author likes pointing out this fact. In addition to Bernhard von der Borch, there are two other Borchs, Friedrich von der Borch and Simon von der Borch, who have their “own” chapters in the book. The figures of the three Borchs seem to call up their coat of arms of three crows and the motto tres in uno, which, however, failed to achieve harmony in the novel – one would think that the curse put on the Borch family by an old hag in the Reval market came true. It was not just that “only girls will be born in the whole family,” but also that “of the two Masters in the family, neither would keep their rank up to their death” (p. 330).

Considering the strengths of the novel and the Borchesque tres in uno, one must take a look at the Master’s shadow, Hildebrant, and his skill of “saying things concisely but incompletely.” Radzevičiūtė speaks concisely and says everythings that has to be said, if we have the rule of Grand Master Borch, which turned into the beginning of the long end of the Order, in mind. Many of those who have read the book find it drawn-out and too densely populated with knights. Nonetheless, this (possible) weakness of the plot is outweighed by Radzevičiūtė’s style and language, and the deceptive simplicity with which she sets out this fragment of European history that has already become a legend. Also, the ironic, in Radzevičiūtė’s own words, “attitude towards the world in no way possible to shed.” The witty and sharp sentences, which are as characteristic of the writer as her blood group, and the clarity of thought do not go together with a traditional historical novel, but such an untypical style points to the fact, yet again, that grand heroes were primarily ordinary people, while a genuine and good historical novel can never be historical because it is written by a modern individual.

On a number of occasions Kraujas mėlynas has been described as a masculine novel, if we can resort to this category with its abundance of knights in mind. In literary terms, this novel is an interpretation of a heroic epic as it extols the ruler but falls short of chivalric romance, the mandatory element of which is love and a woman. Women are practically absent from this novel. The bishop of Reval sighs: “Here only Grand Master Bernhard and he, Simon von der Borch, do not have a woman who would inspire masculinity” (p. 174). Going back to the beginning and the end of the novel (the author’s personal history) and reflecting on the reception of Kraujas mėlynas, one should mention Aunt Liucina, who, in my personal view, embodies the best expectations of an ordinary and naive reader of this particular novel:

No doubt upon reading this book, Aunt Liucina will say it was not at all what she expected. She expected something entirely different.

And it wasn’t a book that she had been expecting, and if it were a book, then she imagined everything in a totally different way.

First of all, the time period is completely wrong. And those ancestors: they are like beasts of some kind.

It would have been much better if everyone in the book wore white clothes and “ostrich” feathers in their hats, rode horses around a lake, danced, sang, and ate Russian blinis, or whatever they used to eat in Courland in the times of the Russian Empire. […]

While now, one doesn’t even know what to do with such ancestors and where to put them. And, after all, do we really need ancestors like these? (p. 354–355)

 

Even the most loyal of Radzevičiūtė’s readers say they expected something completely different. Nonetheless, Kraujas mėlynas is a worthy runner-up to Žuvys ir drakonai.

Yet does Lithuanian literature need a novel that is not about its own past but that of its neighbor and, simultaneously, its past enemy? Does it need a story about the nature of the Livonian path, as Bernhard von der Borch puts it, and about a country that is no longer on the map? I think it does, because a glance beyond borders or a good cinematographic historical novel written in excellent language have never done any harm. I think that amidst the present global hysteria and mania for Game of Thrones, having a story about our own game of thrones set out in Lithuania is great.
Finally, we should not forget that it is a story about poison and blue blood. Oh yes, it is utterly snobbish, brimming with grandeur and silver cutlery, but isn’t it something that is so lacking these days?

 

 

 

 

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