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Rimantas Kmita is a poet, essayist, literary critic and researcher. He studied Lithuanian philology and literary criticism at Klaipėda University and defended his dissertation on modern Soviet-era Lithuanian poetry at Vilnius and Greifswald Universities. Kmita is the author of three collections of poetry. In 2016, he published his novel The Southside Chronicles (Pietinia kronikas) in Šiauliai (a Lithuanian city) spoken dialect. This novel describes the beginning of the tenth decade in a proletarian city, undergoing shake-ups of a newly restored state.

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by Virginija Cibarauskė

 

Rimantas Kmita review 02

Rimantas Kmita is a poet, literary critic, and historian whose bearing combines restraint and provocation. He first entered the limelight when he wrote an alternative biography of the poet Justinas Marcinkevičius, who was called “the bard of the nation” during the Soviet years and after the re-establishment of the independence. Ištrūkimas iš fabriko: modernėjanti lietuvių poezija XX amžiaus 7-9 dešimtmečiais (2009; Escaping the Factory: Modernising Lithuanian Poetry of the 1960s–1980s) was also devoted to Soviet literary and cultural life. Kmita was one of the first scholars who publicly decried the extremely low salaries of university teachers, thus inciting colleagues to claim that a genuine scholar should not think about the material aspects of life. Therefore the genre of the “popular novel” of his new book, his choice to write in spoken language and include the elements of slang and in this way to violate the divide between popular and high culture that is still emphasized in Lithuanian literature are in harmony with his moderately adventurous position.

Kmita should be attributed to the so-called generation of individualists that includes such writers and critics as Andrius Jakučiūnas (b. 1976), Marius Burokas (b. 1977), Agnė Žagrakalytė (b. 1979), and Giedrė Kazlauskaitė (b. 1980). Born in the late 1970s, they have traditional philological education (most are graduates of the Faculty of Philology of Vilnius University). Although these individualists do not form a literary group—rather the other way around as they have a tendency to emphasize their separateness—some common features can be discerned in their work and in their stance in general, and the most prominent is a constructively critical relationship with the Lithuanian literary tradition and attention to themes that so far have been poorly actualized. Their work stands out through either playfulness or realism and eschews pathos. For instance, the subject of Kmita’s poetry is often trivial experiences, such as a trip in a minibus or feeding pigeons; the lexicon of his verses is very close to spoken language.[1]

Pietinia Kronika is defined as a pop novel and not as a historical one, although it could definitely be attributed to the latter category as it reconstructs the everyday life of Šiauliai, the fourth largest city of Lithuania, shaken by the wild capitalism of the late twentieth century. The allusion to popular literature is intensified by the comics-like illustrations that appear at the beginning of each chapter. Another characteristic of this novel is that it is written in the spoken language of Šiauliai of the 1990s and is packed with slang and swear words. So if the unusual genre categorization and visual inserts are intended to surprise the reader who is used to serious literature, the highlighted spoken lexicon forms the axis of the meaning of the novel. Slang and swearing offer an opportunity to shrug off the influence of lyrical prose and its exaggerated psychologism. Kmita’s novel is thick with events. The author focuses not as much on the subject’s inner psychological transformations as on coherent external action, on plotting and maintaining the eroticism- and mysticism-spiced intrigue.  The latter theme is associated with people’s consuming interest in horoscopes and psychics in the Lithuania of the 1990s.

In his comment at the end of the book, Kmita writes the novel Der Goalie bin ig (I’m the Goal Keeper), written in the Berne dialect by the Swiss writer Pedro Lenz, inspired him to write a novel of this kind.  Another manuscript that also features the dialect of the people of Šiauliai is one part of Posmrtna trilogija (Posthumous Trilogy) by the Croatian playwright Mate Matišić. On the other hand, Kmita’s novel, which reconstructs a historical epoch, merges with the wave of Lithuanian historical prose. In this respect, the closest analogy to this novel would be Giedanti gaidžio galva (A Rooster’s Cock-a-doodle-dooing Head). The latter is bilingual, written in standard Lithuanian and in the dialect of a district in Panevėžys, one of Lithuania’s major cities. This novel reconstructs daily life in the Soviet villages and turns it into a sort of a myth, which is popular in the overall context of Lithuanian literature. Meanwhile, Kmita's novel develops in the city, and instead of allusions to magic realism, metaphors, and symbols the author goes for a realistic depiction of elements.

According to critics, Pietinia kronikas is an autobiographical and a coming-of-age story. The important facts in the biography of the protagonist Romantas Kmita coincide with those of the Rimantas Kmita. Like the author, the protagonist comes from Pietinis rajonas (the Southern District) of Šiauliai, he played rugby as a teenager, and he completed Lithuanian studies at Klaipėda University. The fact that the main character and his life are shown as typical in the context of that particular time and not as an exception is important. The genre of the Bildungsroman is playfully alluded to. Although Kmita points out that one book of this type was Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, his protagonist and the transformations of his personality happen seemingly in a reverse order.

At the beginning of the novel, young Romantas appears not as a rebellious teenager but, on the contrary, as one who understands the social order and its rules, is resolute to obey those rules, and to be just like everybody else. He keeps comparing himself to others and dishes out the wisdom that was shaped by the Soviet years and absorbed from his parents: “to queue means to learn life” (p. 9), “this life is new and the proverbs must be new” (p. 55). However, in the course of the novel it is personal freedom, individuality, awareness of personal singularity, or even insignificance that become increasingly important.

In a typical closing scene for a novel, Romantas, who has split up with his girlfriend, arrives in Klaipėda to pursue Lithuanian studies at university and is looking at the sea, like, say, the lyrical subject of Maironis, a pioneer of nineteenth-century Lithuanian lyrical poetry. What Rimantas sees in the sea and himself is very close to the feelings of Maironis’s subject, such as grandeur and the acknowledgement of a person’s own rebellion and search for freedom as well as the impenetrability of the world: “I can’t explain a thing, my head is like a horse’s. But when you are sitting on the sea shore it seems it is not that terrible. Maybe there isn’t much to understand” (p. 363).

The novel is set in 1993–1996, when, after the re-establishment of the country’s independence, the period of sometimes painful social changes began. Respectability and education, which were considered values before that time, lost their status. Sharp inflation meant that the majority of Lithuania’s residents found themselves below the margin of poverty. Various ventures and profiteering became an escape from such a situation. In this respect, Romantas was a typical teenager of his time: instead of doing homework he was selling Polish-made posters of music bands or the pig fat and sausages that his father had smuggled from the meat processing factory, or he was working as a bouncer at Arklidė.

Post-Soviet mentality is aptly represented by the philosophizing of the teenage Romantas: no point in spending time at school because everyone who has money—even illiterate people—has their own business venture. Both in the last years of the Soviet period and the early years of independence any symbols of Western culture—trainers, a Snickers bar, a can of Coke, a Nike or Adidas tracksuit—were a mark of prominence and something to aspire to. On the other hand, it was important to fit in and to adhere to the “authority formula,” just like in Soviet times. The difference was that those in authority were not the nomenklatura with their numerous privileges, but those who were shiftier and physically stronger. In this respect, when Kmita does not even consider complaining to the police when he is beaten up by a neighbour, his response represents a typical one. Instead, he feels shame and fear that his friends will find out and come to despise him.

The protagonist’s teenage years coincided with the teenage years of the whole of Lithuania as an independent state in its transitional stage, a trajectory that begins with it being like everybody else and leads to its discovery of its own uniqueness. It is noteworthy that, unlike in such popular Lithuanian coming-of-age novels as Altorių šešėly (In the Shade of the Altars, 1933) by Vincas Mykolaitis Putinas or Benedikto slenksčiai (Benediktas’s Thresholds, 2008) by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, independence is associated not with recognition of a person’s vocation, talent, or singularity, but with the freedom to be separate from any community, to become dissociated from pragmatic—even if altruistic—forms of sociality.  Only having admitted that he had grown up in a country “where nothing whatsoever was good, not to mention original” (p. 353) and that he himself “had fallen into forgery” (p. 352) and would never find out the truth does the protagonist feel free and strangely calm.  Thus, Romantas performs stints as a trader, a tough guy, a rapper, and a member of a subculture only to realise that he would never achieve his own pure, absolutely authentic identity: “It seems that I might not have done everything, but what I had to do, exactly, I don’t know” (p. 359).

The greatest achievement of this novel is not only a detailed reconstruction of a particular period but also the talent to play the formulae of specific genres without falling into their trap. Individually approached strategies of the Bildungsroman and popular and historical novels assist the unfolding of an original and individually meditative look at the world.

 

1. Virginija Cibarauskė, “The Individualist,” Cultural History, Modern Art Centre: http://www.mmcentras.lt/cultural-history/cultural-history/literature/19932002-from-the-gariunai-market-to-the-frankfurt-book-fair/19932002-from-the-gariunai-market-to-the-frankfurt-book-fair/76443#the-individualists-78615 [accessed on 10 February 2017]

 

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