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.
Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within. . .
Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be. . .
“I was small. And my village was small, I came to know that in time. But when I was small it was big for me, so big that when I had to cross it from one end to the other,. . .
A few weeks after moving into a farm house in the Welsh countryside, Emilie, an expatriate from the Netherlands, starts to think about her uncle. This uncle tried to drown himself in a pond in front of the hotel where. . .
Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs,. . .
In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing.. . .
Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as. . .
Some time ago I read this phrase: “The page is the only place in the universe God left blank for me.”
Pedro Mairal’s short novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is more about these blank spaces than the usual full. . .
“What if even in the afterlife you have to know foreign languages? Since I have already suffered so much trying to speak Danish, make sure to assign me to the Polish zone . . .”
So reads a typical aphoristic “poem”. . .
If you somehow managed to overlook the 2012 translation of Andrés Neuman’s breathtaking Traveler of the Century (and woe betide all whom continue to do so), you now have two exceptional works of fiction from the young Argentine virtuoso demanding. . .