ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2013 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 59, No.1 - Spring 2013
Editor of this issue: Jurgita Staniškytė

The 2012 International Vilnius Book Fair:
A Subjective Map of Lithuanian Literature


RAMŪNAS ČIČELIS completed his master’s studies at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences in Vilnius in 2009 and is now pursuing his doctorate in Lithuanian literature at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas with a thesis on the creative work of Jonas Mekas. He writes for Literatūra ir menas, Nemunas, Metai, IQ, The Economist, and

The article looks at what, in the author’s view, are some of the most significant Lithuanian books published in 2011 and 2012 and presented at the 2012 International Vilnius Book Fair. In discussing each book, he pays attention to its social context, to some of its literary features, and to its probable meaning for, and impact on, potential readers. The article argues that the international book fair, in enabling real, close, and quiet encounters with writers and their writings, is a significant phenomenon of Lithuanian literature and publishing.

The International Vilnius Book Fair is a festival whose aim is to promote an acquaintance with literature published in the preceding year. The first such fair to be organized in the Lithuanian capital was held in 2000. Its main mission has been to encourage the public to read books and to help publishers maintain contact with the reading public. The very first fair saw more than a hundred publishing houses participating. Within a little more than a decade, the book fair has become an important social, economic, and tourist event, indeed the largest regional literary festival, inviting comparisons with the Gothenburg Book Fair. It has been visited by several hundred well-known authors from abroad whose work has aroused the interest of Lithuanian readers. The most famous of these include Dan Brown, Alessandro Barrico, Herbjørg Wassmo, and Sofi Oksanen. 

The motto of the 2012 International Vilnius Book Fair, electronically selected by a majority of prospective guests, was Open the World! The fair’s organizers, publishers, readers, and literary authorities are discovering ever more clearly that the tradition of the printed book is not only not dying, but in fact becoming increasingly significant, for both individual spiritual growth and society as a whole. This year, the fair was especially intent on attracting visitors by offering a chance to buy the newest books at reduced prices and holding a variety of events, including art exhibits, meeting and talking to authors with an opportunity to get their autographs, viewings of literary works transferred to the screen, educational shows for children, and public discussions.

According to the organizers, interest in the public discussions is growing every year. One such remarkable event this year was a conversation held between two former presidents – Lithuania’s Valdas Adamkus and Poland’s Alexander Kwasniewski – about the duties of the presidency as a profession and a vocation, with the historian Egidijus Aleksandravičius moderating. Another important part of the 2012 Vilnius Book Fair consisted of workshops on illustrating children’s books as well as the exhibit Iliustrariumas. The latter had been presented last year as Illustrarium at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, where Lithuania was a guest of honor.

This year’s fair in Vilnius was attended by about three dozen writers from abroad, with the most prominent being Rūta Šepetys, who was born and lives in the United States. She presented her novel Between Shades of Gray, which called attention to the historical wound of Lithuanian mass deportations. People previously knew her only from articles in the Lithuanian press and the Internet, so a live encounter with her was even more inspiring.

Since Šepetys spent a large portion of her life around Hollywood, it was not surprising that Between Shades of Gray, translated into Lithuanian as Tarp pilkų debesų, displayed features of historical melodrama. Many Lithuanian readers were worried about the book’s orientation towards popular culture. Readers from other nations apparently had fewer such reservations. Some Lithuanian critics pointed out the many historical inaccuracies to be found in the book. Even though they were right, one should not demand absolute factual precision from a novel that is only based on real events.

Šepetys’s novel is a success because it broadcasts Lithuanian suffering during and after World War II on an international scale. During the book’s presentation, the author recalled an American history professor telling her it was only from Between Shades of Gray that he first learned of the deportations that had befallen so many Lithuanians. In this way, one nation’s story becomes part of the general international postwar destiny. 

Šepetys fosters a value contemporary society often forgets: moral sensitivity to another human being’s pain. In telling the story of one girl’s life, the author creates, as it were, a history of collective Lithuanian memory: in spite of all of history’s wrongs, we have kept our pride and held our heads high. In this way, she has become a Lithuanian national by merging into a common experience that she lived through very compassionately. Exile and forced labor camps are burdensome and painful events which people tend to either discuss at great length or reserve in a proud silence: Šepetys manages to give voice to these silent ones and thereby makes their tormented lives meaningful.

Another specimen of exile literature heralded at this year’s book fair was Vladas Kalvaitis’s novel Sustiprinto režimo barakas (not yet translated, but potentially translatable into English as “strict-regime barracks”). To what extent does this work continue the traditional genre of exile literature, and to what extent should it be regarded as innovative? That was the main question that arose during the book’s presentation. It is definitely a narrative of everyday life, not unfamiliar in Lithuanian literature. But Kalvaitis’s narrator, unlike that of Šepetys, is perhaps the first to talk about exile with as little emotion as possible. Sustiprinto režimo barakas fluctuates between two sorts of viewpoints: a prisoner’s individual experiences and a generalized objective appraisal. It is not easy to discern the boundary between these two modes because, in the very same paragraph, the first and the third person might speak. The result is not only a documentary, but also an artistically expressive book that is not dominated by traditional reflection or by psychology, but guided by a need to nail down the details of everyday existence. The narrative is very unusual: it is a story that aims to be objective, and by virtue of this objectivity, it doesn’t degenerate into propaganda.

Thus Kalvaitis’s novel, rather than continuing the tradition of Lithuanian realist literature, legitimizes the naturalistic portrayal of reality. Its protagonist, being a deportee, doesn’t experience the spiritual beatitude that suffering brings forth. In this respect, however, it is very difficult to equal, let alone surpass, the letters written by the venerable Monsignor Kazimieras Vasiliauskas from Siberia to Zina Žemaitytė. On the other hand, perhaps literature should not become an instrument for judging the weight of suffering. 

The beatitudes of being were also a theme in the poems that Alis Balbierius, the Green Bard from Biržai, read at the fair. His lyric subject experiences the beatitudes arising, not so much out of suffering, as from closely watching Nature. There, in Nature, it is nevertheless heartrending to see the disappearance of the individual farmsteads that have given birth to so many Lithuanians. Balbierius recalls his fellow countryman Jonas Mekas, whose life-path and travails aren’t too far from his own. In the countryside around Biržai, they both experience emptiness and plenitude at one and the same time. This is, in effect, tantamount to natural Revelation. Balbierius’s lyric subject views Nature as sacred: it is the highest reality. But a pantheistic or impressionistic relation is avoided. Nature is not above human beings; it does not leave footprints on their souls. Rather the human being is a footprint upon Nature and the World, with which the human, forgetting himself or herself, ought to become one and merge. This attitude toward Nature and the World is akin to the Buddhist one, as the author himself half-admitted in discussion.

On the other hand, how can one talk about oneself when one is supposed to forget oneself. . . The lyric subject of Balbierius’s Skaidrumos (Clearings) lives not for the sake of human reality or of social relations; it is the rock, the path on which it lies, the homestead, and the snow on and around it that are closer to him. The lyric subject wants to settle down on this side of the horizon and live just for selfless love. His eyes are wellsprings of memory. His story consists of images. In contemporary Lithuanian poetry, we occasionally find images of traumatic events that the viewer cannot change and therefore suffers from. The person of Balbierius’s poems directs his calm and tranquil gaze, a premodern gaze, at peacefulness. Like Mekas, Balbierius dreams in images. City people do that more often in words. The subject of Balbierius’s book needs no titanic efforts, none of the currently popular spiritual exercises, to experience tranquility: small things disclose all the beauty of being in the world. This, if it has any purpose at all, we know only in part. Balbierius does not aim at universality. 

The book fair also highlighted another book whose author acknowledges that life lacks grand purposes: Sklepas ir kitos esė (The Cellar and Other Essays) by Laurynas Katkus. This collection of essays is bound up with music: in the initial texts, the narrator talks about punk culture in late-Soviet Lithuania, and the book ends with a critique of popular music. What happens in between might be described as aesthetic jazz. Katkus, as a true jazzman, doesn’t need a thesis; he doesn’t want to illustrate an idea; he creates his texts spontaneously, live, on the spot. The author of Sklepas ir kitos esė is not a figure of the literary world, but a sensitive man open to reality. It’s impossible to fake the jazzy intonations of his text. When writing about the Soviet period, literature, travels, whatever, though he doesn’t shy away from improvising and changing styles, he still and always stays deeply personal.

On the other hand, Katkus obviously gives priority to those experiences that connect him with his social context and readers who have lived through similar events. Each essay is concluded not with a summary, but by sounding a note related to the one dominating in the next essay. Katkus’s writings about other writers constitute a series of essays of a type very rare in Lithuanian literature. When he writes about other artists or about his cellar, where he does his writing because he finds peace and quiet there, he expresses his thoughts in crisp wellaimed details of everyday life, rather than long deliberations and logical arguments. His sociality allows one to discuss his book’s life in the context of East European culture. The writer is capable of clearing up, in a few sentences, many a paradox of thought and behavior in Lithuanian society. Katkus does not moralize: his journalistic style serves him not as a method of rhetoric and persuasion, but as a method of deeper self-understanding. The varying rhythm and occasionally even rhyme of semantic accents puts Katkus in the vicinity of one of the greatest of Lithuanian essayists, Rolandas Rastauskas. If we could dream a bit, then my dream would feature the aesthetic jazz duet of Rastauskas and Katkus at the next Vilnius Book Fair.

But even though dreams have not yet turned into reality, this book fair did allow us to hear Rastauskas read the verses of Czeslaw Miłosz and other poets. Rastauskas’s reading is in a newly interpreted tradition of declaiming Greek poetry, marked by an inimitable voice and intonation that held its own with the music. Rastauskas spoke not from the mountain top, nor to the amphitheater, but intimately and personally. A traditional reading would have presupposed a mask, a hiding behind the writer’s role and status. Rastauskas affirmed an openness and declared a genuineness. There was nothing artificial in this harmony of voice and music. Even the jazz sounded like it was played not on a musical instrument, but sung in a human voice. I have heard Rastauskas read his essays more than once. Every such experience is a performance with nary a break. Rastauskas creates the impression of a reading without interruption. Having come to the book fair and entered the hall, you get the feeling that, since the last time you heard Rastauskas, nothing significant has happened in life. The essayist was the author in Lithuania who read his work in an individual manner at a time when no one as yet was talking about any poetry “slam” contests. In reading his texts he does not show off, he only shows. Talking is the way for him – his life. 

The Internet newspaper presented a book by its director, Dr. Andrius Navickas: Laiškai plaukiantiems prieš srovę (Letters to Those Swimming Against the Flow). Like Rastauskas, the author is concerned about communicating with a vibrant human being capable of experiencing wonder as (s)he walks his or her own path. Navickas’s book is clearly theological: one of its main targets is human pride, one of the cardinal sins that hinder men and women from getting closer to God. The book argues for a life radically different from the one now in vogue. It invites readers to search for meaning instead of engaging in consumption or falling prey to sin. In this respect, Navickas is akin to the Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl, who developed his own brand of psychotherapy, called logotherapy, in the second half of the twentieth century. Both authors assert that paths of seclusion lead nowhere, and that it is better to live unburdened by guilt. Navickas beckons us to an active life and urges us not to close ourselves off in privateness. To the author of Laiškai plaukiantiems prieš srovę (and, one surmises, many of his readers), each day is a memorable event in itself. Navickas also endorses a currently unfashionable attitude towards life: waiting instead of impatiently rushing about. The person who chooses a Catholic way of life, says Navickas, lives not immersed and lost in a crowd, but takes on personal responsibility for himself and his neighbor. The book very much reminds one of the final scene in Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance, with its parting words: “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a temple?”

Somewhat more confusing are the roads traversed by Lithuanians in Great Britain, to judge from Emigrantės dienoraštis (The Diary of an Emigrant Woman), written and presented at the fair by Zita Čepaitė. Her words spoken there point to a Lithuanian woman’s walking away from Lithuania, although paradoxically one cannot really walk away from oneself. The diary form is apparently the best vehicle for the author to engage in self-reflection. When reading this book and others written by Lithuanian migrants (calling them “emigrants” nowadays is perhaps inaccurate, for the possibility of return is both close and far away, yet by no means inconceivable), one is gripped by the idea that they are not seeking to save their Lithuanian identity, but to get used to – and then forget – it. Before he died, the poet Justinas Marcinkevičius said something interesting: “The task today is to make Lithuania interesting to the world.” But can we spark the interest of others if we aren’t even interesting to ourselves?

The International Vilnius Book Fair, already successful at bringing about quite a few individual encounters with literature and its creators, is a phenomenon that can arouse world interest both in Lithuanian literature and in Lithuanian culture as a whole.

Translated by Mykolas Drunga