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Jurga Tumasonytė is a prose author and interviewer whose numerous talks with artists working across a variety of fields have been published in Lithuanian periodicals. Tumasonytė was born in Kaunas in 1988. In 2011, she graduated from Vilnius University with a Bachelor’s degree in philology, and in 2015 – from Vytautas Magnus University with a Master’s degree in philology, having completed a literary studies program. For her debut short prose book Dirbtinė muselė (“Little Artificial Fly,” 2011), which demonstrates an original, ironic perspective on reality and is characterized by an engaging writing style, the author received the Kazimieras Barėnas Literary Award. Tumasonytė participated in poetry slam tournaments during 2010–2013; her writings are included in a set of texts by slam authors known as Slemas Lietuvoje! (“Slam in Lithuania!,” 2012). A fiction piece by Tumasonytė also appeared in Troleibuso istorijos (“Trolleybus Stories”), a 2015 selection of short stories written by Lithuanian authors. Since 2015, Jurga Tumasonytė works in eureka!, a small bookstore, and in 2018 the author published a book titled Knygyno istorijos (“Bookstore Stories”), which is made up of odd conversations she has had with the bookstore visitors. Jurga Tumasonytė published Undinės (“Mermaids”), her second collection of short stories, in 2019.

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Jurga Tumasonyte review 02

Jurga Tumasonytė Mermaids  Vilnius, Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla (Lithuanian Writers Union Publishing House), 2019. 187 p

Sometimes, an incident appears so colorful that if we wrote it down, nobody would believe it. But the opposite can happen, too: fantasy starts to compete with reality.  Jurga Tumasonytė once confessed that when interviewing visionaries for women’s magazines, they would be so boring that she’d have to invent new, more exciting characters herself. This made her process quicker and more interesting. On the other hand, when Tumasonytė was working at the small bookshop Eureka!, she would record real and completely absurd conversations with the store’s visitors, which were eventually published in a short-run print collection entitled Knygyno istorijos (Bookshop Stories, 2018).

The special effect of reality exceeding imagination is also noticeable in Tumasonytė’s new book Undinės (Mermaids, 2019). The short stories it consists of contain various episodes from the everyday life of mediocre characters. An acclaimed film director and the lord of a kingdom become no different from a taxi driver: they all suffer from the same human problems, such as a lack of love, solitude, lack of exceptionalism. The elements determining the characters’ social status and success become blurry and flow into an everyday rhythm, serving as a background rather than as pivotal points of action. These human problems that we most often wish to overlook and that have long been in the center of many literary plots are the book characters’ main Achilles heel, which Tumasonytė captures and brings to light so distinctively.

Since these characters are presented as mediocre and their life with little perspective, they appear as exotic creatures. For instance, the short story “Paskutinė mano gyvenimo diena” (“The Last Day of my Life”), about a famous film director, is written with none of the usual clichés: it is primarily the story of an aging woman, rather than one about career being the main tool for fulfilment, inspiration, and fame. Anxiously waiting her younger lover (somewhat with lust, somewhat afraid of admitting it), she acts like a mother, not able to look at herself in the present time. Thus, Undinės is pregnant with a desire for an unfulfilled life. Here, a person, just like an object, has an expiration date, and the text an ending. But then again, if the book doesn’t offer a happy denouement, what makes it interesting to read?

Tumasonytė’s prose is intriguing due to its specific way of presenting ideas: it feels like you are observing routine as something exotic. All moments in the characters’ lives are expressively presented, while the background of their surrounding trifles swells with all sorts of information. This is nicely revealed in a story about what takes place during the nightshift of a taxi driver named Rasma (Taksistė [Taxi Driver]). What’s important here is not where Rasma takes her passengers, but—just as if you were watching a European film—how we’re offered more details about them: summaries of their lives along with descriptions of their worries and concerns are presented in brackets. Such textual inserts distort the storyline course without complementing it or acting in it; and yet they’re interesting by themselves.  Tumasonytė’s prose magnifies the world in a grotesque fashion, making it possible to get into the minds of strangers and understand different levels of their thought and their unique patterns of speech.

Tumasonytė’s writing style is similar to that for an art-house film. She cares about her aesthetic choices, inserts cinematic and literary epigraphs, and builds a compelling montage, applying the same principles as in her debut book Dirbtinė muselė (Little Artificial Fly). Thus, an attentive reader may eventually realize that the main characters are, in fact, Adam and Eve disguised as Lithuanian emigrants; that the setting is actually heaven overgrown with jungle shrubs; and that this baffled kingdom is like an anthill, jumbled by a little mischievous child. Or perhaps there is simply a myse en abyme in these texts creating an optical illusion: “The lake is the eyeball, and the floating mermaid is a black dot. When she is worried, the blond man's wife cooks. Now she is cooking fish rubbed with garlic. . In half an hour it will be ready. The cooked fish’s eyes will become two white balls, looking indifferently into a face longing for love.” (Muzika jų akyse [Music in their Eyes]) The author gives an ironic wink to hipsters and the adepts of deconstruction; the potent finger of God and destiny has been displaced by a contemporary deus ex machina.

The title of the book, Mermaids, reflects its hybrid essence. First, a body emerging from the surface of the water (the routine and ordinary) is ingeniously extended into a mermaid’s “tail”: naturally introduced surreal elements and an unexpected composition complement the storylines. I’m calling this connection hybrid because it doesn’t resemble either a hallucination or a dream. Atypical elements in Tumasonytė’s texts appear almost imperceptibly, giving reality a perspective. In Muzika jų akyse, mermaids are not mythical creatures. Rather, they are just another discovered but unexamined species. They’re also described the way we would imagine: bare breasted, with scales and a strong fin, seductive, just like sirens. Tumasonytė’s visual and corporeal way of speaking essentially rationalizes the descriptions and doesn’t disturb the reader. A text written this way turns ephemeral phenomena and convictions into material objects, offering the reader a chance to touch the shapes of loneliness, fill up the emptiness with the characters’ duplicates and neutralize the fear of death. And even if this material description is neither symbolic nor metaphorical, it doesn’t eliminate the metaphysical essence. The alien chimeras are allowed to tame reality and have the right to extend it.

I wouldn’t consider this way of writing a mystification, but rather a response to the prevailing Lithuanian prose style of psychological realism. It is typical that writers of this type of prose tend to follow a strict genre-based framework and give lots of attention to the psychology of “ordinary people” strongly affected by various external factors (such as historical cataclysms, the poverty of social reality, or injustice) as well as their complicated relationships with the environment and their loved ones. There are often apocalyptic problems rising from small details and nuances, which is how the writer tries to shake up the readers’ consciousness by addressing their imagination and their cognition of emotional truth. A significant role is given to the function of language, which Tumasonytė imbues with richness and ambiguity. Yet there is a side effect to it, too: this kind of prose becomes trendy and engaged with moral questions.

In my opinion, Tumasonytė’s book Undinės is powerful precisely for not offering any  shock value and not speculating upon evaluations nor upon emotion or sensitivity. Her laconic sentences are intellectually surprising and can only be understood at a distance and with a sense of humor. The author doesn’t suggest delving into the depth of experiences; instead, she turns the world inside out, gives it volume, and lets phenomena be examined and contemplated in a non-lyrical way. This is not very common in Lithuanian prose. Such writing is born out of a playful relationship that loosens the ties between tradition and modernity, ironically and reasonably demonstrates the gap between the older and the younger generation, and reconsiders the relevance of myths. And this is  good: a little playfulness never hurt anyone.

 

 

Translated by Alexandra Bondarev

 

 

 

 

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