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Valdas Papievis (born in 1962 in Anykščiai) is a prose writer and translator. In 1985 he graduated from Vilnius University in Lithuanian literature, and worked at Vilnius University in the Rector’s Office from 1985 until 1990. In 1990-1992 he was an adviser for Darius Kuolys, the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania at the time. From 1988 to 1990 he, together with others, was publishing a notable cultural magazine, “Sietynas,” independent from Soviet censorship. He also worked at Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty until 2004. Papievis collaborates with Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT). He has been living in Paris since 1992.

Papievis is the author of eight prose books. He debuted in 1989 with the novel “Ruduo provincijoje” (Autumn in the provinces). Among his many prizes, his novel “Eiti” (To go) was awarded a prize as the most creative book of the year in 2011. His novel “Odilė, arba oro uostų vienatvė” (Odile, or the solitude of airports) was nominated for Book of the year and was selected as the most creative books of the year in 2015. In 2016 he received the prestigious National Award for Culture and Arts in Lithuania. Two of his translated novels have been published, both in 2020: “Eiti”, renamed “Un morceau de ciel sur terre,” translated by Caroline Paliulis, appeared in French by Editions Le Soupirail, and in German his novel, “Odile oder die Einsamkeit der Flughäfen,” translated by Markus Roduner, was published by KLAK Verlag. His short story, “Echo, or the Sieve of Time,” translated by Violeta Kelertas into English, appeared in The Kenyon Review, July/August in 2019.  Valdas Papievis has continued the story in Lithuanian, turning it into a novel, published as “Ėko” in 2021 by the Vilnius publisher, Odilė. It is being translated into English by the same translator.

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Graphic Novels

Virginija Cibarauske

by
Jūratė Čerškutė

Translated by Violeta Kelertas
(excerpts and quotes from the novel
Ėko are taken from her translation)

 

Valdas Papievis Echo review 02Valdas Papievis, Ėko. Odilė, 2021

It was October of 2018, the tenth issue of the literary journal, “Metai,” and it contained Valdas Papievis’s “Ėko.” It wasn’t a short story, as one might conjecture from the text’s structure, density and richness, but the subtitle called it a fragment of a novel, bestowing hope that in time it would become a novel.

It was during the pandemic’s first days of April 2020 when I dashed off a note to Papievis, who has lived in Paris for many years and is perhaps the most consistent teller of tales of that city in Lithuanian literature, asking him how life was in Paris under lockdown. “Paris? They say that even during the war it wasn’t like this. It’s the wasteland of wastelands. Even the river is closed off...” This was the answer I got, followed by a video of La Ville Lumière, frightfully empty and fallen silent. To my total amazement and pleasure excerpts from Ėko were copied into the letter. With a post scriptum, saying, “This is a sort of draft, now there is time to polish it and keep polishing it.”

After a month and a half the polishing was finished. On May 28, 2020, the publishing house “Odilė,” producing Papievis’s work for the last five years and named after one of the heroines of his books, gave a shout out on its Facebook page: “Big event! The long-awaited “Ėko” by Valdas Papievis is finished and has reached us. We have to remember that this work was started four years ago. Maybe Valdas Papievis is the prophet of this emptiness? One day Ėko flashed into the writer’s mind to accompany him to the end of the novel being written. So he himself would become a book.”

May 7, 2021, holding in my hands the just published book, barely bigger than the palm of my hand, 135 pages and IX chapters of the smallish Ėko, I immediately turned to the final page, only to see “August 2016 to May 2020.” It is namely between these two margins of time that the newest work of Papievis’s prose fiction and the nameless narrator’s stories are set: the friendship with the dog Ėko, the affection for Emili, and the endless observations of how nature recovers Paris, how destruction becomes one of the key words, containing and growing the narrative.

The dates framing the writing are not mentioned idly; they frame the events of our times: the first August in Paris after the terrorist attack of November 13, 2015 (“that year tourists avoided Paris. We all know why,”), the first spring of the pandemic bringing to a halt the world’s cities and us, and of course the fire of Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019, connecting all these events in a strange way like some kind of warning.

We all know stories, read or seen, or even personally experienced ones about August in Paris, when it appears that all the city’s residents go away and leave the capital to the tourists. In that year, 2016, Paris was emptier than usual, and this, plausibly, inspired Papievis to take on the theme of the city’s ruin and disintegration (after all, a city is alive, when people create a clamor in it). The strict lockdown brought new hues to his writing and its development. Thus the narrative, having begun with August’s light and the summer’s lassitude, becomes a snare for the Zeitgeist of the decade we are living in, while the Paris of the summer’s end, catching the virus of ruin, drastically frees itself from the sheen of its imagery, creating the text’s memorable melancholy, the  slightly catastrophistic mood and premonition of the end of the world.

Papievis’s newest novel, like all of his work, first of all is good literature. The kind, whose topical thread is minimally woven into a text faithful to its language, while in the flow of contemporary books, somewhat tortured by their dependence on the intrigue of plot, provide the literary refreshment we miss, because it allows us to delight in the sentences, and the words, stinging with their unexpected precision, their insights or  sighs. As I was reading Ėko, at the back of my mind I was carrying two unexpectedly connected insights about good literature: Alfonsas Andriuškevičius’s claim, first of all intended for a good poem, but applicable to all of literature – for it to be good it needs a metaphysical plane[1]. The critic Jūratė Sprindytė mentions this also as “giving meaning to existential moments, vitally important to man,”[2] next to language, style, the amount of artistic information in a brief textual segment, the mastery of the generic canon, or inventive denial of it, reflecting the criteria of the epoch or its signs, all defining successful works.

Thinking about Ėko from the perspective of the mentioned metaphysical plane, one can pronounce somewhat awkwardly that it is a text, contemplating the finiteness of man and the world, the state of contemporary humankind in a pastel apocalypse, but also in a melancholy light. At its center is destruction, sifting everyone and everything through the sieve of time. Papievis broaches “fashionable” themes – the refugee crisis, the climate crisis, nature’s exhaustion with man, man’s exhaustion from chasing after success, the anxiety suffusing everything.

The novel’s setting is Paris, deserted by people and therefore falling into ruin, but at the same time it is returning to the embrace of nature. At times Paris is reminiscent of a wasteland, at others of a monastery, whose buildings and objects were writing “the hexameter of the city running wild.” The nameless narrator and his faithful companion, the dog Ėko, surrender to this rhythm, as they still roam around the city, deserted by people, along the abandoned parks and the emptying buildings, past the clogged fountains. In this text the narrator constantly talks to his dog, confessing his ideas and musings, asking him life’s most important questions. Even when Ėko disappears, the narrator searches for him and misses him perpetually.

The image of Paris is important in the novel, it has no sentimental filters, it’s primevally pure, in the process of releasing itself from deposits of glory, somewhat similar to Eugène Atget’s photographs, thus it’s no accident that one of them, Quai d’Anjou, 6h du matin, decorates the book’s cover and initial pages. The choice of Atget is expected and symbolic – he was considered to be the most distinguished flâneur of his age, having changed the concept of photography, and recorded the realistic face of Paris, without any glamour, lasting until the golden era of the 1920s. It seems likely that Papievis performs a reverse gesture, as if he is returning the city to its old, unpolished level of reality by first ridding it of people and the movement of a vital, droning city, refining its forms and emotions. Gracefully rewriting to a new plane of meaning Ernest Hemingway’s “Paris is a moveable feast,” the author creates a memorable variant of his own celebration: “And what was that Saint Martin celebration, if it wasn’t an escape from time, which, while we were still in the city, the city was like a boat raising its anchor, pulling away from the harbor, a ringing, deafening our eardrums, started to pierce us?” In this kind of context like a denial of Hemingway’s clichéd phrase soars a feature of Paris, containing all the city’s contradictions: “And this was Paris – a city created over many years and decades and never completed; there remained no differences between the color of birth, nor the features of character, a city without age limits and without what we call social layers. Fulfilled in a dystopia, one evening’s utopian city.”

It is namely in such a Paris that the narrator of Ėko distances himself from being a flâneur infused with cultural meanings, becoming nature’s drifter, observing the emptiness, the abandonment, the layering of time, a nomad, pronouncing “It was the life of nomads—we lived in the city as if in the steppes.” The narrator’s roving around Paris and settling in with Emili, whom he met unexpectedly, is like an answer to the question, how to find the courage to live when all the circumstances are new, and the things you are accustomed to up till now have changed so much that they are impossible?

The narrator’s conviction that “the detail is always more eloquent than generalizations” is reminiscent of Atget’s vision of the world, the sluggishness recorded in his photos and the always close by presence of the temptation to go further, to know, to find the unexpected detail, or the unobserved way the light falls. (Having read Ėko, I pulled out the small album of Atget’s Paris I own; it was enough to create connections and associations, therefore, I dare say that on reading Papievis’s text it is not dangerous to look at Atget’s photos of old Paris, it’s even highly recommended).

Another important layer of Ėko is the aid of written culture and the contemplation of writing. The narrator is surprised to find himself beginning to write, grieving for the time lost and for the city swept by the sands of memory, trying to capture the instants of time in ruins, which by laying them down into words, he is building a new city, a textual one: “I said to myself that letters are the bricks from which the houses of this city were built; sentences are the streets and boulevards laid out between the houses; syntactic constructions are the tangle of streets and cross sections; paragraphs are the blocks or neighborhoods. I don’t even know what infected me with the belief in the power of letters and writing. But with everything crumbling and falling, what was left, what else could I believe in?”

The narrator, a bit unconvincingly to the reader, lets slip that he is writing for the first time, however, his attempt to overcome the difficulties of writing, the battle with endless sentences without end form the professionally insightful feature of the nature of complicated writing: “And writing them, saying and not saying what I would want to say, finally it occurred to me that writing would be omnipotent only when you could write down words without letters, sentences without words, commas, or periods, and paragraphs without sentences. If writing were as easy as thoughts, flashing and gliding now right by us, now a long way away. As if they hadn’t even existed. But thoughts fly in and fly off, as if the wind carried them like dandelion fluff, while writing has to save them. That is why it was invented. This duty is its nature; writing has to expand this nature by means of words, sentences, and paragraphs. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult? Like the bricks, houses, streets, and blocks of cities being constructed, only to then go to ruin.” 

As the narrative approaches its ending, besides writing, so memorably contemplated in the first chapter of the book, reading also appears – the narrator takes it upon himself to teach Karimas, the refugee boy met at the campground, to read, bringing him piles of books from the huge bookstore. Finally this activity and commitment sweeps the narrator into a dream-like reality, in which the sculpture of the Egyptian Scribe, kept in the Louvre, becomes a strange symbol of this text of metawriting, attracting other intertexts: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Beggars, Arthur Schopenhauer’s the world as the concept of will and representation. In general, after analyzing all the intersections of the intertexts, one can pronounce that the narrator of  Ėko is a wise scribe, attentive to his surroundings, at times pretending to be Bruegel’s beggar, who “is consoling himself, because there is no one left to whom he can complain,” constantly trying to guess, whether this world really is only our will and representation? As is fitting, the answer rings out almost at the end: “Perhaps life is neither will, nor representation, perhaps life is an impression.”

Into writing as a discourse of preservation and memory Papievis subtly incorporates reflections of his own works: in Paris in ruins we meet his One summer’s émigrés (2003), Odile (2015), in metronome rhythm the nameless narrator of his novel Eiti (To go, 2010) passes by, the Commandant from Autumn in the Provinces (1989) puts in an appearance. It seems that besides being an apocalyptical vision, Ėko is an echo of Papievis’s previous works, and a book of his plot matrices. Just like Emi, the narrator keeps setting literary traps for his reader, using them to remind him that “to launch into literature is very dangerous.”

Why is that? Because the boundaries between the text and reality, between writing and invention, reminiscence and imagining disappear. “To remember is at the same time to imagine.” — the narrator clearly contrives his conviction about his creativity and his observation of the world, always tearing into fiction’s veil, allowing Emi to say you created me this way. Writing is the key, with the second chapter unlocking a bit of a comprehensible plot. The narrator meets Emi and together with her and Ėko begins to survive the cold season, the endlessly long winter, a time “when there was nothing left to do.” However, there is always something to do, especially when it comes to telling  Emili and Ėko stories without end, in whose whirl all edges vanish, and they themselves become partly real, partly conjured up or remembered by the narrator, or maybe dreamt up, characters, partly real, partly fictionalized facts of Papievis’s creative biography: “Emi, I know their names, but they exist only in my dream. Or in my imagination. If I ever met these people, I forgot where and when it was. Look, do you see that lady? Her name is Odile, it seems that once upon a time I lived in her attic rental under the roofs, I’d like to write a book about her.” (a reference to Papievis’s 2015 novel Odile, or the solitude of airports—JČ).

On the level of writing, creating and literature Ėko has acquired the ambivalent powers of a demiurge and has taught the narrator how to play with words, but as the text gets going the dog has disappeared. That is when both Emili and the narrator begin to search for him, realizing ever more often that he was everything and everywhere: “getting it into their heads that supposedly Ėko could be Karimas, that Ėko could be this campground, that Ėko could even be this entire falling city, because after all Ėko is echoes and reverberations of echoes, like church bells in your skull, striking at your  temples...”

Ėko—echo—an echo that resounds and reverberates through all the book’s chapters, through the narrator’s moods, the characters he creates through his speech and all the mystifications captured by the text, written out in the lexis, syntax and rhythmics peculiar to Papievis’s works. Ėko’s presence, his disappearance, the search for him and finding him function as an illustration of how repetitions and overlaps are never the same: “no matter what, and to what infinitude it would be repeated, in any case the hues, tonalities, and finally the circumstances will be different – that which makes our lives our lives.”

In writing this review, as much as I wanted to avoid the word “novel,” I couldn’t—why had I wanted to avoid it? Because I am not certain that Ėko really is a novel, and even if it is, it’s more likely a novella? On the other hand, I tend to think that it’s a meditation with variations. The very first chapter of the text, which was published in 2018 in the journal “Metai,” reveals a judicious power and concentration of thought, characteristic of a short story. It is in this textual segment that the most important and richest textual melodies are played; in other parts of the text they are only replayed with additions or reverberations in various hues. Although the metaphor of playing isn’t the most fitting for this unusual text of silence and slowness, whose soundtrack is the silence of this always clamoring metropolis, and the impression that the celebration isn’t over yet, but most certainly is approaching its end.

Attentive readers of this text will already have observed that I quoted “Fulfilled in a dystopia, one evening’s utopian city” — is Papievis’s Ėko a dystopia? Of course, there is no shortage of apocalyptic intuitions and odors of catastrophe, however, the narrator’s inner stance, I would say, is something rarely found, i.e. utopian, because he is sufficient unto himself, also the opposite, saying “I could have all of it, but I didn’t need any of it anymore, I didn’t even need my own self.”

I have already seen reader’s reviews about Ėko, and the distinction of Papievis’s work, which can appear to be repetition — to some Ėko is reminiscent of his earlier novel, Eiti, to others the book is One summer’s émigrés, rewritten according to contemporary concerns, although it would be closer to the truth to say one winter’s, since that is how long the narrative’s exterior time lasts. “The monotonous Papievis,” as the Sprindytė put it once, and in a certain way it’s true, especially seeing how not only the characters, but also the themes arrange themselves yet again in this text as well, which I consider to be a duet of Eiti and One summer’s émigrés.

In my opinion Ėko is the author’s text that, as Emi says, balances on the verge of  “jabbering,” and only avoids the banality of the truths it maintains and life’s chatter by staying on the side of an artistic text, dreams and imagined things, self-irony and self-criticism (the flashes of inner monologue, interrupted by stop). Most likely it is also the first work of prose fiction in Lithuanian literature, even if it’s implied only in spots, to record the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns, the obscurity of the future’s anxiety, hammering away at us, and the past’s greed, which brought the destruction, suffusing the present and this Papievis work. It is a text about memory and oblivion, about what can happen when we forget to acknowledge and recognize the inherent beauty of our lives. At the end of Ėko the narrator tries to convince us that “there are all kinds of ways to survive our lives and their experiences.” The fire of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral that paralyzed the entire world is like the dénouement of the narrative, returning to the narrator who else but Ėko, the reverberation of the narrator and Paris. And although the last page of the text is like a prayer of solitude or an incantation, nevertheless, the most fitting description would be that it’s a story of the fortune of the unfortunates —“to be happy just because you exist,” or, as Papievis says,—malgré tout.

 

1. From the LRT broadcast „Kalbantys tekstai. Susitikimas su poetu Alfonsu Andriuškevičiumi“, in: https://www.lrt.lt/mediateka/irasas/1013690807/kalbantys-tekstai-susitikimas-su-poetu-alfonsu-andriuskeviciumi

2. Jūratė Sprindytė, Prozos būsenos: 1988—2005, Vilnius: Lietuvių literatūros ir tautosakos institutas, 2006, p. 34-35.

 

 

 

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