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Herkus Kunčius

Herkus Kunčius (born 1965) is a prose writer, playwright and essayist.
He is one of the most prolific Lithuanian writers, publishing a book or a play every year since his debut in 1998. His work, novels, essays and plays, is marked by postmodernist features and a scornful irony towards consumer society and its fake and superficial values. He often gives frank descriptions of bodies and bodily functions, and he is never afraid of blasphemy or indecency. His writing has been described as a ‘carnival’, and it clearly contains shock value, cruelty and nihilism.
His works have been translated into English, Bulgarian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, German and other languages.

reflections on belonging

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by Ramūnas Čičelis

 

Herkus Kuncius review 02

A couple of decades after regaining independence, Lithuania is increasingly attracting the attention of foreign authors writing in English and other languages. There is growing interest in the history of the Lithuanian resistance movement against the occupying powers and the country's current reality. One of the first writers to turn his attention to life in Lithuania was Jonathan Franzen, the author of the 2001 novel The Corrections. In this novel, Lithuanians are portrayed as untouched by civilisation or high culture and demonstrating a tendency to break the law and commit crime. Lately, Lithuania's image in foreign literature has been less one-dimensional because it has become possible for authors to travel to the country freely, stay there and research issues of their interest. In the early 20th century and the interwar period, France still captivated Americans – Ernest Hemingway still travelled to Paris as to an exotic city populated with artists. Today, the French capital, like other Western countries and cities, has ceased to capture writers' imagination in such a way. In that context, Lithuania presents a vast and almost untouched ground fertile for arts.

In his latest novel Lietuviškos apybraižos (Lithuanian Sketches), the middle-generation Lithuanian writer Herkus Kunčius sees his native country as if from a foreigner's perspective. Any literary work needs reflection that is only possible through distance from the depicted reality. It is doubtful whether texts that lack reflection can be regarded as literary masterpieces. In his scenes, Kunčius tells the history of Lithuania from the 18th century until the end of the 20th century. It is told through accounts about various foreign rulers' visits to Lithuania, where they experience a kaleidoscope of adventures and witness how Lithuania is. The paradox is that all these guests to the author's motherland originate from countries that at different times either occupied Lithuania or sought to do so. Lithuanian Sketches presents a classic example of postcolonial literature. The visiting rulers of the states that had once colonised Lithuania indeed see not only what life in their colony is like but discover that the situation there is the direct result of the perversion, moral errors and misdeeds that plague the colonising countries. Sadly, what would be called high culture in the metropolis hardly exists here—the people of the colonies are most often and most efficiently influenced precisely by the dark side of the metropolis.

The concept of historicity in Kunčius' novel Lithuanian Sketches is based on the ideas of new historicism—what we live today is undeniably related to our history. In Lithuania and the majority of other post-Soviet countries, works by historians and even historical fiction are still being written with the positivist conception of history as their foundation. According to such approach, the history of any country should be understood and analysed as events that occurred long ago; therefore certain political or military events that took place in that far-removed time were the result of concrete causes which have absolutely no impact on the current reality. In his novel, Kunčius categorically dismisses such an outdated view and affirms that we are heirs of the past. Interestingly enough, Lithuanian Sketches doesn’t even seek factual precision—the author modifies true events, supplements them with fictional details and offers a view that becomes universal because these essays talk about the past and the present at the same time. In this way, Kunčius distinctively contributes to the discourse of the Lithuanian historical novel, at the same time freeing himself from the power of that discourse, power characteristic in cases when a writer seeks to tie themselves to a particular literary field. The only way in which such freedom and liberation are possible is through originality.

Kunčius' Lithuanian Sketches is both a historical and satirical. Not many literary works of such character exist, as the provision for writing satirically is the elimination of psychological complexes that keep us from laughing at ourselves. In other words, such work demands not only a mental distance between the reality of life and literature but also the author's ability to ironise themselves. Reading Lithuanian Sketches is fun and amusing because the story draws the reader in. However, it is hard to resist the feeling of sadness at realising who we really were and continue to be. For such realisation to happen, a third type of distance is necessary—that between the reader and the literary work.

Readers may know Herkus Kunčius from his postmodern prose. If we wanted to find a similar Lithuanian writer, we should consider Ričardas Gavelis,  the author of Vilnius Poker. Neither writer is afraid of criticizing Lithuanian reality, but they manage to avoid the direct author's desire to intervene in the depicted reality. Another feature Gavelis and Kunčius have in common is readers' reaction to their work: they were both deemed scandalous and unacceptable by some audiences because they write about moral and sexual perversions and do not shy away from depicting cruelty. Kunčius's literary output speaks of his distinctive relevance—differently from what is characteristic to the history of Lithuanian literature, which proves that many trends and ideas reach Lithuania with considerable delay. Lithuanian Sketches is timely, as was Kunčius' earlier work, because it corresponds to tendencies of thought and writing currently dominating the Western world. For this reason, it is appropriate to call Kunčius, along with very few other Lithuanian authors, an enfant du siecle—a person of their time who is afraid neither of the past nor the present, reality nor themselves. This courage is the driving force, the cause and the goal of this author's literary work.

 

 

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