Rolandas Rastauskas (b. 1954) is a much-loved character in Lithuanian literary circles, known affectionately as RoRa, the original dandy. He studied English at Vilnius university, debuted as a playwright in the 1970s, and published several collections of poetry in the 1980s. He has won the National Prize for his essays, of which he published several collections, often reprinted from various newspapers and magazines that he has written for. However, theatre has always been his true vocation, and as well as writing plays, he is also a director and a performer, often producing smaller-scale, but nonetheless very impressive and innovative projects. Venice Direct (Venecija tiesiogiai) is his first fiction book.

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

Lina Buividavičiūtė

Ramūnas Čičelis

Translated by Diana Barnard


Valdas Papievis Echo review 02Rolandas Rastauskas, Venecija tiesiogiai, Apostrofa, 2021

Rolandas Rastauskas’s latest book Venecija tiesiogiai (Venice Direct consists of several structural parts: a novel, several novellas, some short fictional texts, and a section that balances between poetry and prose dedicated to Dainius Liškevičius. Rastauskas’s work deliberately avoids the definition of a novel because with his artistic writing he creates a strong antithesis to what has so far been categorized as a genre category in Lithuanian literature: Rastauskas’s narrative about the reality of Italian fashion, the criminal world of Russia, and Lithuanian realities is a categorical rejection of the tendency of the narrator and the characters to engage in lengthy self-reflections and to avoid action, and even to communicate with other characters in the form of a dialogue. In a semiotic theory developed by Algirdas Julius Greimas, an individual’s actions are traditionally divided into the cognitive and pragmatic. In the former case, the human is more inclined to think, while the pragmatic level is always associated with the concrete, the tangible, and the social. In this respect, Venecija tiesiogiai is pragmatic and therefore has almost no references to the past of the Lithuanian novel.

Rastauskas’s work is much closer to the contemporary Russian novel because he expands on how the characters deal with complex problems associated with the criminal layers of society and overcome certain challenges and collisions. It is impossible to miss Venecija tiesiogiai’s parallels with the work of Viktor Pelevin and similar authors. Perhaps the only aspect that distinguishes Rastauskas’s work from those by Russian authors is that Rastauskas avoids mystical and magical digressions and motivation behind the characters’ behavior. Instead, he maintains a plot that can still be explained by logic and common sense.

Those who have read Rastauskas’s earlier poetry and essays will inevitably get another opportunity to enjoy his individual style, one that balances between very strong and gently euphoric poetic enjoyment of the reality of life and the novel that is typical of only few authors, and the narative-like minuteness, or even precision, which comes from his essays. Rolandas Rastauskas’s work is like an experiment that sets both hemispheres of the reader’s brain working. Rastauskas has tested its veracity on a number of occasions: the texts are emotionally infused and, thanks to the numerous intertextual references, allusions, and associations, they awaken and expand cultural memory at the same time.

Venecija tiesiogiai opens with establishing Rastauskas’s relationship with his readers, his work, and himself. A combination of flirtation with the audience and sober self-assessment unfolds, which  introduces the subsequent chapters of the book and creates an intellectual intrigue: it delineates Rastauskas’s notion of literature, according to which the artistic word finds its fulfilment in a conversation with other people rather than in the process of one person striking up a conversation with themselves.

The first chapter of the novel is unexpected for a reader used to Rastauskas’s work because it is filled with the attributes of the vanity of artists and people in the fashion world, with which the author is familiar indirectly: it abounds with the exterior of a life that is more associated with a consumerist attitude towards goods, services, and human relationships rather than with profound experiences. Venecija tiesiogiai does not offer a straightforward assessment of this reality, because it would be didactic and even primitive. Rastauskas’s characters have the right to live the way they want and the way that is inevitable for them.

In the second and third chapters of the book, which depict a context and space that are more Lithuanian than Italian, the reader can choose between what we would call the fleeting happiness of designers and the people on the catwalk and the meaning of life that is closer to traditional values. Rastauskas, who references the relationship between Odysseus and his native Ithaca in the epigraph, is basically trying to answer the fundamental question that Europeans have debated about culture for thousands of years: does a person have the right to leave their homeland, and, if they abandon it, what awaits the person when they leave and come back later?

Venecija tiesiogiai offers several layers of meaning: a superficial reading would suggest that Rastauskas is simply talking about the mistakes some people make in their early youth, but on a deeper level, the answers to these questions are not as obvious and straightforward, because who could voluntarily give up the very sweet feeling of anonymity in a new, unfamiliar place? Moreover, the power of an individual to assimilate into a new space in a relatively short time by resorting to the habits of consumption and cultural erudition alone is highly tempting and undoubtedly positive. Beyond the boundaries of Venecija tiesiogiai, Rastauskas resolves the rebus between a stable and traditional life in the homeland and nomadic wandering – both in his earlier work and in his personal life – by choosing to travel, in other words, by breaking down the opposition between the native and the new place. Perhaps even Rastauskas would not be able to give an accurate answer to the question of how many intellectual homelands he has internalized and made his abode, perceiving them as important revelations and sources of creative inspiration.

For all that, the Lithuanian reality in Rastauskas’s book is rather post-colonial: the characters are overcome by fairly standard post-Soviet complexes, fears, and desires. What is new and radical is that they solve these internal problems and do not simply acknowledge them. On the other hand, the traits and behavioral motivation of the characters, which are familiar to the Lithuanian reader from reality, do not impose the conclusion that Rastauskas is just a realist reflecting the types of people in contemporary Lithuania: the personages are adequately individualized, and that is why Venecija tiesiogiai is a far cry from the content that appears in lifestyle magazines. It would be wrong and trivial to think that Rastauskas is simply pulling back the curtain on the secrets lives of artists and high society. The truth is that readers have been aware of many of these “secrets” or have had a hunch about them for quite a long time. Rastauskas goes beyond that: he illuminates that trite private publicity with meaning underpinned by the idea that designers or models behave in one way or another as well as by revealing the causes and consequences of such behavior. What awaits both the characters and the readers of the book upon perceiving these two very important aspects of reality is not necessarily happiness but certainly a more spacious freedom.

The denouement of Venecija tiesiogiai suggest that, despite the numerous realities of modern life, a person has only a few fundamental profound concerns: to be loved, to live, and, nolens volens, to die. This novel will add to the reader’s awareness and understanding of artistic reality and of life. Meanwhile, the end of the book shuffles the cards yet again and deprives the narrator and the audience of the gift of omniscience: reality remains obscure and complicated and thus artistic, poetic, and romantic, but not sweet. Venecija tiesiogiai is an immense literary pleasure. Unfortunately, when it is over, we must return to the mysterious, viscous, and slow everyday reality, or in Rastauskas’s words, the provinciality that pervades the cities and, of course, the small towns of Lithuania.

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