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.
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