Elizabeth Novickas Welcomes You To Gavelis’s Vilnius

vilnius-poker-cover.jpgI’m a big fan of Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester-based press that specializes in bringing literature-in-translation to American readers, and as I write this I’m working my way through their edition of the Lithuanian novelist Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker. About the time I started reading, I came across an essay written by the novel’s translator, Elizabeth Novickas, for the literary magazine Calque. Novickas and Calque co-editor Steve Dolph were kind enough to allow me to excerpt the essay on this blog—if you obtain the issue in which it appears, you’ll be able to read an additional passage illustrated by photographs of Vilnius (Lithuania’s capital) and an excerpt from the novel (plus new translations of work by Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, and many others).

Exploration, whether it be of the human psyche or faraway places, is one of the primary joys of reading fiction. But as a reader, under normal circumstances, we never come as close to the text itself as a translator does. Although reading Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker is in itself a startling, sometimes horrifying, sometimes head-spinning experience, I found it a pure joy to explore the depths of Gavelis’s writing, to observe just how carefully he structured his plot and even the cadence of sentences, how phrases and words reappear in different contexts in different meanings, and how, despite the crushing overall impression of grimness, the work contains such outstanding black humor.

And yet humor is only a single layer of the multiplicity of this work, parts of which are still a mystery to me. What, for example, to make of all the preposterous claims the major protagonist, Vytautas Vargalys, makes for his father? Some weird metaphor? A Freudian fantasy? A Lithuanian wet dream? The suspicion that Gavelis is merely yanking our chains comes only at the end of the episode, when Vargalys finds his father drinking while rolled up in a carpet, and out comes an outrageous pun about a snail in his shell (kiliminam name: in a portable/carpet home).

Ultimately it is the author’s integrity, grounded in the reality of location and time, and shining forth from every page, that carries the reader through the mysterious, the preposterous, and the unexplainable. When asked to come up with a summary of what the book is about, or a single section that could characterize it, I find myself groping at so many things that I’m completely at a loss. Yes, I suppose one could summarize something of the plot: there is a murder, a love story, four narrators, a number of characters, a more or less concrete time frame, and most certainly a concrete place, but how to include that time also goes around in circles, and on two occasions actually stops? And what to do with details of the plot that get told over and over, so that in the end you hardly know which version to believe, much less how to describe it?

The best I can come up with, without writing a doctoral thesis on the subject, is also the simplest: this is a piece of fiction about life. The four narrators are all flawed people, but they are all people nevertheless, including the last narrator—the reincarnation of one of the characters as a dog. They make us squirm at their rawness, cringe at the depth of their self-deceptions, laugh at their stories, and in the end, when we see what cards they have been dealt, break our hearts.

But it is also about life set in a concrete place (Vilnius, Lithuania) and a concrete decade (sometime in the 1970s). This adds another aspect of exploration, for Vilnius is not a city that has been immortalized in world fiction before—although it’s a rare place in fiction that has been given quite such a frightening role to play. Vilnius, with its complex and frequently tragic history, its multiple cultures, and above all the deadening effect of Soviet rule during the Brezhnev era, pervades the work from top to bottom, not omitting a good dose of the Lithuanian penchant for the supernatural. (And a perfectly human penchant it is, for the “magic realism” can arguably be found under any condition of oppression, as witnessed by Toni Morrison’s work or Terry Gilliam’s films.)

Vilnius lives for the reader through a myriad of details, everything from “Bird’s Milk” candy (not really a favorite of mine), to Gediminas Castle, the symbol of Lithuanian statehood (described, quite memorably, as “the symbolic phallus of Vilnius: short, stumpy and powerless”), to the mysterious and vanishing Jewish imprint on the life of the city (embodied in one of Vargalys’s spiritual guides, Sapira, whom he calls Ahasuerus). We travel through the city with each of the narrators, observing everything from lamb carcasses hanging in the market to construction debris that never seems to go anywhere. Like its inhabitants, it has its stories to tell, and those stories may be entirely contradictory. We may view Vilnius as a metaphor, analyze it as a symbol, deconstruct it, or simply dismiss it—who, after all, would be interested in a place described as “the Ass of the Universe”—but the vein of human understanding that runs through this work and grounds itself in the city is never off the mark. As Vargalys observes, Vilnius is everywhere.

1 March 2009 | in translation |