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Daina Opolskaitė

I was born in the summer of 1979 in Vilkaviškis district. My childhood world was created by very strong people, who, like some gods, knew answers to all the questions. I am indebted to them probably for that. Having come of age, I began making my way in life and became an observer – I observed and marvelled at my observations. I wanted to write books. In 2002, I graduated with a degree in Lithuanian studies and began working in education. In this way, I got the most extraordinary stories for free – from detective stories to psychological thriller. I could start writing. In 2003, my daughter arrived and since then a myriad of stories found me. I had to write.

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Daina Opolskaite review 02

The king of the Lithuanian publishing market, like in other countries, is the novel. That is why short prose collections are of no real interest to publishers – it does sometimes occur that works written not only by emerging but even by established authors are passed between publishing houses for years. Such a fate befell Daina Opolskaitė’s Dienų piramidės (“Pyramids of Days”). In 2000, this writer won the prestigious First Book Competition held by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union and published a collection of short stories titled Drožlės (“Shavings”). The year of 2014 marked Opolskaitė’s debut as a writer for young adults, and she went on to write several books for that audience. But 18 years had to pass for another collection of her short stories to appear. According to the author, this happened not only because she took her time to write these literary pieces and was doing it particularly thoroughly, but also because the manuscript of her collection was being tossed between various publishing houses for several years.

In Lithuanian literature, the genre of the short story, or the novella, occupies a special place. According to the literary scholar Jūratė Sprindytė, “Lithuanians associate the short story (novella) with the beginning of professional prose in the middle of the 19th century; in the 20th century, this genre reached the peak of its artistic maturity and for almost a century was regarded as the favorite in Lithuanian prose.[1]” During the Soviet occupation, the short story, differently from a novel, was considered to be “more conscientious.” Censors read novels particularly fault-findingly: the genre of long-form prose had to fit the canon of social realism, depict the fight between classes, and the building of socialism. Meanwhile, the short story, in which the action is concentrated on a single event, a fragment from a character’s or narrator’s life, did not aspire to offer any large-scale socialist generalizations. Instead, the center of attention was the individual’s inner world, feelings, and an analysis thereof. The Lithuanian short story, especially during the time of the Soviet occupation, is often described as “lyrical prose.” Rather than emphasizing action, lyrical prose gives priority to experience, to a figurative meaning, so it favors comparisons and metaphors. The function of denouement often falls on what are called the moments of lyrical revelation. Those are the feelings of loneliness, harmony with the world, the meaning of life, or of purifying repentance that suddenly overcome the characters, most often while they are observing nature and experiencing it with their senses. Overall, the Lithuanian novella is ruled by the logic of feeling and intuition, not reason. No less important for the contemporary short story is unpredictability, which is characteristic of magical realism. For example, in the short prose pieces by Danutė Kalinauskaitė, which are considered a new canon of the short story, characters experience sudden emotional and even physical transformations (they behave completely differently to what they had planned, or even disappear physically), while the world and its laws remain strange, unknowable.

The short stories comprising Opolskaitė’s collection Pyramids of Days contain features of both the traditional and contemporary Lithuanian short story. However, a classical worldview has the upper hand here – it is evident in the choice of themes and form of expression. The core theme of Pyramids of Days is guilt: past deeds, both conscious and uncomprehended/unrecognized, form the foundation of the pyramid of life that is being built every day. Reading Opolskaitė’s work reminded me of the classic Lithuanian short story writer Jonas Biliūnas (1879–1907), who is considered to be the pioneer of Lithuanian lyrical prose, and firstly his chrestomathic short story Kliudžiau (“I’ve Hit It”). The plot is simple: a boy playing with an Indian bow and arrow shoots and kills a kitten. It is a retrospectively told story, summarized in the end by the narrator’s commentary: “That was the only shot I ever took in my life. But it was successful: to this day I carry it in my chest…” Thus, a seemingly unimportant event from the past becomes a formative experience for a personality and the guideline for the individual’s relationship with the world.

Characters of several short stories in Opolskaitė’s collection are remembering the misdeeds they committed in childhood. In other pieces, the object of injustice is a powerless and defenseless child. In Ateik per ledą (“Come across the Ice”), a girl steals money and doesn’t admit to it even when her step-sister is wrongly accused of the theft. Despite the passage of time, the narrator cannot forget what she did, which, in her opinion, determined that the connection between her and her stepsister grew cold – this is foretold in the metaphor of the title. In Brandos egzaminas (“Maturity Exam”), a boy lures the neighbor girl into a cellar at his brother’s request and does not defend her when his brother attempts to rape her. That event engraves itself so deeply into his memory that redemption can only be offered by a symbolic forgiveness gesture. In Iškyla (“A Jaunt”), a father admits his guilt for the perishing of his childhood friend. In one of the artistically most mature pieces of the collection, Grotos (“Grating”), an old woman feels at fault for never coming to love the boy she took into her care, while the narrator of Skola (“Debt”), which comes close to the horror and mystical thriller genre, feels guilty for being alive at all.

Those situations are offered using various solutions. For example, in Grotos, a psychological code is used. Although the characters realize that they won’t be able to change the existing situation or themselves, the possibility of an authentic relationship remains as a moment of lyrical revelation: “If there was anything standing between them, if some grating existed, nothing changed at that moment. And it was clear that the future is unlikely to bring any change. They probably won’t become close. However, after prolonged isolation and loneliness, they were finally looking into each other’s eyes through the open grating, they understood and felt each other. That was most important” (p. 37). In Ateik per ledą and Brandos egzaminas, the function of denouement falls on a symbolic forgiveness gesture. The ending of Debt is very different: a negative, irrational act helps the character cleanse themselves of guilt. The short story Stebuklingas žmogus (“Wonderful Person”) is a sort of an inversion of the previously mentioned Biliūnas’s Kliudžiau: the narrative finishes with an image of a hurt child, which suggests that the wrong done to the girl will shape her future life. 

Despite the theme of guilt, Opolskaitė’s short stories most often end hopefully, their denouement seeking to confirm and rebuild the harmony of the world. However, that desire to repair the damaged order at all costs sometimes makes the author resolve to schematic, poorly or not even at all psychologically motivated deus ex machina strategies. For example, at the core of one of the weakest pieces of the collection – Madlena ir aš (“Madlena and I”) – is a love triangle: Madlena falls pregnant by her husband’s son. Madlena’s daughter always feels the tension permeating their home, something that is only solved through the old husband’s death. Predictably, the girl, her mother, and the actual father can now live a long and happy life. The idolized mother is justified because she looked after her old husband in a self-sacrificing way, which secured her his symbolic forgiveness, while Madlena and her lover’s story, told with pathos, looks as though it eliminates every sting of conscience when it is obvious that not only the girl but her father, too, and even Madlena herself, could have some semblance of it – after all, they are all sensitive characters with extraordinary intuition. Something similar happens in the short story Tik tvanas (“Only a Flood”) – a father is rescued from a hopeless situation by the death of his wife and children in a car accident. In the short story Tai, kas tikra (“That which Is True”), one soulmate, found by chance only to be lost very quickly, is replaced by another one through the same accident. This doubling loosens the concept of a “real“ – special, extraordinary – connection. Moreover, it remains unclear why the girl who had come to rent a room not only stayed to care for the narrator but also fell in love with her. The narrator’s contemplation, namely that “Klod was replaced by Adriana. He did not leave me, [he] sent her knowing that I won’t manage on my own” (p. 70), fails to convince. The motive of the dead taking care of the living is popular both in literature and cinema; however, in this case, it is not justified in an authentic, psychological, or any other manner.

Another distinct element that speaks of closeness to the classic short story is the fact that the place of action is often a house in the countryside or a holiday home outside the city. In Lithuanian literature and cinema, such a location acts as a timeless, universal space, in spite of the characters using mobile phones and other attributes of modern life. This universality of space-time appearing in the collection is related to universal themes – guilt, the search for closeness, disappointment, forgiveness, and acceptance of the flow of life; the subject of motherhood is analyzed by highlighting constant elements, as opposed to the current sociocultural context. Meanwhile, the depiction of the city and the relationships between young people proves to be somewhat more difficult for the author – the character types are one-dimensional, their actions are motivated in a psychologically weaker way, and there are much more clichés (Tai, kas tikra, Tik tvanas).

Emotional (but not sensual) relationships dominate in lyrical prose. Opolskaitė also prefers this exalted feeling, which is compared in the collection to an object because of its constancy and special meaning to the subject’s self-consciousness: “Feelings […] are reliably crystallizing, settling down until they finally reach such a purified form that they become completely transparent and perceivable as clearly as visible objects. Feelings need emptiness and solitude” (p. 194). The effort to describe feelings in detail and in that way make them manifest is one of the most important tasks of Opolskaitė’s prose. The characters’ relationships with the world and others are founded in the chains of lyrical revelations: “That feeling kept growing and becoming stronger, it was almost impossible to contain” (p. 34); “The moment which unexpectedly brought them close was strange and striking. Somehow real, pure – that was perceptible. That brief closeness pierced them sharply as a strike of lightning, illuminating all the long years of life” (p. 37); “Suddenly he felt that something is happening which he is not able to stop. Something was doing everything to him, while he was merely observing those actions” (p. 86). Marked by this classic feature is also the following sentence, rich in impressionistic comparisons and metaphors: “The fog was towering like a wall, like a cliff, nothing was visible through it, that is why it seemed that those trees have no tops and extending along are lines of their naked headless trunks – a long, dreadful alley” (p. 33).

The choice to paint a maximally dense emotional background sometimes create an impression of excess. Occasionally, the characters’ reactions to the environment are unnatural, while descriptions of their constantly shifting states and emotions seem like special effects, the purpose of which is to capture the reader’s attention rather than to convey something essential. For example, in the short story Iškyla, on a summer night, the narrator feels how “cold air is seeping into our mouths“ (p. 225), and that the sound of his father hammering in the tent poles creates an echo that “horribly guffawed across the pine forest. The blows ruthlessly shuddered the silence and I flinched with every blow” (p. 231). True, in the end, it transpires that these experiences are a dream; however, even the awake characters appear as hypersensitive. In the short story Daiktų skambėjimas (“The Sounding of Things“), the narrator heard how a “white plastic cup dropped on the floor with a frighteningly loud sound” (p. 182), while “the crumpled wall coverings were breaking the candlelight uncomfortably with spokes of uneven length, piercing sharply the pupils of shining eyes” (p. 182). The impression of excess is also created by the doubling epithets and comparisons (“the time retreated somewhere, disappeared, vanished, it simply ceased to exist. […] everything continued in its usual rhythm, nothing has stopped, collapsed, or changed,” p. 66).

On the other hand, in spite of the hypersensitivity shared by all its characters, Pyramids of Days is a very varied collection. Opolskaitė creates all her personas equally convincingly – be it a child, a woman, or a man – actualizing the different perspectives in the process. Here, the psychologism of lyrical prose is fused with elements of mysticism, horror, and science fiction. Every short story is a complete microcosm, a separate world. For that reason, reading Pyramids of Days is akin to an adventure – notwithstanding the expectations that are being built up and the recognizable literary strategies, these texts are able to surprise and play their tricks on the reader, and in that way provide the most real pleasure of reading.

 

1. Jūratė Sprindytė. Novelė, kanonas, raktas (“Debesis ant žolės: lietuvių novelės antologija, 1994–2014”), Metai, No. 1, 2015. View online: http://tekstai.lt/zurnalas-metai/787-2015-m-nr-1-sausis/7825-jurate-sprindyte-novele-kanonas-raktas-debesis-ant-zoles-lietuviu-noveles-antologija-19942014. 

 

 

Translated by Julija Gulbinovič

 

 

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