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.
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .