Vilnius Poker: Ideas for Eastern Europe

Since the anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall last year there has been a renewed interest across Europe about the intellectual ferment of those years, with the publication of a host of previously untranslated writers. One such author is the Lithuanian Ricardas Gavelis. His Vilnius Poker, first published in 1989, was translated into English last year by Open Letter Books and shortlisted for the Three Percent Translation Prize. Rereading it, Chris Parton finds many lessons for today.
Chris Parton
28 July 2010

The Lithuanian-American academic Violeta Kelertas has referred to Vilnius Poker as a postmodern 'melange of genres': a kaleidoscopic mongrel which operates simultaneously as (anti)hero quest, bildungsroman, murder mystery and philosophical treatise. The central, if unstable, axis upon which the novel turns is the murder and mutilation of Lolita Banyte in a Vilnius suberb, supposedly at the hands of her lover Vytautas Vargalys. It is this act which gives the novel its murder mystery dimensions, albeit without any Poirot like linearity or denouement. Indeed, characters may quest for knowledge and justice against a conspiratorially sinister and seemingly omniscient Them, held responsible for the City's ills, but the routes they take are nebulous, un-heroic and without concrete victories.

These events and the frequent philosophical medidations on the history of Lithuania and its capital which penetrate them, are all filtered through the disquieting confessions of Gavelis' four gloomy, oft-times cynical narrators. Together they construct a protean Vilnius which is in turns a decrepit Soviet backwater, fairytale nationalist utopia, and nightmarish inferno. It is a place populated by pudgy, expressionless conformists (the Kanukai); derelict alcoholics; a paranoid and violated enlightened few; and, most terrifyingly of all, the dreaded and mythologised Vilnius Basilisk. 

 “Vilnius”, Vytautas extemporises, “is a ghost city, a hallucination city … The spirits of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania walk about Vilnius, greet acquaintances, accost girls, and grimly shove at the Trolleybus stops. Here the smell of the Polish years, the smell of fires and plagues, and the most banal stench of cheap gasoline hover and mingle. Here, at night, the Iron Wolf howls desolately, calling for help. Here you can unexpectedly meet the dead, tortured once upon a time by the Gestapo or the KGB … In Vilnius, every building, every narrow little street crossing is simultaneously the scene of ancient life and today's catalepsy.” 

The ubiquity of passages like this, as each of the novel's narrators seek, with a kind of incantatory repetition, to define the City's essence transforms Vilnius into a character in its own right. The colonised metropolis is more than just a backdrop, on the contrary it “has a soul” and a “heart-beat”. But it is the compulsion to return, to engage and to understand, however, which is of principal importance here. Like Gediminas, Vilnius Poker's most cosmopolitan character, an artist and intellectual who could have easily chosen exile and 'droves' of possibilities abroad but keeps 'coming back', each narrator continues to subjectively reflect on and adress Vilnius with a tick-like necessity. 

And if it isn't Vilnius which is the focus of these individual exegeses, then it is their fellow characters and their involvement in the murder of Lolita. It is the supposed cacaphony of explanations and interpretations surrounding this event that primarily leads Kelertas to assert that Vilnius Poker offers no “coherent narrative”, that “everything is relative to the speaker and their point of view at the time”. But is this extreme form of relativism – ultimately our ability to agree to disagree – really all that Gavelis' work holds out? 

Entertaining the thought for just a moment reminds me of the many political discussions I had with Lithuanians whilst both travelling through the country and living in Vilnius after independence. All too often interlocuters, if in disagreement, would fall back on such relativism. “You're an Englishman”, they would retort (even though strictly speaking I'm part Lithuanian) followed by “we're a small nation, you can't understand”. Even as I write this, I am reminded of the warnings of that other Lithuanian writer Sigitas Geda, who only a year before the publication of Vilnius Poker, commanded Lithuanians to drive from their minds the “deluded reassurance” that they are a “small nation”.

True, Kelertas' proposition chimes with some of the sentiments of Vilnius Poker's concluding narrator, the reincarnated, albeit as a stray dog, Gediminas. “So, who knows the real truth?” he ponders before answering negatively that “no one does”. Indeed, a cursory consideration of the competing, centrifugal narratives surrounding Lolita's death might lead one to endorse such a conclusion. Whilst Vargalys protests his complete innocence, one account has him guilty of the mutilation only, whereas, in a conspiratorial twist, another account has Lolita's father – a sadistic KGB torturer, one of Them – guilty of the gruesome act of dismemberment.

But then why should we accept Gediminas' thoughts as somehow more authoritative than the rest? Surely he is just offering one more perspective amidst all the others we must encounter. And there are nuanced contradictions and clarifications even within Gediminas' own account, not simply between his own and those of the others. Far from rejecting any 'real truth' tout court, his earlier extemporisations suggest suspicion of only “unarguable or absolute truths”. The key words here are 'absolute' and 'unarguable'. Knowledge, although contingent, is, more importantly, about processes. It is not a finished product to be pulled off the shelf but rather something to be worked at, something which develops through experience. One such experience might be intense, public debate.

It is through debate, for example, that we discover not only points of departure but also what is held in common. For all the disagreements between the narrators, there are equally many points of contact; points of contact which the reader, as a witness, can thread together. We can, for instance, agree on the site of Lolita's murder, the main events and the players involved (even if their roles are confused). Likewise, there is that unmistakeable and pervasive sense of anguish in the novel as each individual, alert to the totalitarian terror which shadows them, knows the ruinous consequences of just one wrong move.

Vytautas Vargalys' day begins with a dream about a yellow cottage and ends with this vision as the site of a gruesome murder. His phantasmagoric record, saturated as it is with visions of an enchanting Vilnius Circe, legends of the terrifying Vilnius Dragon and the hauntings of Bosch style grotesues and ghosts, is more than just the paranoid ramblings of a madman. To pathologise him like this is to ignore the fantastical inclusions of the other narrators, the last of which is, after all, a talking stray dog. Indeed, Gediminas' testament, his last insight as he lies dying in the road, is that “dogs don't distinguish between dreams and reaity”. The meaning may be characteristically ambivalent, but in one sense it confirms that insertion of the other within the real which characterises the novel as a whole and particularly Vytautas' narration. In other words, it subverts the supine acceptance of familiar or orthodox accounts of knowledge.

In a recent article on Baltic history, the novelist Tonu Onnepalu has advocated a synoptic approach to the past. It is only via this process of reading together, he argues, that ideological lies, suppressions and exaggerations can be illumined, “cancelling out what is mutually conflicting” or, indeed, confirming what is not. And it seems to me that this is exactly what Vilnius Poker demands of its readers too. Just because the novel refuses to reassuringly reveal all, its principal lesson is not one of relativistic complacency. On the contrary, it invites us to be synoptic readers: to read and re-read, check and cross check, seek out what can be confirmed and disegard what is conflicting. In short, it demands of us responsible, active citizenship. For Eastern Europe, this means initially abandoning our allegiances to moribund, myopic and often chauvinistic narratives of who we are and where we have come from. We need to seek out the Circe of Vilnius.

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