Hidden in Plain Sight: The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature

DedalusBookofLithuanianLiteratureReviewed in this essay: The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature, edited by Almantas Samalavičius (Dedalus, 2013)

If Alice Munro’s recent Nobel win demonstrates that writing about small places can illuminate the human condition internationally, then the same can be said of writers working in languages whose speakers are not numerous. The literatures of small countries tend to be backwaters seldom visited by readers accustomed to the vast ocean of English literature or the seas of other popular languages. Who can even keep up with the literature in one’s own language unless enticed by popular acclaim to look at the work of someone like Stieg Larsson or Milan Kundera? One of the advantages of literary life in Canada is that there are many hyphenated Canadians who can act as scouts to alert readers to the appearance of English translations well worth looking at, and The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature, edited by Almantas Samalavičius, is one of them.

The collection is an overview of a century of Lithuanian writing with an excellent introduction that places the work in a historical context. While in Canada there has been ongoing debate about the value of historical fiction, in Europe, any attempt to avoid historical fiction would be a form of denial. Lithuania is a country at an unforgiving crossroads, a place that was buffeted by Czarists, Soviets, and Nazis, with little more than forty years of independence in the last hundred. Include the experience of the Holocaust and massive deportations to the Gulag and you have a series of traumas imprinted on the collective mind.

What’s in this collection for a North American reader? Plenty, especially if you read the collection backwards, starting with writers whose sensibilities feel familiar, yet skewed differently from ours.

The tone in the last three stories in this collection is playful and surreal. Giedra Radvilaviciute in particular stands out for a loopy, funny, moving obituary speech. She has been picked out in the past for inclusion in Best European Fiction 2010, and it’s no wonder because her story starts with a summary of a dead friend’s life and digresses into the nature of cats and then twists back on itself in a way that makes it sound like a monologue from Borges with the humour cranked up. Stories by Birute Januskaite and Danute Kalinauskaite are equally strong.

Moving backward to the next three writers, we find ruminating narrators considerably different from the lyrical Canadian narrators one finds in Elizabeth Hay or Michael Ondaatje. The Lithuanian narrators’ thoughts have bite, an edge of desperation as they remember horrible or surreal events such as fields of murderous flowers in Jurga Ivanauskaite, crazy aversion therapy in an alcoholic’s sanatorium as in Jurgis Kuncinas, or the trials of an imprisoned partisan in Sigitas Parulskis.

Gruesome historical stories hit hard in this collection, first with an extract of Balys Sruogas’s Forest of the Gods, a fictionalized telling of the author’s own imprisonment in the Stutthof Nazi concentration camp. The death machine is depicted ironically as amazingly inept, though nonetheless murderous. Sruogas’s extract is similar to Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Gas Chamber, a collection about Auschwitz written by Tadeusz Borowski and popularized a couple of decades ago in a series of books edited by Philip Roth.

Ichokas Meras, himself a Holocaust survivor, writes of the fate of a shooter faced with a child who has managed to survive mass execution and crawl out of the pit, offering him an apple. In Handless, Ricardas Gavelis writes of a group of Gulag workers stranded in the wilderness after a storm, and the grisly method they find to send a message downstream on a raft to signal their emergency.

The prewar stories will be primarily of interest to historians of literature, dealing as they do with issues such as country life, or moral questions such as the correct Christian attitude to Jews (be kind to them). An exception is Jurgis’s Savickas’s The Red Slippers, a story of a government functionary that reads with the wit and charm of a Guy de Maupassant story.

Any survey of a nation’s literature summarized in a brief review runs the danger of reductio ad absurdum. The reader willing to wander a little farther afield and poke around in this book of Lithuanian writing will find human and literary nature displayed in surprising and illuminating ways.