9 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next seven days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis. Translated from the Lithuanian by Elizabeth Novickas. (Lithuania, Open Letter)

Vilnius Poker may well be one of the darkest and most dense books on the list. (OK, I know that’s not selling language, but I’m banking on the fact that the blurb below will wow everyone.) Using my insider knowledge, I can tell you that after reading the 20-page sample that Elizabeth Novickas sent us, everyone on the Open Letter editorial committee agreed that we had to publish this book. It’s complicated, occasionally humorous, fragmented, told from several conflicting viewpoints, inconclusive, and considered to be “the turning point in Lithuanian literature.” And more relevant to this award, the translation is spot-on.

The novel itself is set during Soviet times and centers around Vytautas Vargalys, a survivor of the labor camps who’s obsessed with Them, a shadowy group that’s taking over, crushing the souls of people, and turning the world to shit. Lolita—a young woman who just started working with Vytautas at an absurd library—is possibly one of Them, or Vytautas’s great love. As his mind continues to fall apart, their relationship takes a decidedly tragic turn . . .

This isn’t an easy book to describe, but I think translator Elizabeth Novickas does a great job in the essay that appeared in CALQUE:

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.

Gavelis passed away in 2002, but not before writing a series of interesting books with great titles, such as The Life of Sun-Tzu in the Sacred City of Vilnius, The Last Generation of People on Earth, and Seven Ways to Commit Suicide.

Getting back to Vilnius Poker . . . most reviewers tend to focus on the section fo the book that Vytautas Vargalys narrates. And for good reason: it’s a brilliant, haunting, claustrophobic descent into madness that takes up half of the book. If you want to read a sample, click here. But to shake things up a bit, here’s a quote from the second section, narrated by Martynas Poska, a librarian and academic whose “log” is a bit more upbeat that V.V.‘s ravings, and puts what V.V. conveyed into a new light:

Half the world knows what a homo sovieticus is (excepting homo sovieticus himself). However, no one has studied homo lithuanicus, or even homo Vilnensis. These species matter as much to the future of mankind as to its history.

Mankind should be grateful to the Lithuanians that they exist. But it will never forgive them if they do not describe their experience of existence, if they don’t introduce the entire world to it.

Only a Lithuanian is qualified to write the opus “What is the Ass of the Universe.”

The history of the great nations has been explored backwards and forwards. It’s impossible to learn anything more from them. It’s paradoxical, but humanity knows much more about various archaic tribes than it does about the history of European minorities—that quintessence of injustice, absurdity, and errors. The world may be doomed for the simple reason that no one noticed our plight in time. An ethnologist who diligently researched some Albanians or another would be much more useful than one who had written up hundreds of obscure African tribes.

Never forget that we are all, in a certain sense, a bit Albanian. All of us are just a tad Lithuanian. And worst of all—every one of us, in the depths of our hearts, is a Vytautas Vargalys.

5 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Lithuanian + Zombies = ?

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of Rain Taxi has a really nice review by Alex Starace of Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker:

As Vilnius Poker begins, the main character, Vytautus Vargalys, has to go to work just like any other citizen in 1970s Lithuania—no matter that he is plagued by sustained paranoia, psychotic visions and flashbacks from nine years spent in a Soviet labor camp. Vargalys gets in a trolley car and rides through the hellish husk of a city that is Soviet-occupied Vilnius. He arrives at the library (where he directs a project that the Moscow higher-ups have told him he must not complete) and sits at his desk with his phone unplugged and his head in his hands. At ten o’clock, one of his assistants pops her head into his office: it’s time for a coffee break. If this seems like a bland beginning to a novel, it’s not. Vargalys’s visions infuse these mundane events with the following: he is almost murdered by a limousine; he becomes terrified because of some supposedly disappearing-and-reappearing pigeons; he shrinks from the seductive glare of a real-life Circe; and he discusses the existence of Them, the evil entities against whom he is fighting. And this is just in the first eight pages. [. . .]

A novel 200 pages slimmer might better bring home the point that Vilnius, Lithuania, was the “Ass of the Universe” in the 1970s. Regardless, readers who are fascinated by Eastern Bloc literature, by the psychology of occupation and by the absurd Catch-22s of bureaucracy will enjoy Vilnius Poker. There’s a lot here: passion, madmen, crushed hope, a stinking city and the stench of human rubble. All of which makes it worth the extra pages.

1 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The Barnes & Noble Review continues to impress me by covering books/movies/CDs that aren’t best-sellers, such as Christopher Byrd’s piece on Vilnius Poker:

While reading Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, a line from Joyce’s Ulysses surfaced in my memory, “Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end.” On at least six occasions, Gavelis (1950-2002) name-checks the Irish Zeus who commemorated the capital of his homeland by besieging it with the distorting optics of his prose. What Joyce did for Dublin, Gavelis has in mind to do for the capital of Lithuania: chide it, gossip about it, and bore it into the memory of those who may never visit it.

I know there are a million reasons why this would be a logistical nightmare and would never actually happen, but something clean, elegant, and weekly, like the B&N Review would be a perfect addition to the IndieBound program. The monthly Indie Next List is fine, but rather than providing bookseller blurbs about a dozen books each month, a weekly e-publication with five 250-word reviews (could even be in sections: a mystery, a children’s/YA book, a small press title, a nonfiction book, etc.) that could then be “pushed” out to readers via a blog would—in my opinion—be even more effective for bringing attention to smart booksellers and the unique books that they love.

Just my two cents . . . I really wrote this post because I think Christopher Byrd’s review is great, and he has a slightly different take on the novel than the other people who have written about it.

17 March 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Over at The Quarterly Conversation, Paul Doyle reviews Vilnius Poker.

Ričardas Gavelis wrote to intimidate and attack, and his novel Vilnius Poker, seldom subtle in its language, demands attention. It is a masterwork of bitterness and sarcasm, one that descends into the self-destructive impulses of those who, though they physically survived the privations inherent to Soviet Russia, were nonetheless emotionally traumatized. Part national rant, part passage into madness, Vilnius Poker is more than a product of the Cold War. It is a condemnation of everything Gavelis thought was wrong with Lithuania, and this first English translation, published twenty years after Poker was originally written, feels fresh.

2 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Otherwise I’d translate this article from Lyrtas about Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker. (The one part I can pick out is the fantastic translation of my name: “Chadas W. Postas.” Very cool.)

Elizabeth Novickas—who has a great introduction to the novel that will appear in the next issue of CALQUE—was interviewed for this piece, the occasion of which is our publication of Vinius Poker, the first of Gavelis’s books to appear in English translation. (And one of only a handful of Lithuanian novels to come out in translation over the past few years.)

Gavelis was a bit of a controversial figure in Lithuania, both for his depictions of Vilnius and the racy content of his books. (And yes, there are some steamy scenes in Vilnius Poker in case you’re into that sort of thing.) Everyone seems to agree that V.P. is his masterpiece, a book that is considered to be “the turning point in Lithuanian literature.”

Although it was supposed to end this past Saturday, we’ll keep our special offer for V.P. up for a few more days. So instead of paying the $17.95 retail price (and yes, that is for a hardcover) you can buy it directly through our website for only $12.95.

19 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]


After reading a 20-page sample of Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis, everyone on our editorial committee agreed that we had to publish this book. It’s complicated, dark, occasionally humorous, fragmented, told from several conflicting viewpoints, inconclusive, and considered to be “the turning point in Lithuanian literature.”

It’s set during Soviet times and centers around Vytautas Vargalys, a survivor of the labor camps who’s obsessed with Them, a shadowy group that’s taking over, crushing the souls of people, and turning the world to shit. Lolita—a young woman who just started working with Vytautas at an absurd library—is possibly one of Them, or Vytautas’s great love. As his mind continues to fall apart, their relationship takes a decidedly tragic turn . . .

This isn’t an easy book to describe, but I think translator Elizabeth Novickas does a great job in her essay that appears in the forthcoming issue of CALQUE:

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.

The book has already received some great reviews, including one in The Believer by Sacha Arnold, one by Eve Ottenberg in the Washington City Paper that draws attention to the idea of the city of Vilnius itself being the novel’s true main character, and a write up in Kirkus that urged the reader to “Think of it as The Matrix behind the Iron Curtain—unsettling and profoundly interesting.”

You can read an excerpt here, and now that the book is officially available—in its bright and appealing cover—we’re offering it through our website for the special price of $12.95. Or, you can get this and 11 future Open Letter titles for only $120 by subscribing.

4 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We haven’t done this before, but we have a couple extra copies of the galley for Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis and rather than let them rot, we thought we’d pass them along to you.

Considered to be one of the turning points in contemporary Lithuanian literature, Vilnius Poker is an ambitious book that—from four different, contradictory viewpoints—details life (and paranoia) in Lithuanian during the Soviet years.

I’m attaching a sample below, and if you’re interested in getting one of these galleys, just e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu by tomorrow at 5pm. Winners (who must live in the U.S.—sorry) will be randomly selected from everyone who enters.

Here’s the sample:

The entire story of Camus’ life always seemed somewhat strange to me. Hidden in the sands of Algeria, he, of course, could have come across more essential things than the inhabitants of the large metropolitan centers can. In a center of culture and learning, in the hum of people, they feel safe, they blend into the crowd, into the profusion of words and opinions. They always dictate intellectual fashions, by this method concealing things that are troublesome to them. Inhabitants of obscure places have far more time to delve into the essence of the world, but also far fewer chances for their ideas to reach humanity. Camus successfully reconciled the qualities of a hermit and Europe’s darling.

His spiritual activity was twofold. Some of his writings, let’s say, The Myth of Sisyphus, seem to indicate that Camus was practically an apologist for their activities. This is partly confirmed by his Nobel Prize (_almost_ always it’s their emissaries who determine the awarding of official prizes: I emphasize—neither Joyce, nor Kafka, nor Genet received any prizes).

On the other hand, The Plague or The Stranger brazenly intrude into their inviolable domain. The portrayal of the plague is strongly suggestive of an allegory of their system, while Mersault is one of the most influential portraits of a kanuked being. There’s no sense in delving into Camus’ real activities—the most significant things won’t be found in the tangle of his biography. But his death is worth pondering. Perhaps at first Camus was an obedient (let’s say an inadvertent) servant of theirs, and later he saw through things. Maybe he was cleverly feigning all the time, secretly damaging them. We can only speculate. One way or another, he slowly began behaving in an unacceptable manner; maybe he even did things to them that are forbidden to talk about (even to think about them is dangerous). Retribution was quick. The fatalistic death, the lost manuscripts—all of that’s in an all too familiar style. Gediminas’s letters also disappeared without a trace.

Camus’ precedent was the first I wrote into the great list of their victims.

The fact that you won’t find straightforward information about them in books ultimately proves that they exist. It would be easy to fight with a concrete societal or political organization that everyone knows or has at least come across. An identified enemy is almost a conquered enemy. Everyone would have risen up against them a long time ago, they would have been destroyed at some point. Unfortunately, their race exists and works harmoniously. This proves that they’re hidden, undiscovered, uninvestigated. But whether they want to or not, they leave traces behind. All of their victims are indelible footprints.

More can be found here. And don’t forget to e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu to be entered in the drawing.

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