“’You can’t demand too much of a Lithuanian writer’s imagination,’” rants a bitter library employee in the late Riardas Gavelis’ Vilnius Poker, now in English for the first time. How (asks this character in a major contemporary work barely read beyond its own borders) can a culture of starved minds and sausage-stuffed stomachs be anything but impotent?
Gavelis is kidding, caustically: we see, through his narrator Vytautas Vargalys, how paranoia boils over the lid of repression. Having resisted a century of warping power — absorption into Poland, Nazi and Soviet occupation, camps and gulags, Brezhnev-era stagnation — the Vargalyses are Lithuania. And Vytautas is convinced that there must be someone behind his country’s — behind humanity’s — clamped-down complacency: “Where does that secret desire come from, when a person is up to their neck in shit, to use all his strength to drown another who’s struggling to scramble out?” They is the name Vargalys gives the stalking, dead-eyed agents of this all-encompassing conspiracy. Unstuck in time, unhinged by experience and undisciplined in his prose (he thinks in fervent italics), Vargalys hopscotches his own past for hints at their grand design. He combs restricted books for clues into their doings (an obvious, terrific metaphor for the sacramental power of literature in an authoritarian state: Kafka, Camus and Orwell illuminate; no Lithuanian writers are among the many mentioned). He’s obsessed with fecal matters and other outward signs of spiritual decomposition: Vilnius, the palimpsestic Lithuanian capital, is overrun with pigeons and cockroaches, and smells of rotting leaves.
Any narrative justifying all personal and world-historical malignancy is generally assumed to be unreliable (especially when delivered by a torture victim enraptured by nubility and vigilant against “sucking” vaginas). But after 300 pages of Vargalys, Gavelis voices the private mythologies of alternate narrators — all systematically contradicting each other’s baselining facts. He means to renounce the need for an objective explanation: “There won’t be any real answers anyway, because only Nobody knows.” It’s easy to see why this anti-epic negation resonated upon publication in 1989, the year before Lithuanian independence — but if catharsis is to be found, it’s outside these pages.