19 January 09 | Chad W. Post


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.


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