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Dainius Vanagas (b. 1989 in Kupiškis) is a writer, editor, and literary interpreter. He received his bachelor’s degree in the history of culture in 2012 and his master's degree in semiotics in 2014, both from Vilnius University. Since 2010, Vanagas has been writing for the cultural press and has published over 130 pieces of literary criticism and prose, which are distinct for their experimental structure and their dynamic and intense style. Oderis, his debut dystopian novel set in a fictional city in Central Europe in 2050, was published in 2021. To solve the problems of immigration and ineffective policies, the authorities of the city of Oder undertake a radical change by building a giant wall around the city and deporting all those who do not work and are deemed not useful to society. The novel is presented in three parts that differ in style as well as in the narrator’s perspective.

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

Lina Buividavičiūtė

by
Ramūnas Čičelis

Translated by Diana Barnard

 

Valdas Papievis Echo review 02Dainius Vanagas, Oderis, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 2021, p. 272

In the Western world, for two thousand years it was believed that a good work of art had to represent something that was not really there but certainly could be there. This is the foundation of mimetic representation, which even grammar school pupils are familiar with. More interesting times came in the Renaissance, when the Westerner became dissatisfied with the environment and the way they, their community, and society lived. The genre of utopia was thus born, which directed humanity's imagination towards something that did not exist but that people desired to be real. The father of utopian literature was Tomasso Campanella, the author of the famous work The City of the Sun. In this way, humanity began to contemplate and develop a model for a better world, an image that could guide philosophers, poets, writers, artists, scientists, and of course, politicians of the time. Not a single utopian society emerged from these efforts. In the second half of the twentieth century,  the genre of the dystopian novel came to flourish. Many writers have since embarked on portraying things that did not exist and that they would rather not exist.

Published this year, Dainius Vanagas’s dystopian novel Oderis is not an unusual work in the context of Western literature. It abounds in allusions to modernist literature, especially Franz Kafka and his adepts, in numerous links to works by George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and other classic authors. In the Lithuanian context, Vanagas’s narrative is revolutionary: such an action-oriented novel populated with characters of little self-reflection, which is also very dynamic and fast-paced, has been sorely lacking. A decade ago and even earlier, literary critics discussed what qualities would constitute a Euro-novel: a number of writers took it upon themselves to write books that were full of references to popular literature, with plots that were often kind of racy and catered to the reader’s need for entertainment rather than to their intellectual needs. Vanagas’s Oderis marks a new shift: many readers in Lithuania and other Western countries are no longer interested in love stories and signs of a consumerist lifestyle. Oderis supports a trend that marks the interest of a significant portion of the contemporary public in that there seems nothing left to consume – it is the hero of the novel that is himself consumed. Of course, such a reversal of meaning, where the hero is consumed himself, coincides with the rapid development of technology. A number of philosophers interested in artificial intelligence have pointed out that the algorithm by which technology works and which is driving predictable human behavior is based on past knowledge and assumptions, not future expectations and plans. We can conclude, therefore, that technology will never be able to create the future by itself. However, Alanas, the protagonist of Vanagas’s Oderis, is a character solely in the present. The dystopian world he lives in is interesting because in trying to talk about the future, it proposes the conclusion that there is no future. Vanagas is not Orwell, who in his novel 1984 contemplated the sad prospects of the future. Oderis says that dystopia has reached the point where the future no longer exists.

Although Oderis is set in the second half of the twenty-first century, it is easy to guess that Vanagas has created a narrative that speaks of the present: the novel depicts the future of humanity for which almost all the conditions are already in place in the real, nonfictional world. Its whole logic is based on a simple decision by the authorities of a European city, Oderis, to the effect that only employed people can live there. Out of this tension and out of the confrontation between the unemployed and the working, there arises the intrigue of Oderis: will the protagonist succeed in staying where he really wants to live; will he get a work visa to live in the city? Given the refugee crises that are currently troubling the world and the differences in national policies regarding migrants, it is easy to surmise that, albeit in a less categorical form, the reality described in the novel Oderis is already a reality of the present day to some extent because even today, a migrant, or indeed, anyone else in the world, is unable to settle anywhere they wish, when natural human rights and liberties are still protected in a rather ephemeral manner. Everyone living where they wish requires meeting a range of wealth, social capital, and other criteria.

Another argument that Vanagas is writing about a future that closely resembles the present is that today, a large part of humanity is already living corporate-centered lives. In Oderis, it does not matter whether a character is educated or has advanced qualifications, because almost everyone here is forced to live according to the same definition of order: to obey a strict logic of time of being in a particular place, the logic of behavior, of correspondence, and finally, of thinking. Unlike in classic dystopian novels, exceptions of otherness are not tolerated in Oderis. In the novel, a person who is subordinate to a corporation or to a factory loses the central and fundamental basis of their existence – the quest for meaning, its perception, and experience.

On the other hand, it is precisely because of the similarity of the future reality to the present that the character of the politician in Oderis reveals the paradoxical assumption that control and obedience  becomes a form of freedom. After all, nobody is forced to live in Oderis; the characters retain the possibility of an alternative existence. The only surprise is that hardly anybody chooses not to live in the controlled city, even though there always is a theoretical free choice. Thus, it becomes clear that the character in Oderis is someone who does not need freedom at all and only finds it disturbing and baffling. Alanas makes no secret of his inclination to live by the book, because it is clear, simple, and easy. Vanagas’s work strongly asks its readers if they need unfettered freedom. Moreover, is the contemporary person capable of outlining their own boundaries of freedom? – because only when this is possible is a person free.

In Oderis, Vanagas does not play mundane games with what has transpired in the history of humankind so far. Neither does he create a model for a better society. By projecting a highly undesirable future, he tries to understand the life and realities of the present. In the second half of the twentieth century, a number of cultural and political scholars noted the death of certain ideologies in Western societies. When we read Oderis today, we must acknowledge that it is no longer philosophy or politics that is dead: now it is history that has reached its end. Vanagas’s narrative is still filled with a perception of meaningful structures and control of the genre technique, and this is probably due to his studies of semiotics at Vilnius University. However, when reading his work, it becomes clear that there may soon be nothing left to tell. Everything will be just a repetition of the present, reminiscent of a broken record. The great question of reflection and thinking about a possible future, towards which Oderis is steering the reader is this: what can overcome the essence of dystopia?  The answer will determine the reader’s assessment of this novel as well as an assessment of the existence of culture, politics, literature, and the individual. The novel Oderis is written in a way that its value unfolds gradually. As a writer, Dainius Vanagas does not allow the reader to slumber in bliss and to live a quiet life without questions or doubts. According to Oderis, the foundations and principles of the present are still contained in the confidence in the individual’s power to think and decide.

 

 

 

 

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