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Virginija Kulvinskaitė (Cibarauskė) is a writer and literary critic. She was born in Vilnius in 1983. She studied Lithuanian language and literature in Vilnius University; in 2017, Cibarauskė earned her doctoral thesis, wherein she analyzed the relationship between an author’s biography and their works.

In 2018, Virginija Cibarauskė published her poetry book Antrininkė (“The Double”), which for that year was included in the list of Top 12 Most Creative Lithuanian Books. In 2019, Cibarauskė made her debut as a prose author with the novel kai aš buvau malalietka. This book, dubbed a “contemporary novel,” imitates the autobiographical genre, but the author asserts that even despite certain biographical coincidences, the protagonist Virga and her experiences are all made up. The book is written in a colloquial-esque tone and contains ample elements of slang. The novel focuses on the 1990s, the narrator’s teenage years.

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virginija kulvinskaite review 02

I once had an opportunity to watch a theater play in one of Crete’s mountain villages, at the altitude of about 1500 km – I went there with a theater troupe of one of Greece’s universities. The students staged a play based on a 16th century dramatic text Erotokritos, which contains a scene of a Cretan fighting a Cypriot. The Cypriot wins, and the Cretan takes a beating. Two local Cretans who were sitting behind me (talking of it, they wore traditional clothing – since, naturally, one should look dapper when attending a theater performance in the mountains – and throughout the duration of the play were sipping homemade tsikoudia from a flask) began making a fuss. “Oh, our guy lost, we must help him,” announced one and pulled out a piece that probably remembered the times of the uprising against the Ottoman Empire. The director covered his eyes, I froze. However, after some time, this member of the audience who so tenaciously wanted to become one of the characters came to his senses and put the shotgun away.

I find the reaction of that elderly Cretan, in all likelihood a craftsman or a farmer, similar to the response from a certain part of readers to the first prose book by Virginija Kulvinskaitė, titled kai aš buvau malalietka (“when I was a malalietka”[1]). Depicted in the text are actual Vilnius locations and its society, but they undergo a process of transformation as the time goes by, from the narrator’s childhood in the 1980s, when Lithuania was still occupied by the Soviets, to the present time, when the narrator is already a grown woman. Perhaps that tangibility of space and the corporeality of characters (for example, I know who are the real Giedrė, Rima, and Laima appearing in the text, and I also know that the author, just like the protagonist, was doing a PhD in Philology), or, if nothing else, the fact that the narrator is a “youngster“ known as Virga, while the author’s name is Virginija, gives the readers some naive hope that the book is an autobiography. Readers who identify with the protagonist often make assumptions that everything being depicted had actually happened in the author’s life; that, as literary critic Marijus Gailius wrote, “it is very likely that the images related in this chapter are actual ego-documents or at least their paraphrases, as opposed to them being a product of imagination, i.e., a fictional archive not at all based on reality” (Literatūra ir menas No. 3679, http://literaturairmenas.lt/literatura/marijus-gailius-kai-rasymas-tampa-tinkliniu-jusliu-algoritmu). I sympathize, on a personal level, with both Kulvinskaitė (whose actual last name is Cibarauskė) and Rimantas Kmita, author of the novel Pietinia kronikas, which focuses on the same period of time. They are both prose writers who use the first person in their work and because of that must unavoidably and constantly explain that no, the protagonist is not the author, and no, the author’s personal experiences are not the same as the protagonist’s experiences depicted in their texts.

Perhaps that is just how naive reading is: the most important thing is to identify with the protagonist emotionally and find any tangible equivalents of reality, while the rest becomes less important. Therefore, it is not surprising that this book, written by literary critic Virginija Cibarauskė who signs her fictional works with her maiden name Kulvinskaitė, is widely read equally by literary critics, academics (or any other of the so-called “ professionals”), as well as bloggers. It is one of such texts that easily seduce the reader, so some simply give in to the pleasure of reading and recognition, as examined by Aristotle with his concept of mimesis, while others attempt to untangle it as a literary detective story.

The photographic elements mentioned in the quote by Gailius are, by the way, very important in the book, only that they denote neither genuine biographicity nor any feature of a realistic narrative. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite. The cover of the book features photographs from the author’s personal archive – but they have been tampered with: some of the faces, hair, or other details have been cut out and later enlarged on the next page. A photograph here functions not as a precise documentation of reality but as a subjective distortion of it. Memory does lie; the camera illuminates and highlights certain nuances that would go completely unnoticed when looked at in real life. “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” This doesn’t mean that there is nothing personal in the novel – on the contrary, Vilnius, its panoramic views, the sociocultural atmosphere of the early period of the Independence, the environment of doctoral studies are all captured with merciless precision and equal subjectivity. The narrator’s and the author’s figures here intertwine. The method in which the novel is written – by the way, very possibly the very first work of Lithuanian literature that may be described as what usually translates into the Anglo-Saxon tradition as the term “contemporary novel” – could be called “photographic writing.” The writing is done as if to record certain moments or states of feeling or, if nothing else, the changing city and its people. It is precisely because of that quality that the text is somewhat nostalgic, and it is so easy for the reader to begin reminiscing about their own experience in the 1990s and 2000s – that is probably why I, too, although my role as a critic demands distance, began with a story from my past. This is simply what constitutes the hook of malalietka, a hook that one is so effortlessly caught by. 

Not only the book’s design but its title as well should act as a key for the reader taking this book into their hands. Malalietka is a Slavism that is not used in standard Lithuanian, which has its own equivalents of mažvaikė (“kiddie”) and mažametė (“juvenile”). On the one hand, this word clearly indicates the sociocultural code of the novel (the times when the inner yards of the apartment blocks spoke almost exclusively in Russian or at least a mix of Lithuanian-Russian, hence indicating the narrated time). On the other hand, this title provides an assumption regarding the genre of the book: the subtitle of a “contemporary novel” just confirms the evident coming-of-age (Bildungsroman) fiction genre – despite that it is being ironized and reconceived, it is nonetheless the obvious substrate of the book. Thirdly, it tells a great deal about the linguistic style: the entire text is written in slang and even forgoes capital letters at the start of each sentence, as it recreates the flow of the vernacular. And fourthly – the personal pronoun I denotes the aforementioned tension between the author as an actual person and the textual figure. Umberto Eco would probably say that the author, as a physical person, never coincides with the textual figure; however, the author’s figure appearing in the text and the narrator’s figure appearing in the text may definitely overlap and in that way complicate the process of reading.

Such an interpretation is also supported by the structure of the book. The novel consists of two parts of almost identical volume: sena vaikystė (“old childhood”) and beveik suaugusi (“almost an adult”), each of which comprises 8 chapters. The title of the first part corresponds to its theme – it recounts the period of adolescence and youth, when, seemingly having married her “soul twin,” the narrator emigrates to Ireland and is later forced to return with a ticket bought by her mother. The second part speaks more on the aesthetic experiences and academic life during the protagonist’s doctoral studies – however, the narrator only “almost” grows up. One of the characteristics of this novel, perhaps a slightly irritating one, is precisely in that although the novel tells us about a coming of age, there is, however, no conclusion, no moral, and no uplift. The protagonist remains stuck in limbo, the entrance hall of hell – neither condemned nor redeemed, neither a grown up nor a child. Because of this indeterminacy, and due to the fact that the narrator’s attitude to her environment (men, studies, literature, creative work, friends, her mother, etc.) is mostly manipulative and despotic, as opposed to spiritual or, in a traditional feminine approach, altruistic, she is hard to like; yet on the other hand, she is very easy to identify with. Narration in slang and the protagonist’s mentioned attitude relieves the reader from the obligation to feel guilt, regret, indignation, the pursuit of truth, the (non)love of one’s neighbor, shame, or whatever else it might be. The numerous sex scenes, including a threesome, make it completely clear: regret is something that matters exclusively to the one regretting. Applying this logic, the way readers will react to this message is of little interest to anyone but them.

This book will, of course, get on the nerves of those who seek clear lines, social norms, and traditionally delineated identity. The narrator is bisexual, her relationship with literature (especially keeping in mind her philology thesis) does not even come close to any sort of inspiration or spiritual substance, and in the end she remains almost an adult – she does not draw any conclusions, does not give birth to any children, does not find a husband. I am listing the following because there have been other coming-of-age novels in Lithuanian literature – and in the majority of them, a woman ultimately grows up once she has a child or at least finds a steady partner. Here we can name a succession of writers, from Šatrijos Ragana to Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, or maybe even further ones. And such a choice can neither be criticized nor embraced – probably that is why traditionalist critics, of whom there are plenty, pretend that no such book has been written and that there is no such Kulvinskaitė at all. Even they cannot critique a text written as an aesthetic work while relying on their subjective moral categories.

Overall, currently, probably the strongest contraposition in the Lithuanian prose written by women and published in 2019 appears between Kulvinskaitė’s kai aš buvau malalietka and Daina Opolskaitė’s Dienų piramidės (“Pyramids of Days”). The latter roots itself among the literary classics and creates a realistic everyday narrative – by the way, a very literary one, seen hundreds of times in the realistic narrative tradition. And because of her style and reverence toward our classics, the writer is undeniably liked by the critics of the older generation. I am not saying that her book is poorly written or overrated. Not at all. I simply suspect that Opolskaitė’s fans will remain silent about Kulvinskaitė and vice versa. And that’s fine – the literary process happens based on the principle of a stūmtraukis.[2] The stūmtraukis was a type of animal from some authorial Russian fairy tale – it might as well have been from Doctor Aybolit: it had two heads that were able to make independent decisions, so if one of them was sleeping, the other stayed awake and watched over the pair, but in order to choose a direction of movement, they had to make a joint decision. I see that as a metaphor for any healthy literary scene. Looking at what is being written now, Lithuanian literature is in good shape, and thank God for that.

 

1. The Russian term малоле́тка (malalyetka), appropriated in Lithuanian, is used colloquially, and even pejoratively, to refer to a minor. It may be used to describe an individual that is under the statutory age for sexual intercourse or drug use or to emphasize an individual’s lack of maturity.” (editor’s note).

2. Literally: a “pusher-puller” (translator’s note).

 

 

Translated by Julija Gulbinovič

 

 

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