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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

by Manfredas Žvirgždas


Alvydas Slepikas review 02Alvydas Šlepikas. Lietaus dievas ir kiti, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla,  2016

Lietaus dievas (The God of Rain), Alvydas Šlepikas’s short story collection, belonged to the same tradition of psychological prose of magic realism as the work of Juozas Aputis and Romualdas Granauskas, which recorded the dreary province of Soviet Lithuania and its neurotic personages. This thin book appeared at a time when the pundits of postmodernism declared with enthusiasm that the plot should be shot. In response to such an aggressive ambition, Šlepikas tried to prove that writers had to learn how to narrate a convincing story and to assume responsibility for their attitude to values.

The setting of Šlepikas’s short stories is a town in Aukštaitija (the ethnographic region of Lithuania in the country’s northeastern part), which is enveloped in outward peace and quiet and where banal everyday conflicts take place. People are emotional and sentimental here, although their sentimentality is primarily caused by alcoholism. For example, somebody declares friendship with a disadvantaged neighbor while recurrent hints are made in passing about physical violence against him. Wrongdoings and violence define the identity of the depressed “small people,” or working class, like a gloomy legacy of Soviet times or the dark side of the Lithuanian national character. Numerous groups within the town’s community are socially marginalized, criminal jargon is spreading among young people, and prison life is idealized. On the other hand, despite the heritage of Soviet atheization, Catholic moral imperatives are still in force and family values are publicly declared. The more sober townspeople draw a line between the time of celebrations (feast days, a car rally, a graduation party) and daily life. On holidays, the com- munity abandons itself to Dionysian giddiness that is interrupted by tragic events.

The slow flow of the mundane can be disrupted not only by a festivity planned in advance: for example, the town’s old sage, eighty-year-old Laurinavičius, for whom “sitting and doing nothing [...] has always been the greatest torture” (p. 17), becomes an object of entertainment for gloating neighbors when he gets stuck in a tall linden tree and a fire engine arrives to his rescue. The misfortune of the other stirs up the townspeople and, ironically, the culprit encourages everybody to celebrate and rejoice: “Oh yes, run, everybody, run, the circus has arrived!” (p. 24). For the old man, the people of today, who “seldom raise their heads up and more often than not rummage between their legs like hogs” (p. 14), are repulsive. The yearning for the sky and the “whirl of May” in spring allow him to take the last flight when the soul disengages itself from the worn-out body.

Admiration  of the romantic  in books, Ernest Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro”, or the tales about mediaeval knights is for children. The community dis- likes rebels who try to prove that the world does not end at the outskirts of the town. Having deserted the town, vagabonds are driven back by nostalgia to see the symbolic picture of their homeland before them: “everything is bright and eternal: woken up by the early summer sun, Lithuania was shining and blossoming out- side the window” (p. 60). The picture of the homeland is static, sentimental, emanating old age and ... not attractive enough for a longer stay.

More complex emotional experiences are not attributed to the intelligentsia – to the teacher, the priest, or the director of the community cultural center. Šlepikas finds the town dweller “uncorrupted by culture” more interesting. Such a chaste hero with open eyes is often spotted among children and teenagers. It is an archetypical situation: children come face to face with the insecure and intimidating world of adults. The trauma of collision does not reach the consciousness immediately. For example, a child who saw a blind beggar suffering from convulsions and dying does not show pity for him but is just happy he has “cured” his own fear. He is overwhelmed by a naive belief that from that moment his life will resemble a sweet from a holiday feast. These naive hopes are overthrown by a sign sent by the god of rain – a summer downpour that ruins the annual ritual.

The young generation is growing up unrestrained by the authority of their parents and grandparents; no attempts are made to find common ground or to cooperate because adults simply distribute their wisdom and are not concerned whether anybody listens to them. Reality is interlaced with creepy visions: a child sets his grandfather’s barn on fire hoping to see his long-lost father emerge from the dark- ness in the company of a fire fox. Dragging a cello to be given to a teacher as a present through deep snow, a girl freezes because there is nobody to accompany her home; she meets a gang of tramps in the wood and exchanges the valuable instrument for a bunch of liverwort flowers. A high school graduate is seeing his mother home after the graduation party and suddenly a dragon resembling Godzilla emerges from the darkness ...

Childish nightmares of the subconscious merge with alcohol-induced phobias of later times: to some of the characters, reality becomes unbearable and they revive when submerged in phenomenological medication on the “mass and spirit ratio” of moonshine. The space of the town is enclosed: from childhood people learn special communication codes that are hard for strangers to decipher and which, under various  circumstances, are used in church, at a bar, or within the family. People speak in the dialect of Aukšaitija and some of the characters lavishly use Russian swear words and, in general, brim with aggression. The town buzzes angrily like a swarm of insects under a hermetic and suffocating bell jar. The 2005 collection ends with magic opening of a window, when, in one go, all wasps, bees, and dragonflies burst into the open, “into the garden, into murmuring autumn, into the winter rushing over on its huge wings” (p. 106). It is obvious that this feverish flight towards the light is also a dash to death. The first edition of the collection was published when the political connotations of Lithuania’s opening up to Europe were still relevant.

In the 2016 story collection, any radical shift towards “Europeanization” is hard to sense. The town and its people have not changed much, although in “Violončelė” (The Cello) painful hints are made to former compatriots toiling in England and Norway. A public outsider, a character from the earlier collection, is overcome by alcoholic psychosis and sees a mouse of metaphysical dimensions staring at him from all corners, and his rambling is pacified only by an allusion to the past – the spurs of his grandfather, a former uhlan, glittering in a dirty corner of his dwelling. A fragment of the heroic “golden age” reaches our times, but only as an interior detail of a derelict lair. The writer shows that mythological archetypes are lurking even behind a drunkard’s ravings.

In the last ten years Šlepikas has spent much time on his permanent work with TV serials as a scriptwriter and actor. The television stylistic has had an impact on his short stories: “Tamsa” (The Darkness) resembles a detective thriller, “Išleistuvių vakaras” (Evening of the Graduation Party) reads like a mystical horror film, and “Violončelė” recalls the style of the road movie genre filled with mysterious spirit à la Twin Peaks. On the other hand, a cinematographic composition of images is characteristic of Šlepikas’s stories. In recent years, when writers have been turning towards the wide world in an even bolder manner and been building their work on impressions of exotic travel or emigration, Šlepikas’s loyalty to his childhood town tells us that there is something in Lithuanian prose that is eternal and impossible to destroy – just like that plot, which somehow does not let itself be shot dead.
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