Post-Soviet literature in Lithuania: an overview.
The deepest well the nation could look into in the hopes of seeing its own face was the ambience of ancient myth. The notion of myth in Lithuania is not primarily narrative, for there are not many stories told. It is instead poetic, for it conveys a certain wordless experience of being a part of some timeless mystery that includes an ancient, secure belonging to every thing that grows and dies in the world of nature. For the writers, the contemplation of this mythic ambience was in essence an effort to regain a pre-Christian and "purely" Lithuanian world, because after the arrival of Christianity and letters - that is, after the country stepped into the "stream of history" - Lithuania as a nation was most easily described in terms of the effects that other cultures - Polish, German, Russian, and, most importantly, Soviet - have had upon it.
The motif of rural, pre-Christian consciousness is strong in the poetry of Marcelijus Martinaitis (b. 1936), particularly his famous Kukucio balades (Ballads of Kukutis; 1977), depicting a symbolic Lithuanian figure moving across history and time to become a transforming presence in the creation of the nation's unique identity. Judita Vaiciunaite (b. 1937) combined the emblems of this lost pagan world - stone markings, amber carvings of long-dead gods - with urban images of old city squares, antique shops, or fountains, all suffused with sacred and profane love, to create a nostalgia for things that had become irrelevant to Soviet Lithuania but nevertheless constitute a poetic sign of the nation's true essence. Sigitas Geda (b. 1943) cast a spell of myth upon the country's landscapes to create a magical present that somehow contains in it mystical memories from time out of mind.
In prose, Romualdas Granauskas (b. 1939) brought the aura of myth to the Old Prussians and Lithuanians in recorded medieval history. His story "Jaucio aukojimas" (The Sacrifice of the Ox; 1975) depicts a time when the ancient pagan beliefs and rituals, in which all life was a magical presence, came to a fatal confrontation with the advancing, urbanized Christianity of the Teutonic Order. The destruction of the old way of life brought about by this new armor-clad and bloody faith suggests similar tragic encounters between the rural, small-town Lithuania and the new era of the Soviet juggernaut. Life under the Soviets is depicted in such stories as "Duonos valgytojai" (The Bread Eaters; 1975) and "Gyvenimas po klevu" (A Homestead Under the Maple Tree; 1988). There we witness the slow decay and dissolution of all human dignity and hope in the Lithuanian countryside under the grindstone of the alien Soviet ideology that spoke all the while of the happy new life it was bringing.
The changes which this new faith wrought in the Lithuanian countryside were described with an epic sweep by Jonas Avyzius (b. 1922) in his trilogy Kaimas kryzkelej (Village at the Crossroads; 1964), Sodybu tustejimo metas (The Time of Emptying Settlements; 1970), and Degimai (Scorched Land; 1982). These three works all deal with the forced transformation of single Lithuanian settlements into collective farms, even agro-cities, during the Soviet rule.
Historical drama was the strongest genre in Lithuanian theater before the war, and this trend continued during the Soviet occupation. One of the main figures was the dramatist and prose writer Juozas Grusas (1901-86), whose historical plays explored several moments in Lithuanian history where the idea of nationhood underwent a trial of fire by force of arms or political circumstance that put to question its very existence. The poet Justinas Marcinkevicius (b. 1930) achieved fame with his verse dramas revolving around outstanding Lithuanian historical personages whose accomplishments contributed toward the substance of national, political, and cultural identity.
We may note that in all genres of this period, especially poetry and prose, the identity of Lithuania is conveyed primarily in terms of what the nation has lost, not what it has built or acquired. This produced a conservative, defensive literature in which, as often as not, homage to the land came to resemble a funeral rite in its remembrance.
The "singing revolution" of 1991, with its explosive outburst of national pride and determination, brought with it a brief euphoria of freedom, including the freedom of the written word. Under the Soviets, one had to submit to the often quite prudish demands of the ruling party that literature should present a bright, beautiful, happy image of life, of which the dark side could only be referred to as "relics of the past." Everyone knew, of course, that the evils of the dictatorship were not "relics" of anything but, on the contrary, the dreadful reality of the present. With independence, the dark abyss of the past opened up like a huge wound, and the pendulum swung so far back that writers began to feel that telling the truth meant saying nothing but terrible things about the country and the human souls in it. After all the beautiful official lies, this seemed the only way to regain a sense of personal integrity. Thus came the period of a literature of exorcism, of exposing, exploring, resuffering the unspeakable horrors of its recent past, of cleansing its wounds, as it were, with the white-hot iron of memory.
Much of this literature was not actually fiction, but belonged to the in-between genres of straightforward or embellished memoirs of exiles to Siberia and of guerrillas who fought on in the forests for eight or nine years after the Soviet armies came back in 1944. The flood of such tales is still continuing today, and many of them are heartbreaking enough; but for the most part they lack the hot stench of hatred or of perverse, even sadistic, imagination that some fiction writers have brought to the topic. Notorious among them is Ricardas Gavelis (b. 1950), who seems to work on the premise that the face of real life in the Soviet Union has been so disfigured that looking at it as if it were some sort of fantastic nightmare was the only way to recognize its true nature. In his novel Vilniaus pokeris (The Vilnius Poker Game; 1989) Gavelis presents a grotesque and tortured city, Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, ruled by an abominable secret society he refers to as THEY, the very incarnation of worldwide, eternal, and ultimate evil that looks over the city with the dead eyes of a basilisk. Under its glance everything turns to ashes, stinking mud, unspeakable figures in murky, twisted streets, and the very air itself becomes transformed to ghoulish fear that seeps into the blood with every breath. In such a world, reality itself becomes repulsively mythical, and the city becomes disfigured into shapes of a surrealistic terror, not unlike the nightmarish Prague of Franz Kafka's classic, The Trial. Indeed, there is a sculptor in the novel who creates a figure much like Kafka's giant cockroach in "The Metamorphosis" that represents the process of a woman becoming a spider, and the horrible thing is precisely this becoming, this sculpture changing before the viewer's eyes from a woman to a monster with a spider's mind. The novel contains something like a love story, but in the hero's mutilated mind, love itself becomes a nightmare experience, haunted by the ghouls of paranoia, sadism, and sexual impotence. In the end, Vargalys, the hero, kills his beloved (better: object of helpless desire) by cutting her to pieces, as if looking for something in her, possibly a soul.
By some assessments, Gavelis's best work is Jauno zmogaus memuarai (The Memoirs of a Young Man; 1991). It could belong to the genre of a "posthumous confession" or diary. It too has horrors similar to those in Vilniaus pokeris, and several major characters also seem to wield an incomprehensible semimystical evil power, slithering their slimy tentacles all over other peoples' lives. But the text has other dimensions as well, in particular that of the dichotomy between true creativity and mere mechanical skill which troubles the young hero as he tries to become a master physicist but can only reach the stage of a competent juggler of equations, a kind of Wagner (Faust's assistant) or Salieri in the realm of physics. This tension plays itself out in the context of confrontation between free will and tyranny that encompasses the entire society of what now is openly presented as Lithuania under Soviet rule. It also takes the shape of the young man's letters to high communist officials in Moscow, or to other ruling figures in the world, letters that are full of holy fury and, in that anger, somehow also euphoric in their cry for freedom and for the dignity of being human.
The genre of pretended personal memoirs, which to some extent is also a pretense of avoiding "literature," seems based on the notion that in the horrid world of Soviet rule art itself becomes almost an irrelevance with respect to the reality which it portrays. Such a stance is taken by Leonardas Gutauskas (b. 1938), who writes prose and poetry and also paints. In his series of volumes under the general title Vilko dantu karoliai (A Wolf-Teeth Necklace; books 1-2, 1990/1994; others still coming) he tries to imitate the authentic flow of life in that he neither structures his texts like a novel nor organizes his memory in some selective fashion. Instead he claims that the Memory (sic!) of things he went through in the past simply dictates to him, and he cannot stop until it fades, almost as if an alien presence, from his mind. Anything that can dictate a text becomes thereby personalized, and if it is an abstraction, it becomes symbolic - that is, an artifact. Thus, paradoxically, Gutauskas's authentic memoirs read like intense fiction. Disparate events seem automatically organized by Memory to create symbolic linkages of image among them and produce a flowing, even meandering, yet firmly guided line of text. For example, an exile from Siberia returns with his limbs frozen in the arctic cold, the flesh already rotting and falling off of him. He recalls the big piles of dead and rotting rats in their Siberian barracks which they would sweep into a corner and set on fire. At this point, another reminiscence crawls out of this remembered flame - about the Lithuanian Jews under German occupation: "There in Kaunas's suburbs, they gathered the Jews and locked them in, and set them on fire, and their ghetto burned like the last picture from St. John's Apocalypse will burn, or like the living word imprisoned in your aching head."
From these rotting limbs, and burning rats, and from the apocalyptic agony of the Jews, another image-memory arises: bones. These are the bones of Lithuanian anti-Soviet guerrillas. They are now in a swamp, thrown in together with the bones of dead horses and cows, but their journey there began from the town's marketplace. One of them, now a skeleton, leaning, as Dylan Thomas once said, on his elbow, tells his story to the narrator: "There were six men of us lying dead in the market square. A guard had defecated on one man's face, others had their arms chopped off, and I lay on my back with the holy rosary wound around my... male thing." The narrator, a young boy, goes to the swamp at night and extracts these bones - of the animals as well as of the guerrillas - and sells them to the lone remaining Jew in town, a sort of "recycling person" who, in return, gives the boy stamps postmarked in Tula, a distant Siberian place where the boy's father has perished.
Another image series leads from matter-of-fact activities in a "castration combine for horses," as it is called, one of the "building projects of socialism," to sadistic boys' games, also vaguely having to do with sex, to the thoughtless and casual raping of girls by their high-school classmates. First, the horses. Having just been castrated, they now run around and around in a circle as if gone totally berserk.
Now only work horses, only the slaves of man, they dash and dash in a circle, and they trample and trample underfoot those powerful, bloody balls of theirs; around and around like maddened animals from a burning barn, or like beasts stung by a scorpion - this was a sight the like of which you shall find nowhere else on earth, or maybe even under the earth, in hell.
Now the children and the rapists: "They catch three or four frogs, knock them half unconscious with a little stick, or a fillip, then they peel their skins off and fold these 'shirts' of theirs over the frogs' heads, just like Jonas did to Magdute down by the river, and then they place the frogs in a row and... the race begins." In their insane agony, some of these frogs fall into the boys' campfire and burn there, thus closing the ring of images of burning flesh. The painful point to make is that these events are not the fruits of some madman's fancy; they all actually happened in Gutauskas's life, and the lives of others.
All these horrors might seem to suggest that the written word in post-Soviet Lithuania signals not so much a rebirth as the demise of the nation. In actuality, something else was going on: a slow and painful ordeal or trial by fire, a gradual thinking and feeling one's way through the debris left in the mind by the monstrosities of the Soviet state toward what actually could be a new Word, a discourse significant as art and not merely as a cry of the soul. Whatever his stance, Gutauskas does not really write like a chronicler, or a journalist, and he cannot escape from literariness as long as the esthetic function in his work remains dominant. In this respect, both Gavelis and Gutauskas do transcend their depressing subject matter and develop subtle, sophisticated stylistic and structural devices. Aside from painting, Gutauskas has also experimented with verse and children's literature. One of his best books in the latter genre is Kam katinui usai (What Are Cat's Whiskers For; 1996), a dialogue between grandfather and grandson, full of vaguely folkloric fancy and puckish humor arising from skewed logic.
There is also humor in the novels of Jurgis Kuncinas (b. 1947), even if it takes a while to recognize it amid the putrid rot in city slums and the hopeless drunkards (particularly the authorial "I") who seem to seek the full and truthful experience of being human in the very depths of alcoholic degeneration and abandoned love. The humor comes from flights of grotesque fancy and social satire in the often hilarious portrayals of what passed for culture in the life of Soviet Lithuanian academe. Yet, as in Kuncinas's novel Tula (Tula; 1993), the entire decaying world around the narrator is so replete with desperate love, love into which one sinks with total abandonment to a far lower level than in any twilight of the soul, that the world becomes twisted out of all logic, and the emotion is carried in images of fairy-tale fancy, as when the lover, in a distant detention place for alcoholics, becomes a bat out of sheer longing for his beloved, flies over to her, and strews white lilies on her sleeping form. The book is not so much a novel as a long love letter by its hero to his beloved, Tula. In the force field of this love, all the grimy and cruel reality seems somehow to transcend itself; all the horrible details of suffering, filth, alcoholism, neglect, oppression, hopelessness seem to acquire a metaphorical quality, to become a mode of signifying love. A similar blend of heavy sorrow, reckless humor, and complete fantasy exists also in Kuncinas's Glisono kilpa (Glison's Noose; 1992), and particularly in his latest novel, Blanchisserie-Zverynas-Uzupis (1997; :Zverynas and Uzupis are two decrepitly picturesque suburbs of Vilnius), where it really feels like downright fun to be a total degenerate as long as love walks patiently by your side.
Kuncinas sometimes reads like a peculiar blend of Knut Hamsun, the Three Stooges, and Franz Kafka. He and Gavelis, in a way Gutauskas, and also Saulius Tomas Kondrotas (b. 1953), and several others, could be called "deconstructionists" because of their systematic dismantling of the entire structure of values upheld by the former Soviet society. As Roland Barthes said of the bourgeoisie, so also are the Soviets presented as entirely natural and rational their particular twisted sets of beliefs, coopting the ancient notions of morality and human dignity to make their own asserted power seem like the inevitable truth. In order to sweep away all aspects of this tyranny, it was necessary to undermine and destroy that which morality and human dignity had become in its grasp. Inevitably, much healthy tissue of the soul had to be cut out together with this cancer. In that sense, their work was a radical operation, and this explains the aftermath of devastation in all spheres of present-day Lithuanian culture as well as ordinary life that we feel in reading these authors. The Lithuanian landscape looks especially bleak and moribund in the novel Sermenys (The Wake; 1990) by Vanda Juknaite (b. 1949), a person of middle years who had seen and known well all the agonies the country went through under the Soviets and by this experience had gained a calm, deadly maturity of spirit that permits her to speak without rhetoric and with a stoic simplicity. The novel does not so much present a plot as chronicle an inexorable process of dying in the countryside, with homesteads standing empty because most of the villagers have settled permanently in the village cemetery, with new ones coming in steadily. The entire land, it seems, is quietly sinking into death, in the wake of mass deportations to Siberia and the bloody agony of the long guerrilla war, in the midst of abandoned fields, from disease, old age, alcohol, despair. The work is a tragedy without a tragic hero. From a less depressed perspective, one could speak of historical changes in the countryside, changes that will transform this basically agricultural land into a modern urban society, even at this high human cost. From what the writers say, however, it is not clear what that new life might be like and if it will come.
Jurga Ivanauskaite (b. 1961), a playwright and prose writer, entertains a vision that has nothing to do with urbanization. Her best novel, Ragana ir lietus (The Witch and the Rain; 1993), can be regarded in some ways as a parallel to the literature of ancient mythical world-perception in which writers sought the ultimate roots of the nation's identity. Ivanauskaite, however, looks at time and myth through a different prism, that of eternally recurrent erotic encounters between a man and a woman on the dreadful edge of the fear and love of God. The novel consists of three thematically interlinked episodes widely spaced in time, with Mary Magdalene as the main figure in three different incarnations: as the biblical sinner fiercely hungry for the love of Christ, as a medieval witch spellbound by a forest prophet who speaks with the kingdom of birds, and as a contemporary Lithuanian woman passionately in love with a priest. The men of God and the woman of the earth, love sacred and profane, hope and agony consume Mary's body and her soul. Christ is the only one whom she cannot touch, and also the only one who does not betray her or defile her love. Ragana ir lietus is, again, not a novel of action, but rather of some ill-defined inner quest for both the fulfillment of bodily passion and the salvation of the soul. Lately, Ivanauskaite has moved from fiction to stories of travel, of pilgrimage, spiritual accounts of her quest, seeking enlightenment among the snowbound monasteries of Tibet.
The process of transforming a cry of pain into art is still taking place in post-Soviet Lithuanian poetry as well. The distinction between older, established poets and the younger, contemporary generation is to some extent blurred because the older authors, such as Justinas Marcinkevicius, Judita Vaiciunaite, or Eduardas Miezelaitis (1919-97), are continuing to write, adjusting their themes and often their style to run along with the evolutionary process of contemporary verse in Lithuania. In addition, the generation that has followed them is often itself not much younger, if at all, and it cannot always justify its claim of spearheading the search for the new Word. Among these poets - all of them highly talented and often quite prodigious - one could count such major figures as Sigitas Geda and Vytautas Bloze (b. 1930), or Donaldas Kajokas (b. 1953) and Gintaras Patackas (b. 1931), or even Sigitas Parulskis (b. 1965), who, at thirty-two, has just stepped over the line of credibility in some people's eyes. This particular generation cuts a wide swath in contemporary Lithuanian poetry and remains the dominant presence, in the light of which some (not all) of the youngest talents are but dimly visible.
In the period of transition since independence, one can see a development from the dominant nightmares of pain and horror in the Soviet past toward a considerably wider thematic spectrum, including issues of universal human interest, some philosophical verse, and, in particular, the continuance of the "mythological" strain in which the natural world presents itself as a thing of beauty, a puzzle, a teacher, a subject for meditation, a path to the nation's soul, and sometimes, particularly in the verse of Sigitas Geda, even as a wellspring of sheer poetic joy.
Julius Keleras (b. 1961) is one of the "angry young men" in Lithuanian poetry whose anger is becoming only one among a number of other facets of his work. Thinking of the nightmarish Soviet rule, Keleras depicts the Lithuanian nation as looking at itself in the mirror and seeing there a revolting submissiveness and treason: "The mirrors full of corpses: wherever you look, dogs are singing to the moon about their submissiveness and their treason; women are lulling fear to sleep in their cradles and listening to the key being turned in the door as if in acceptance of someone else's guilt: an alien love to an alien master."
Sigitas Parulskis did his obligatory military service in the Soviet elite shock troops. The Soviet army inherited and continued the old Russian army tradition of intimidation and inhuman treatment of its recruits in order to, as the Marines here sometimes say, "break a man down and build him up again." Most of the cruelties were perpetrated by soldiers of senior standing, those who were serving their third or fourth year. Having survived this sort of hell, Parulskis wrote down his experiences in lines like these:
You will remember one night. Drunken "seniors" were trying to force your neighbor, a Ukrainian, to sew a button on one of their overcoats. When he demurred, they started kicking him with their heavy boots, and kept on doing this for a long time. You were listening to all this full of fear, from fear dust fell down upon your ears, upon your bare head, from the upper bunk over you. In fear you closed your eyes, in fear you swallowed a cry, just hoping that they would not notice you, that only... The Ukrainian was then brought to the hospital, where he groaned all day and night, and the next morning his blue face offered its dead smile to you. But you closed your eyes once more.
Then Parulskis makes his main point: this dehumanization will not defeat you until the time when, having become a "senior" yourself, you raise your hand against a frightened new recruit and thus become the heir and carrier of the tradition.
The verse of Parulskis and Keleras and several other similar poets has been remarkable for its paucity of conventional literary devices. Such literary paraphernalia as were present in their poetry did not figure as its defining factor, as if the poets were deliberately trying to diminish the esthetic function of their texts and to push beyond literature into the raw nerve of the revealed gruesome reality. In later works, however, they are becoming more and more "literary," allowing the esthetic function per se to regain its primary role. In his later collections, such as Baltas kaledaitis (The White Christmas Wafer; 1988) and particularly Sauja medaus (A Handful of Honey; 1995), Keleras is developing an intensely metaphorical style in which the complex process of renaming things serves as a sort of guide to the labyrinth of thought toward feeling and perceptions about one's own self that were hidden or only half understood heretofore. Parulskis, on the other hand, in one of his latest collections, Mirusiuju (Of the Dead; 1994), aims for the maximum density and at the same time the stoic simplicity of utterance that would serve as a sort of "matrix" (to use Michel Riffaterre's term), a sign, of a myriad unspoken images in the mind. Here is an example from this new collection:
cleaning out the ashes from the hearth those congealed lumps of slag I found a bloody nail
so many centuries I've been warming myself by your agony
("A Transfixed Morning," 49)
Donaldas Kajokas has also written about the abysmal deserts in the post-Soviet Lithuanian soul. He sometimes exploits the traditional strong presence of nature themes to reveal with a sudden and revolting clarity the ugly mutilation of that very countryside. One poem, "Springtime IV," begins charmingly enough with violets on the snow-covered slopes and a little girl straining upward to look at the catkins, only to continue without even a change of pace or tone, "lean rats enjoyed the warm, dear sun, / their flanks, consumed by some disease / were steaming horribly," and so on, in a sweeping view of the now empty guard towers rattling in the wind and the entire desolate landscape where humans so recently plied their murderous trade. In other poems, Kajokas raises the dysphoric plain of his landscapes to what might be called an "esthetic" experience. His poem "J. S. Bachas, Misios si minor" (J. S. Bach, Mass in C Minor), an apocalyptic fantasy, abstracts depicted human agony above all plausibility and elevates it to the highest pitch of horror at the point where it meets the glory of one of the most beautiful human creations, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, to create an experience of searing pain and beauty as a metaphor for the tragedy of his nation.
When not in this catastrophic mode, Kajokas likes to focus upon the slightest nuances of perception and to nurse from them an awareness of the inner core of being. There is also a great deal of tender love in him, sometimes just touched with a puckish sense of humor, as in this poem about his own little daughter: "Moon from a dream. A crib. / The wing of a wooden horse. / A warm, sleepy angel / Sitting on the night-pot."
Much more serious than that is Grazina Cieskaite (b. 1951), a poet of philosophical and even mystical bent who does not in her work seem to relate directly to any of the convolutions in recent Lithuanian history. Hers is an inner world as large as the entire universe of human self-awareness, a philosophical world that, as she puts it, "cannot be thought through to the end." As such, it is also a ponderous world of pained concentration in which the poetic language itself, at first glance, seems to labor heavily at the very edge of incoherence. As we keep looking, however, patterns of images, intertextual allusions to various aspects of world culture, and metaphorical constructs emerge gradually to form a well-wrought artistic discourse that powerfully enhances our awareness of what we are as human beings as we stand at the crossroads of cosmic mysteries stretching out beyond the horizons of thought. The coherence among these various elements is strengthened also by sets of constant recurrences, allusions within a poem to its own images as well as outside, to her other poems. Indeed, one could speak of Cieskaite's entire poetry as one continuous meditation on the meaning of all things in terms of philosophy, religion, and art. In this meditation, time, space, and material objects all carry the semantic load of thought. The poetic persona in her verse is not really an observer of a scene, nor primarily the topic of a poem, but rather an actant, together with its objects, metaphors, images, and allusions, so that there is direct, as it were "physical" interaction between the persona and objects, events, and time within the sphere of its perceptions, as in these lines from Auka zvaigzdziu vainikui (An Offering to the Wreath of Stars; 1991): "I lived by art - in it there was repeated / The life of harmony inspired, / accords of universal forms, as if / I were creating future from my soul; and books, / moss-covered, sprouted from my palms." Lines such as these can, in a sense, be perceived as modern variations on the mythological themes of Ovid's Metamorphoses, where the poet herself, within her text, becomes a myth.
Cieskaite's work is a strong departure from the nightmare visions that to some extent still continue as a trend. As a philosophizing poet in her particular style, she is unique in Lithuanian poetry and has no imitators. On the other hand, thematic horizons have indeed widened in the last few years, and the poets again seem curious about regaining touch with the ordinary flow of life as it becomes transformed into esthetic experience. Sigitas Geda has written some wonderfully enthusiastic verses full of delighted astonishment at the beauty of God's creation as it manifests in the smallest stems of grass, the colors of a butterfly, and the entire fairy-tale presence of nature that seems to grow out of some ancient mythological consciousness.
Aidas Marcenas (b. 1960) tends to focus upon the poetic "I" as a form of unique and transitory consciousness in relation to nuances of existential experience between reality and word, existence and meaning, as in the line "young death, entangled in my words, was resting in the lilies, beautiful like a bride." He also likes classical themes, to which he turns as if to some peaceful harbor for the mind. A central metaphor in his verse is the figure of an "angel," touching things and people lightly as it passes by and suddenly turning into something unknown, terrifying, and wonderful - in other words, into poetry, or, which is the same, truth.
As the sun appearing suddenly from behind the cloud startled the magpie from the evergreen the thought came to me how awe full the truth would be if we could ever know it
let me die from the glance of Thy angel
Kestutis Navakas (b. 1964), a student of German expressionism, is similarly concerned with the historical landscape of culture which he often perceives as a relationship between open and enclosed inner spaces, a "prison house of language" and a larger one of feeling. His poetry is in a sense an intense effort at liberation from enclosure, marginality, solitude of the spirit, from a sort of room full of insects of the mind (to follow the image of one of his poems). Multiple references to Western culture and literature seem like so many guideposts on the way to belonging to the entire world, not just a small and tortured comer of it where he was born.
A much broader view is taken by Vytautas Bloze In prefacing his collection Polyphonies (1981), Bloze declared that he seeks "to give meaning to the universality of human existence in various planes of space and time." He tries to accomplish this by structuring our sometimes murky consciousness of the flow of life into a poetic text. For this purpose, he not only creates a particular perspective, a place in the mind and outside of history, but also develops a statement about history as it flows through us by taking separate complexes of time, space, and events, discrete worlds of little inherent relevance to one another, and bringing them by poetic association into relationships that can speak to our understanding.
Tautvyda Marcinkeviciute (b. 1955) is also interested in the flow of time across memory and experience, and, at least in her book Tauride (Tauris; 1990), she is one representative of the recent tendency toward a sort of nostalgia for classical antiquity, the golden myth of Greece, and the Greco-Judeo-Egyptian cradle of Western civilization. Those distant, sunny shores seem to provide some Lithuanian poets with a counterweight in the mind to the dimly lit, cold, and sorrowful landscapes of recent East European history. In this and other books, Marcinkeviciute is, by turns, an affectionate mother, a curious and even puckish observer of new and strange places, and a sardonic, sometimes quite shocking satirist of contemporary life. Throughout all this, she keeps her wit and carries lightly the sometimes considerable complexities of her poetic language.
Among other interesting poets, one could mention Antanas Jonynas (b. 1953), who seems to be writing in a language in which only a part of what is being said is actually articulated; the rest remains inside the mind but acts upon it and fills in the empty spaces to create a meaning, even though the realized words upon the surface may seem ungrammatical or even inarticulate. Nijole Miliauskaite (b. 1950) has the gift of sustaining the simplicity of reality, and its ordinariness, while yet informing it with an open and naive and at the same time profound and touching poetic ambience. Kornelijus Platelis (b. 1951) is a poet of classical, philosophical bent, erudite, calm, and confidently in touch with the sources of his own talent.
Arturas Tereskinas (b. 1965) returns to the dark, contemplative mode of the earlier poetry of pain and scans the horizons of Western civilization as a panorama of rain in body and spirit, particularly in his own little corner of this world, Lithuania. His verse is heavy with symbols and images of decay, abandonment, solitude, and death, all articulated with a bitter eloquence.
Quite a few young people are appearing on the scene, but at this date it is a little early to sort them out in some coherent fashion. On the whole, it seems that the gaping wound of horror is healing and the world is again presenting itself to the young poets as a place of welcome to their creative imagination.
There have not been any remarkable developments in recent Lithuanian drama. Many Western plays are presented on the stage, but the truly important original works belong to the somewhat older generation of Juozas Grusas or the later one of Justinas Marcinkevicius, Kazys Saja (b. 1932), and Juozas Glinskis (b. 1933). Most of the major playwrights in Lithuania between the two world wars wrote on historical themes, perhaps for the simple reason that contemporary life in this small republic was not particularly interesting whereas the consciousness of the nation's grand history was much needed to help establish a sense of meaningful identity. It is also true that Lithuania's heroic vision was a popular subject among the Polish Romantics, especially the poet and playwright Adam Mickiewicz (1798- 1855), whose tales in verse Grazyna (1823) and Konrad Wallenrod (1828) spoke of legendary events in medieval Lithuanian past in an intense romantic spirit, while the verse drama Dziady (Forefathers' Eve; 1823) portrayed a much later time when both Poland and Lithuania were under Russian oppression. Mickiewicz could have inspired a number of Lithuanian authors, among them Vincas Kreve-Mickevicius (1882-1954), also a major prose writer, who was especially interested in the formation of the medieval Lithuanian state in the play Sarunas (1911), depicting the semilegendary ruler who first tried to unify the country. In his later play, Skirgaila (1925), Kreve focused on another turbulent period in Lithuanian history, the fourteenth century, when Skirgaila, the son of Grand Duke Algirdas, played a major part in the internecine power struggles among Lithuanian rulers that were eventually resolved by the establishment of the Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth. The poet and playwright Balys Sruoga (1896-1947) wrote a series of plays on historical themes, the most famous of which is Milzino paunksme (A Place Under the Shadow of the Giant; 1929-30). The giant is the Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas the Great (circa 1350-1430), under whose rule Lithuania reached the apex of its power, and the place under his shadow is Poland ruled by King Jogaila, who, under the influence of Polish nobles, tried successfully to prevent Vytautas from being crowned the king of Lithuania in his old age.
Juozas Grusas, the major postwar Lithuanian playwright in prose, followed in the tradition of Kreve and Sruoga with Barbora Radvilaite (Barbora of the Radziwills; 1971) and Svitrigaila (1976). The first play deals with a romantic and dramatic love story between the Polish-Lithuanian king Zygimantas Augustas (Sigismund Augustus, 1520-72) and Barbora, a member of the Radvila family, major Lithuanian magnates. After a long and painful politically motivated struggle against the Polish and Lithuanian nobility, Zygimantas finally succeeds in marrying Barbora and having her crowned queen. The second play treats the troubled time of struggle for succession to the leadership of Lithuania after the death of Vytautas. Grusas's most important historical play is Herkus Mantas (1957), about the powerful and devastating uprising in the thirteenth century by Herkus Mantas, a leader of the now-extinct Old Prussians, against the Teutonic conquerors of his land.
Grusas was also much concerned with changing value systems in Lithuania that were creating painful conflicts between generations even under the firmly autocratic Soviet rule. He expressed his concerns in the play Meile, dziazas ir velnias (Love, Jazz, and the Devil; 1967). Rebellious youths in the city, children of the high Soviet bourgeoisie as well as of the poorest strata of the population, band together in direct confrontations with their parents, people who still believe, or pretend to believe, in old-fashioned principles of honesty, decency, and decorum. Grusas had to tread very carefully between his desire to bring into the open the problems of the changing society and his fear of Soviet censorship, or even punishment, for "slandering Soviet reality."
Justinas Marcinkevicius has walked this tightwire himself in much of his poetry as well as in his drama. The core of his contributions to the theater consists of three historical verse plays: Mindaugas (1968), Katedra (The Cathedral; 1971), and Mazvydas (1977). Unlike Adam Mickiewicz, the Lithuanian playwrights, including Marcinkevicius, did not so much celebrate the past as a romantic vision as ponder it, analyze it with the anxiety of heirs to a kingdom which fell apart for reasons that needed to be understood. This made Mindaugas a psychological play, a study of the strengths and weaknesses of this first Lithuanian king, who united the country in the thirteenth century by means of ruthless force and treachery that also sowed the seeds of his own violent death as well as the destruction of the kingdom in centuries to come. The very framework of the play is dialectical in that historical truth is shown to be a matter of debate between two chroniclers with opposite readings of events. Between them, Mindaugas appears as a tortured yet strong individual, eloquent to the point of irony and humor, and tragic in his inability to keep together the pieces of the world he has forced into being.
In Katedra the floodlights are on Laurynas Stuoka, an architect who rebuilt the Cathedral of Vilnius in the years 1782-94, when the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was on the threshold of total collapse after its third and last partition between Russia, Prussia, and Austria a year later. The central issue is the struggle of a talented and dedicated hero against the corruption of power-hungry high church and government officials who try to exploit him to increase their own power and glory. In both Mindaugas and Katedra one can trace a hidden thread of condemnation directed at the corrupt Soviet power that maintains itself by means of violence and exploits the people for self-aggrandizement. Yet, by attacking kings and feudal powers, Marcinkevicius could claim to be doing a proper Marxist reading of history. The third play, Mazvydas, describes the tribulations of Martynas Mazvydas, a Protestant pastor in Lithuania Manor (East Prussia) and the publisher of the first printed book in the Lithuanian language (1547), as he struggles with his recalcitrant parishioners who seem to him still beset by pagan beliefs and rituals, opposes the oppressive German power, and challenges the Catholic hierarchy in Russian-ruled Lithuania.
Juozas Glinskis (b. 1933) made his mark with the play Grasos namai (The House of Dread; 1971). It is a piece akin to the West European "theater of cruelty," set in an insane asylum into which the powers that be have thrust Antanas Strazdas (1760-1833), a priest of maverick behavior but a brightly shining, cheerful poet to the simple people of his land, full of sunny love for nature and humanity. The madhouse he is in becomes a metaphor for our time, by implication especially in the Soviet domain, and it is a chaotic, dreadful place where all sense and nonsense blends into one foul brew of insanity.
One of the most interesting and prolific playwrights in Lithuania is Kazys Saja. Although his numerous, rather short plays are in essence dramas of social satire, he does enjoy spicing them up with humor based mostly on various grotesque inconsistencies in so-called ordinary life that his sharp eye is quick to catch. One of his best plays is Pranasas Jona (Jonah the Prophet; 1967), a "tragicomedy on biblical motifs," as the author calls it. In spite of a merciless storm tossing the boat and a huge leviathan of a whale threatening to swallow everyone, there is not much action in the play. Mostly we have oratory, elevated speeches by the helpless and angry prophet Jonah railing against the evils of this world. The particular evils quite clearly depict an oppressed society under a tyrant's thumb, making it easy to guess who the tyrant may be. However, it is not Jonah who gets swallowed by the whale, but Paschor, a biblical scholar. Paschor's head is so full of wisdom that even the whale cannot digest it, and he comes out in the end blind and deaf, but enriched by a sad mock-wisdom of surrender to overwhelming power. This is that wisdom: "Perhaps it is a great honor for a weak creature, a bug, to blend with a large fish. You see, it's like this: the whale will squeeze you hard inside its stomach and let go, squeeze again and again let go - as long as you stay submissive and quiet."
With the coming of independence in 1991, when Lithuanian literature was finally freed from the belly of the whale, it was not in a submissive mood. A number of writers cried out fiercely, pointing to the wounds inflicted upon the nation, sometimes in a language as ugly as the evils they were protesting against. Some, like Gutauskas, remain obsessed with the memory of that terrible time, at least in part because in effect they are their own past, unlike someone who might have merely walked through it as a detached observer. As the first decade of freedom comes to its close, quite a few writers seem somewhat lost in the wide spaces newly opened for their creative imagination, casting about for some guideposts, a sense of direction, some notion of a purpose. A new word needs to be said, but it seems hard to know where to look for it. In a way, it was easier to write before, when there was oppression to be fought and censorship to be evaded with the help of the subtle literary devices of Aesopic language that brought the written text to a level of great complexity and at times great depth. Today, the daily run of life does not offer much of substance for the imagination; the country's achievements so far seem somewhat less than inspiring, and the evils it suffers are for the most part mere banalities - corruption, thievery, low standard of living, and the like. Neither the Lord's Angel nor the Prince of Evil seems very interested in this weary land.
On the other hand, this twilight of the soul may be exactly what the writers need to work things out deep within themselves, so they will be ready to meet the Word when it speaks to them again. Many of the writers may not even know that as they cast about for a topic, a feeling, a style, they are not really helpless or lost; rather, they are actually undergoing a process of healing and regeneration. Not everything is bleak even now - there are some very good things being written, in both poetry and prose. This gives one reason to think that the next literary decade in Lithuania will surely be much more interesting.
RIMVYDAS SILBAJORIS is a native of Kretinga, Lithuania, studied English at Antioch College and Russian language and literature at Columbia University. Long a Professor of Slavic and East European Literatures at Ohio State University, and a member of WLT's Editorial Board since 1968, he is the author of such major publications as Russian Versification: The Theories of Trediakovsky, Lomonosov, and Kantemir (1968), Tolstoy's Aesthetics and His Art (1991), War and Peace: Tolstoy's Mirror of the World (1995), Perfection of Exile: 14 Contemporary Lithuanian Writers (1970), Zodziai ir prasme (1982), and Netekties zenklai (1992).
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|Title Annotation:||The Baltic Literatures in the 1990s|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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