9 February 10 | Chad W. Post

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.

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