Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Life in Vilnius is a giant poker game, played by madmen."

Then how can you explain humanity's structure, all the world's societies, all human communities, their aspirations and modes of existence? How can you explain that always and everywhere, as far as you can see, one idiot rules a thousand intelligent people, and they quietly obey? Whence comes the silent gray majority in every society? Would a person who wasn't kanuked think of vegetating in a soulless condition and say that's the way everything should be?

I am horribly late! The Wolves' discussion of Vilnius Poker, written by Ričardas Gavelis and translated from Lithuanian by Elizabeth Novickas, was to take place last Friday. But Thanksgiving, travel, and work all conspired to mess up my reading. The good thing about being late, though, is that this post is kind of like a TV Clip Show. The other Wolves have already covered this particular novel and said many of the things I wanted to say as well. Emily, for example, discusses the first section's "circular narrative" and how its repetition and use of recurring elements (i.e. dogs, cockroaches, scatological imagery, monstrous genitalia) take the form of a textual fugue. Both Isabella and I enjoyed the wild dream sequences and "lovely, crazy passages," although she ultimately disliked the book and gave up. And all four of us (including Sarah) were struck by the disturbing treatment of women, even after it became clear that the bulk of it was the product of the protagonist's diseased mind.

The character in question is one Vytautas Vargalys, a survivor of the Soviet gulags under Stalin. It is now the 1970s, and he has returned to his native Lithuania to work in capital city Vilnius as a librarian. It's an absurd position - he has been tasked with creating a digital catalog that he can't actually finish until the big library in Leningrad finishes their catalog. As his colleague, disgraced educator Martynas explains, it's more like they're collecting unemployment for being employed. The rest of the group under Vargalys's supervision is a quartet of women, including Stefa, who always seems to be underfoot, and gorgeous Lolita. So far so good.

Except that Vargalys is completely out of his mind, suffering from a combination of PTSD and raging paranoia. Demon shadow-people are taking over the world! He spends his days searching for evidence of Their existence in the books of his library, many of them banned from public view. Though he appears functional to others, he is completely consumed by nightmarish hallucinations and a never-ending loop of bizarre, obsessive delusions. (Sarah puts it very well: "The events of a single day and of Vargalys’ entire life are conveyed by him in a looping, seeming chaos. . . Vargalys zooms in and out repeatedly while maintaining a dizzying clarity.") They are dead-eyed imposters who proliferate by seizing the minds and bodies of healthy, thinking humans and turning them into mindless freaks. They will "kanuk" you - turn you into one of Them. They are legion and they will destroy anyone who even suspects of their existence.

Clearly this is in fact a madman's attempt to come to terms with life under a communist dictatorship - particularly one that came in from the outside (Russia). Vilnius Poker is also an enraged tirade against the oppression of the Lithuanian national spirit and the loss of its free heritage under Polish and then Soviet rule. Vilnius, apparently, is the Asshole of the Universe. Gediminas Tower, the symbol of Lithuania itself, is likened in Vargalys's mind to a impotent member. The very atmosphere is bleak and hopeless when not twisting in on itself like a series of funhouse mirrors - at one point, for example, Vargalys imagines himself trapped in an impossible maze of dingy corridors after pursuing his missing father like Alice's white rabbit. Kirkus Reviews compared Vilnius Poker to The Matrix and it's easy to see why. The real world as we know it is a facade for something deeper and darker - perhaps a reflection of communism's relentless emphasis on total equality and the destructive measures most regimes have taken ostensibly to achieve that equality (i.e. gulags, the Ukrainian famine). North Korea seems to have this down pat.

Out of our group, both Richard and Isabella gave up (Richard didn't even post) and Sarah came close. I don't blame them. Gavelis's prose is brilliant and vivid but there are still the issues of 1) the narrative repetition, 2) the constant shit/genitalia imagery and 3) Vargalys's disgusting views of women and sexuality. The last two derive from Vargalys having spent his formative years in a hellish, all-male labor camp, and No. 2 is more eye-rolling than anything else. But in the latter's case . . . to begin with, I'm going to give a trigger warning to anyone interested in reading Vilnius Poker. There are at least two rape scenes in Vargalys's section and other scenes that come close. The rapes seem to have taken place entirely in his head but that doesn't make them any less difficult to get through. Vargalys's perception of women is generally demeaning and constantly narrows down to breasts and vaginas.

In Vargalys's mind, the transformation from human to "kanuk" is physical as well as psychological. This causes his POV to swing between either worshiping women's bodies or reviling them. His suspicion that ex-wife Irena - previously his life-saving Madonna - has been kanuked is fueled in part by what seems to be the natural aging process: her skin loses its youthful luster and she has gained weight. His subsequent disgust is violent: "That woman's breasts are swollen, three hideous rolls lie pressed together. . . The waist has disappeared somewhere; square thighs stick out immediately below the bulging breasts. Between the legs, almost from the knees up, spout fat globs of flesh - something like thick ropes." The image of the older woman's body is further juxtaposed against references to degraded sexuality, sour and moldy smells, and disease.

And yet later, during his involvement with Lolita: "I'm amazed that Solomon attempted to compare his loved one's body to something. Lolita isn't comparable to anything; she's not even comparable with herself, because she is different every time. She is like an entire world, like a universe - with stars, nebulae, and comets. Her flavor is heavenly. . ." (And on and on for two whole pages.) What this reminded me of, very eerily, was a Dutch novel by Ilja Leornard Pfeijffer I reviewed awhile back called Rupert: A Confession, about a pathological rapist who waxes poetic for pages and pages about his beautiful Mira, the "fact that makes fiction possible." Overall, the impression I get from both Rupert (who made my recent Top 10 Villains list, BTW) and Vargalys is of men only capable of perceiving women as either sex objects or rejected sex objects. And even the former are venerated as symbols rather than real human beings (in that same passage, Vargalys finds himself unable to look at Lolita's face and starts seeing her as some kind of "universal woman"). It is also worth noting that both Rupert and Vargalys's stories end with a brutal act of male-on-female violence.

Until Martynas's section 300 pages later I was unsure if this misogyny was simply the characterization of a depraved mind or if at least some of it was Gavelis's Henry Miller-esque bias showing. Martynas is generally sympathetic to the plight of the female characters, although I also felt, as Emily did, that Stefa's chapter was very "derivative" when compared to the three male narrations - one of whom had been reincarnated as a dog! Stefa had this stream-of-conscious style going on that also lacked the social/philosophical insight of the rest of the book - as though she was more instinctive and less analytical than the men. On the one hand, it's great that at least Gavelis gave her a voice. But it's still a very "othered" voice that ends with a gang rape that added nothing to the story. Why was that even there? (Again, trigger warning.)

So at this point we're down to the Big Question. Did I like Vilnius Poker? It certainly wasn't my favorite but I did enjoy most of it. As I mentioned earlier, Ričardas Gavelis's prose is excellent and I did enjoy reading it. But Vilnius Poker is also a polarizing book, even to a single reader. Once again, I really don't blame anyone who abandons this one and there are definitely many reasons why that would happen. Although I chose to focus on gender with this post, there is a lot more happening here and I strongly recommend checking out what my compatriots have written.

See also: my reviews of The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain and The Judgment Day Archives.

It occurs to me that every book I have read and blogged about lately has been either really depressing, published by Open Letter Press, or both. I promise that the book I am reading now is neither.

Ričardas Gavelis's Vilnius Poker was The Wolves' reading selection for the month of November. Please feel free to join us at any time! You can find a complete book list here.

Past selections:

March: Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana
April: Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual
May: Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
June: Gabriel Josipovici, Moo Pak
July: Kenzaburo Ōe, A Personal Matter Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!
August: William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
September: Tomás Eloy Martínez, Santa Evita
October: Tobias Wolff, Old School


Emily said...

I had a similar reaction to Stefa's section - on the one hand, SOME kind of female voice is definitely needed to balance out the extreme misogyny of Vargalys's section, so it's good that Gavelis realized that. On the other hand, I totally agree that it was weaker than some of the other narratives, and WHAT was the point of the rape scene? It left a bad taste in my mouth. Overall I was left conflicted about the Stefa section (and the whole book, really, although I ended up glad that I read it).

I did think there were some pretty clever details about how the narratives fit together. Like how Vargalys was so obsessive about his missing father and how sinister it was that he reappeared, and then Martynas was like "Yeah, Vargalys's father moved back to Vilnius like 10 years ago and worked as a doorman at a hotel downtown." So pedestrian!

E. L. Fay said...

You know, I think part of it may have been Gavelis being all like, OMG LOOK AT ME I'M SO EDGY YAY!

I think the stream-of-conscious style would've gone much better with the dog narrative - sort of like a commentary on human/bestial nature? Because right now, the way I see it, the dog was more human than the woman. Hmmm. . . (Yes, he was a human reincarnated as a dog, but still!)

Richard said...

I thought about posting something about what I really hated about this book, E.L. Fay, but I eventually decided not to waste anybody's time with a post about a book I didn't even finish (I'd only read a little over 100 pages anyway). Ironically, I've enjoyed reading everybody else's posts about the book and agree with you that there's a lot there...buried amidst too much repetition, too many italics, and too many references to genitalia as forms of meat. Yawn. Tender Morsels is still the worst book I've read this year, though (as proven by the fact that I'd rather finish Vilnius Poker someday than ever read a Margo Lanagan title ever again). I mean, there's crap and then there's CRAP. Cheers!

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