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Vidas Morkūnas (b. 1962) is a Lithuanian prose writer, poet, and literary translator. He graduated from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in 1992 with a degree in screenplay writing. He is the author of three short story collections: Manekeno gimtadienis (“The Birthday of a Manequin,” 2001), Reportažas iš kiaušinio (“Report from an Egg,” Lithuanian Writers Union Publishing House, 2012), and Pakeleivingų stotys (“The Wayfarers’ Stations,” Odilė, 2019); Morkūnas is also the author of a collection of poems titled Nekropolių šviesos (“The Lights of Necropolises,” Lithuanian Writers Union Publishing House, 2015). He has translated many books from English, Polish, Russian, or German. Creative works by Vidas Morkūnas have also been published in major Lithuanian literary magazines. He is a member of the Lithuanian Writers Union and of the Lithuanian Association of Literary Translators. Vidas Morkūnas has won several literary awards for his poems and short stories. For his short story Mirtis (“Death”), Vidas Morkūnas received the A. Vaičiulaitis Award – one of the most significant literary awards in Lithuania. Vidas Morkūnas lives in Vilnius, his wife, Anita Kapočiūtė, is also a writer and translator. Together, they have raised three children. The creative works of Vidas Morkūnas are based mostly on the play and possibilities of imagination; the author uses real-life details and enjoys developing context around them.

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Vidas Morkūnas, The Wayfarers’ Stations, Publishing House Odilė. Vilnius: 2019

 

Vidas Morkunas review 02In Lithuania, literature engaged with social empathy appeared about a century ago when short stories and novelettes by Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė and Jonas Biliūnas, which have become classics, were written and published. The short story “Offering to God” by Petkevičaitė-Bitė is today known to every school-age child in Lithuania because it is being analysed in schools and gymnasiums. Leftist political views were the factor that determined the interest towards the most vulnerable social groups. Undoubtedly, the 1905 Bolshevik Revolution in the former Russian Empire greatly intensified the provisions and functioning of charity, compassion, and help.

Vidas Morkūnas, a Lithuanian writer who published a collection of short stories Pakeleivingų stotys (The Wayfarers’ Stations) this year, returns to these century-old literary traditions, complementing them with elements of the reality of the Soviet occupation and post-Soviet life in small Lithuanian towns and villages. This writer's characters are degenerate alcoholics ruined by their habit, orphans, beggars, those with disabilities, and other marginalized people. The paradox is the fact that, according to writer Vanda Juknaitė, those who long existed in the margins of society became a predominant group in the late Soviet era and the early years of Lithuania's regained independence almost overnight. Precisely because in the last decades of the twentieth century antisocial life had become a norm, it became difficult and unacceptable to openly talk about social empathy—every individual misfortune, which is what empathy encourages people to pay attention to—imperceptibly became a collective issue and hard to bear psychologically. Morkūnas, by creating a narrator and characters, does not ask for the reasons behind tragedies and does not analyze issues that would be closer to the political discourse. The narrator of his short stories is like a photographer capturing tragedy—in that way, it becomes not a subjective feeling or individual existential drama but an objective quality created through the sheer number of people it affects because when many are suffering, the experience can be generalized. If we ask what the point of this book is, the answer might be obvious—to inspire attention to the unfortunate and sensitivity not only towards otherness but towards life’s victims.

Connecting Morkūnas with century-old literature, art, and society is not only social feeling and photographic precision of depiction but also a tendency towards naturalism, which was minimally developed in the Lithuanian literature of that time. Morkūnas creates such stories that readers who do not live in poverty may find disturbing. Quite reasonably, some could ask how today naturalistic literature concerned with social issues is different from cheap TV programs showing those same unfortunate people. Morkūnas, alternatively, does not make fun of the characters; however, the ultimate effect of that sensitivity strongly relates the literary narrative with footage that generates commercial success: in both cases, it is aimed at reminding the reader or the viewer about the fact that there is an entire layer of society whose lives have been marked by misfortune. Analysing the functioning of traumatic memory, the psychoanalytic theorist Slavoj Žižek notices that constant repetition of difficult naturalistic images or creating them with words result in total indifference. Morkūnas's book of prose is composed in such a way that, as we turn page after page, no plot development occurs—we are seeing a sort of a gallery, at times disquieting, of wretched people. Some of the short stories even provoke the idea that the line between the naturalistic precision, the indifference it induces, and the perverse indulgence in ugliness is very slippery and dangerous.

In an attempt to accurately and precisely—graphically—understand what was happening in the Lithuanian peripheries at the end of the 20th century, we can hardly avoid the sometimes speculated accusations directed at the Soviet occupation. Morkūnas's book is important and interesting as literature that inspires us to think about whether there exists a system in the world that would not create outcasts or if such a system is at all possible. Only a writer who spent his entire life in Lithuania can blame the occupation for the indifference towards the weak—it is enough to travel to wealthier countries and it easily becomes clear that no political regime or ideology is capable of eliminating tragedy, loneliness, or unhappiness.

Morkūnas’s latest collection also makes the reader question whether such stories are not an anachronism in present-day Lithuania that is enjoying a much better quality of life, whether today those who did not succeed have not again been pulled to the margins of society and drifted there themselves. Certainly, that would be ideal, and sometimes it seems that that ideal is within reach, as if such prose pieces were a mere way to forget the unpleasant past. Morkūnas's book, despite its journalistic, ideological, and ethical tone, can be understood as a collection of such texts, a collection that helps formulate the philosophical problems present over the entire timespan Western civilisation: to what extent can a person be lonely, alienated, misunderstood, rejected, or condemned? Thinkers of various eras have answered these questions differently. However, it would be truly dangerous if we ever stopped raising them.

 

 

Translated by Julija Gulbinovič

 

 

 

 

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