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Saulius Tomas Kondrotas was born in 1953 in Kaunas.  He graduated from Vilnius university. In 1986 he emigrated to the West. During the years of 2001-2004, he worked as a journalist for Radio Free Europe. Since 2004, he has been living in Los Angeles, California (USA). He published three collections of stories and novels A Glance of the Serpent (1981), And the Faces in the Window Will Cloud Over (1985). His works has been translated into 20 different languages around the world.

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

 

rewiever Alan Berecka

by
Jūratė Čerškutė

 Translated by Diana Barnard

 

Saulius Tomas Kondrotas, Kolekcionierius. - V.: Tyto Alba, 2020

Ieva Toleikyte review 02

Saulius Tomas Kondrotas is an exceptional phenomenon in Lithuanian literature. In 1977, when Brezhnevian stagnation was in its second decade, he made his debut with the memorable short story collection Pasaulis be ribų (A World Without Boundaries). He inspired and taught his own and subsequent generations to trespass boundaries and expand them. “To shed off the harness in perception and writing” is how Danute Kalinauskaitė, a magician of short stories herself, describes the impact of Kondrotas’s writing in “Magas” (The Magician), the introduction to Kolekcionierius (The Collector).

This collection of Saulius Tomas Kondrotas’s short works, put together by Palmira Mikėnaitė and published by Tyto Alba Publishers in the summer of 2020, is the first attempt to produce a complete collection of Kondrotas’s 26 short stories from his previous collections Pasaulis be ribų (1977; A World Without Boundaries), Įvairių laikų istorijos (1982; Stories from Different Times), Kentauro herbo giminė (1989; The Clan of the Centaur), and Meilė pagal Juozapą (2004; Love According to Juozapas). In this book, the short stories “Eskizas” (A Sketch) and “Kornelijus Jedermano rūpesčiai” (Kornelijus Jedermanas’s Worries) written while he was still in Vilnius in 1986 and first published in 1989 in Metmenys, a magazine of sociology, politics, and literature for Lithuanian émigrés in the USA, make their first appearance in Lithuania.       

It is not by accident that I drop the hint about him “still” being in Vilnius: Kondrotas, who wrote profusely in the 1970s and the 1980s, when all his best books were published, went on a tourist trip in the summer of 1986, asked for political asylum in Western Germany, escaped the USSR, and was the last of the Lithuanian writers to emigrate from Lithuania during the Soviet period. His action triggered a reaction, of course, and he was “removed from Soviet literature” (despite his work being the formidable opposition it was): on 9 October 1986, Glavlit, the censorship authority of the Lithuanian SSR, issued the order “to remove the following books by S. T. Kondrotas from libraries and book retail trade.” The list consisted of four entries: the first two abovementioned collections of short stories and the novels Žalčio žvilgsnis (1982; The Gaze of the Serpent), Ir apsiniauks žvelgiantys pro langą (1985; And the Faces in the Window Will Cloud Over, vols. 1-2). Fortunately, the expulsion of his work lasted for only three years: in 1989, the powerful Sąjūdis movement, which sought the re-establishment of the statehood of Lithuania and the country’s liberation from the fifty-year-long Soviet occupation, was crashing through barriers, the ban on Kondrotas’s work included. In 1989, a collection of his short stories, Kentauro herbo giminė (The Clan of the Centaur), was published in a series for the Nemunas magazine. At the time, the Kondrotas worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich, where he lived. During the years that followed his escape from Soviet Lithuania, Kondrotas kept his distance from literature—he published only three new short stories, which appeared in the collection Meilė pagal Juozapą (Love According to Juozapas) in 2004. And now, sixteen years after this publication, Kondrotas’s complete short works have found their way to the new book bearing the title of his memorable short story “Kolekcionierius” (The Collector).   

Kondrotas’s short stories are almost always memorable: anyone who has read them will carry the old house, the fog, the kaolin, the sunset preserved in a tin, or the happiness machine in their memory. While Kondrotas has not written anything for a long time and the number of his works is limited, during the years of stagnation they were a focal point of literary culture. Since then, they have irrevocably clinched their place in the Lithuanian canon and still today are beloved by readers. Literary critic Jūratė Sprindytė highlights Kondrotas as a phenomenon: “His books changed hands regularly; the first one, with the manifesto title Pasaulis be ribų (1977) was read to pieces. Fluttering above Soviet literature, Kondrotas’s mystic novellas intensified the feeling that pertained not to the present but to the possible reality.”[1] He confirmed this idea in his 1992 interview with Le Monde when he said that the blunt, dull, and grey world taught him how to balance between what was permissible and what was not.

What is so special and exceptional about Kondrotas’s work? First of all, if we play with the titles of his collections, in a time when Lithuanian literature was overwhelmed by traditional descriptive, agrarian, and domestic realism, Kondrotas’s prose offered stories from different times and a world without boundaries. In this way, it stretched the limits of Lithuanian literature. Many critics reproached Kondrotas and Ričardas Gavelis (who embarked on a writer’s path at about the same time) for demonstrating their own intellect and erudition, for excessive rationality and purposeful construction, and for disregarding chronology and causative relations in their narrative. At the time, it was new, unexpected, provocative, and somewhat dangerous because it was too reminiscent of the forbidden fruit, Western literature. Albertas Zalatorius, one of the best-known critics of Lithuanian literature of that time, closely followed Kondrotas’s work and reprimanded him for creating characters that represented ideas and embodied symbols. They had names and a human appearance, but more often than not, they were simply forms through which the writer could spread his ideas and reflections. Very likely, it is this latter aspect of the writer returning to his inner life (which is referred to as a synonym for pure reason in the novella “Kabantis namas” [The Hanging House]), of revealing its labyrinthine nature and complex structure, of disentangling the key issues of life and elements of existence that is the exceptional quality in Kondrotas’s work and that of his generation. These writers no longer identified themselves with the doctrine of Soviet socialist realism; instead, they built a parallel world with perceptible irony towards and criticism of the totalitarian system (for example, stories about Kornelijus Jedermanas or the Sniegovija metaphor). The latter is inseparable from myth poetry, where mythical plots turn into allegorical and grotesque re-creations of Soviet reality. It was a means of building the Aesopian language that at the time was deep-rooted in the arts censored by the Soviet system and inherent in Kondrotas’s work (Audronė Barūnaitė-Willeke aptly discusses this relationship in her paper “New Times and Old Myths in S. T. Kondrotas’s Work”).

What does it feel to read the whole corpus of Kondrotas’s short work laid out in one book? First, it means reading good contemporary classic modernist (Lithuanian) literature. Kondrotas’s texts allow readers to recall how much they appreciate good writing. It also means re-living Kondrotas’s world and in this way endorsing what you already know about his work. At the same time, you discover things that are lost or covered with the dust of memory. While reading Kolekcionierius, I travelled back in time ten years, when I first read Kondrotas’s texts. Now, however, I was playing a game with myself by trying to read his prose as though I was reading it for the first time, when I highlight phrases and ideas that I want to return to in the margin notes or through underlining.

What strikes you when you read Kolekcionierius afresh and almost at one go? Kondrotas’s texts can be flexibly sorted into a number of thematic categories: philosophical, mythical, and historical stories, stories of love and betrayal, and stories of surprises and miracles of the mundane. All  are strictly supervised by time, memory, and history, which form the holy trinity of his wisdom-emanating work. Indeed, Kondrotas’s narratives reflect both memory and wisdom, as noted by the narrator of “Kabantis namas” (The Hanging House) in reference to Germanas’s father: “All sorts of wisdom. Life wisdom. Marital wisdom” (p. 213). Also, they are stories encoding a complex connection with the past: “It means that neither space nor time, nothing is as solid and realistic as thought. It means that born in one epoch, we do not lose the connection with people from other epochs. This connection is thought, the human’s personal experience” (p. 57). The above quotation points to an important quality in Kondrotas’s work: his heroes are linked by a network of thought that finds its place in the general fabric of the stories, and as you read, it becomes increasingly apparent how a motif or a thought follows a thread from one story to another, how they overlap and what shifts they undergo. As I was reading Kolekcionierius, I realized for the first time that all short work by Kondrotas could also be read as one text (this idea also extends to his novels), in which, like in memory, everything is stratified because “life is like a web where everything is related and interlaced. And the world is like a web” (p. 223). It is therefore not surprising that in a web like this, human presence unfolds in a somewhat different yet equally intricate manner:  “Isn’t it that living—feeling, thinking, and even performing the most basic actions—eventually means just navigating a maze?” (p. 141).

The labyrinthine structure that is characteristic of Kondrotas’s generation (and most glaringly exploited by Gavelis) facilitates discussion about the individual’s inner world, about “that soft intelligent spirit brimming with doubt” that used to scare the critics so much. Kondrotas’s texts attempt to read the mystery of the soul, and therefore it is not by accident that Utenis, one of its characters of “Kentauro herbo giminė” (The Clan of the Centaur), the short story that has become an allegory of fear, asks at its very beginning: “What is it that hides in the depths of our body or our soul? Where does it come from?” (p. 73). These questions are like invisible threads woven into Kondrotas’s stories.

What surprised me when I reread Kondrotas’s texts after a decade? First, it is their cinematic quality and compositional cleanliness: those sparse yet precise and therefore memorable compositional moves indicating how a story can create or destroy a world. How a world’s edges can be polished and covered in “mother-of-pearl of metaphors,” or on the contrary, sharpened to be completely airtight.

Second, during my previous readings of Kondrotas’s prose, I somehow overlooked the huge role of accurately described scent in the reconstruction of images and moods. Later, these reconstructions shape the structures of memory. I suppose it would be possible to conduct an independent study, “Scents in Kondrotas’s Short Stories,” with the aim of tracing connections between scents and gentle existential melancholy, sentimental nostalgia, stinging loneliness, and forgotten images, feelings, and colors. The central existential relationship between life and death merges into this spectrum, of course. Lukas Galkis, from the short story “Rūke mano siela” (In Fog Is My Soul), in which fog plays a role unrelated to the landscape, “wanted to write one good short story about death."  Human existence and trials of human life caused by time form the foundation of Kondrotas’s work.

Finally, a short quotation from the philosophical short story “Credo—būtis’ (Credo— Existence): “images, sounds, and scents have been given to him not just for their own sake: they oblige him to ask questions and look for answers to these questions” (p. 58–59). Reflecting on Kondrotas’s writing, one of the essential questions pulsating along the margins of my thoughts is whether they are fantasy stories. Do they still possess the qualities of magic realism? Such qualities have been spotted in Kondrotas’s work, just like the claim that he was probably the first Lithuanian author to have tried his hand at magic realism: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez was popular at the time of his debut. Unfortunately, when I was reading Kondrotas’s complete short work afresh, I no longer found the lauded magic realism that presumably stemmed from an association with a trend. However, the canonical truth of how masterfully Kondrotas erases the boundaries between reality and fantasy and how he suspends the reader in this “in-between” reality shone even brighter. Meanwhile, the reader, who is like Kondrotas’s “hanging house,” is caught up in the stories of Kolekcionierius. They reveal new aspects of his writing, for example, how graceful and light Kondrotas’s surrealism is; they also consolidate the old truths, for example, what an inimitable master of the Lithuanian short story Kondrotas is. Paraphrasing the literary critic Jūratė Sprindytė, readers will always think highly of him because he can choose not to write, and because what he has already written is excellent in the classic way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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