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from the April 2018 issue

Shadows, Shrouds, and Family Chronicles: Writing from Lithuania

A document of injustice, memorializing the names, professions, and ages of those who perished—many who were buried in unmarked graves. A celebrated modernist novel about a neurasthenic elevator operator, detailing the refugee experience in mid-century Manhattan. And a four-volume chronicle about the lives of the slachta, the Polish-speaking noblemen and noblewomen of the seventeenth and eighteenth century in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, impeccably researched by an historian, narrated in ornate, Baroque style. This issue of Words without Borders thus introduces the Anglophone reader to three monuments of Lithuanian literature and history.

Shadows on the Tundra, written by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (1927–87), first appeared in print in the late 1980s, when the Lithuanian independence movement Sajūdis began to openly discuss previously censored topics and texts. Among these, the 1941 and 1944 Soviet deportations to Siberia of tens of thousands of Lithuanian men, women, and children, who, without due process, were arrested in their homes, transported in freight cars and barges to the inhospitable territories of the Soviet North and Far East, and exploited as slave labor. Among those arrested was fourteen-year-old Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, who ended up in Trofimovsk in the Arctic Circle in the Altaj Peninsula with her mother and little brother. Their crime, like that of many other families, was that by virtue of their education, profession, wealth, or political activities, they posed a threat to the new Soviet government. Grinkevičiūtė, understanding the injustices she was witnessing and determined to document every detail while events were still fresh in her memory, wrote her memoir several times, secretly, piecemeal, on scraps of paper, hiding them under her mattress and inside her clothing. She wrote the first version in 1949 when she illegally brought her ailing mother home to die in Kaunas, Lithuania. She buried the memoir in a peony patch in her family garden. Fearing that this version was lost (this “peony patch” version was discovered in 1991 after the author’s death and published in the Lithuanian literary review Metai in 1997), Grinkevičiūtė wrote the memoir a second time. A third version was written in Russian and published in 1979 in Moscow. In 1950, the KGB arrested Grinkevičiūtė in Kaunas and sent her to prison, shortly afterward returning her to exile in Jakutsk, Sakha Republic, USSR, two hundred and fifty miles south of the Arctic Circle. She was released from exile and allowed to return to Lithuania in 1956.

Lietuviai prie Laptevų jūros (Lithuanians by the Laptev Sea) stunned the nation: this was the first time many learned about what had happened to their parents, grandparents, and neighbors. Many could not believe that this taboo subject was being discussed openly; others were simply amazed by Grinkevičiūtė’s fierce determination to survive in the face of unspeakable dehumanization and suffering.

Grinkevičiūtė’s memoir reads almost like a screenplay; each episode is meticulously constructed, evoking anger, empathy and awe. The story is realistic, although some details are so gruesome that they feel like they must have been invented. Despite the horror, however, the text (and Delija Valiukėnas’s skillful translation) cannot but inspire admiration for the protagonist’s tremendous mind and spirit.

White Shroud by Antanas Škėma (1910–61) presents another key theme of twentieth-century Lithuanian history: the frustrated talent and potential of the refugee, traumatized by World War II, living in a foreign environment and unable to practice his profession on account of language or the fact that his degrees are not recognized in his adopted land. Škėma, like thousands of his compatriots, fled Soviet occupation and eventually ended up in the United States. Like his protagonist Antanas Garšva, Škėma worked as a hotel elevator operator.

In this modernist gem, Škėma converts the tragedy of the refugee into a metaphor for the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition. The elevator operator transports wealthy hotel guests up and down, down and up, day in and day out. Škėma’s commanding stream-of-consciousness narrative, perceptively translated by Karla Gruodis, incorporates elements of folk songs and stories and religious and mystical imagery in the broken, accented English of the protagonist and allows readers to meander between the very specific life of the twentieth-century refugee and universal human experience.

The third text is an excerpt from Silva Rerum, an epic four-volume historical novel set in the waning years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1659–1795 and written by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė (1974- ). These volumes were published between 2008 and 2017 to tremendous acclaim in Lithuania, as well as Poland and Latvia, where the novel has already been translated and similarly celebrated. (The phenomenal success of Silva Rerum has even inspired a “historical turn” in Lithuanian literature more generally. Some of the most widely read novels of the past two years, including works by Alvydas Šlepikas, Rasa Aškinytė, Sigitas Parulskis, and Saulius Šaltenis, have taken on historical topics.) As the author herself explains in a history of the Lithuanian historical novel, this work could only have been written under very specific circumstances: during Soviet rule, the experience of the aristocracy in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not conform to the dictates of socialist realism’s focus on the workers and their class struggle. Prior to Soviet occupation and immediately afterward, the construction of Lithuanian national identity based on the use of the Lithuanian language precluded this experience of Polish-speaking noblemen and noblewomen from national discussions. One might add that this novel could not have been written by anyone other than Sabaliauskaitė, an art historian as well as a writer. Written in the Baroque style of the time in which the novel is set, it reflects her extensive and painstakingly accurate archival research, its extremely complex and ornate sentences here expertly translated by Romas Kinka.

This is an exciting time for Lithuanian literature, which is finally finding an international readership thanks in large part to the energy and generosity of the Lithuanian Cultural Institute and the emergence of a new generation of talented translators. It is our hope that this Lithuanian issue will inspire Anglophone readers to seek out more work by Lithuanian writers.

© 2018 by Jura Avizienis. All rights reserved.

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