Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis

Depending on the definition of the borders of Europe, the ancient city of Vilnius lies close to a site claimed to be the geographical centre of Europe. This strategic position presumably lies behind a disastrous sequence of wars and occupations that have beset the city since its establishment in the early 1300s. Set in 1970s, Vilnius Poker casts the city as unmistakable villain.

Vilnius suffers, oppressed by inactivity and somnolence, remembering the Iron Wolf like a dream. It should have howled through the ages, but grew decrepit long ago, sickened with throat cancer; its metastases eat away at the city’s brain too. Perhaps only we two, Vilnius and I, are still alive.

The Iron Wolf howled in the dreams of Vilnius’s founder Grand Duke Gediminas. Freud may have diagnosed repressed homosexuality, but a pre-Freudian pagan priest interpreted the Iron Wolf as the castle (now called Gediminas Castle) and city that the Duke would establish as the capital of the Lithuanian lands.

Only the ancient castle in the new city is unavoidably real: a lonely tower, emerging from the overgrown slopes of the hill-the phallic symbol of Vilnius. It betrays all secrets. The symbolic phallus: short, stumpy and powerful. An organ of pseudo-powers that hasn’t been able to get aroused in a long time. A red three-storey tower, a phallic NOTHING, shamelessly shown to everyone, Vilnius’s image of powerlessness. The great symbol of a castrated city, of castrated Lithuania, stuck onto every postcard, into every photo album, every tourist brochure. A perverted, shameless symbol: its impotence should be hidden, not acknowledged, or it should at least pretend it’s still capable of a thing or two. But the city has long since lost everything-even its self respect. Only lies, absurdity, and fear remain.

This lonely tower in Vilnius embodies the central themes of this extraordinary book: powerlessness, fear, impotence, absurdity, corrupted sexuality and dissimulation.

The book’s translator, Elizabeth Novickas, describes Vilnius Poker succinctly as follows:

When asked to come up with a summary of what the book is about, or a single section that could characterize it, I find myself groping at so many things that I’m completely at a loss. Yes, I suppose one could summarize something of the plot: there is a murder, a love story, four narrators, a number of characters, a more or less concrete time frame, and most certainly a concrete place, but how to include that time also goes around in circles, and on two occasions actually stops? And what to do with details of the plot that get told over and over, so that in the end you hardly know which version to believe, much less how to describe it? The best I can come up with, without writing a doctoral thesis on the subject, is also the simplest: this is a piece of fiction about life. The four narrators are all flawed people, but they are all people nevertheless, including the last narrator—the reincarnation of one of the characters as a dog. They make us squirm at their rawness, cringe at the depth of their self-deceptions, laugh at their stories, and in the end, when we see what cards they have been dealt, break our hearts.

Behind the story, with its reverberations of The Matrix, Orwell’s 1984 and a dose of David Icke, is also a potent commentary on modern culture and modernism.

I saw how playfulness, fantasy, and metaphysics disappeared from European literature-the kanukized throngs demanded block-headed descriptions of everyday life. Painful and tragic dreams disappeared; their place was taken up by idiotic realia, a hundred Zolas and Dickenses. The throng was concerned about bread, so literature had to write about bread. The soul slowly disappeared from it, the body came to rule over everything: how the character is dressed, what house he lives in, how much money he has. After Vivaldi, improvisation disappeared from music; music slowly lost its depth of meaning. Hegel, drowning in alcohol, blathered about his trinomial dialectic, and Europe immediately fell behind a thousand years, since even the dialectic of the ancient Chinese I Ching is many times more complex and real.

The influence of Kafka is palpable, Gavelis references Kafka directly and subtly throughout the book, but also draws into the narrative Camus, Sabato, Plato, Joyce and Beckett.

I could tell her why I can’t stand Beckett, the most moral writer of our times. (I can’t stand Beckett, even though picking up a book of his I feel a quiver of respect. He is perhaps the only one who was able to look at a man with God’s indifferent eyes. He quite honestly showed the sorry state of the kanuked man the way it really is.)

Of course, as in any work of almost five hundred pages, there are deficiencies. The first part is more essential than subsequent sections, where Gavelis feels the need for expository narrative. Part Three,  Stefa’s narrative, is powerful, but if I had closed the book after Part One I would consider Vilnius Poker superlative, rather than merely brilliant.

My introduction to Ričardas Gavelis’ Vilnius Poker is thanks to Emily’s suggestion for the “non-structured book group.”

6 thoughts on “Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis

  1. >Ineed to pick this up it appeal to me on the list of books for non structured books ,even more after your review anthony like that you say he has been influenced by camus and Joyce sounds like a interesting mix ,all the best stu

  2. >I'm so glad you spotlight the way Gavelis incorporates European literary and art history into Vargalys's paranoia/worldview – that was one of the many things I wanted to get to but ran out of space/time. It was so interesting the way historical & literary figures seemed so immediately present to him – both those he perceived as allies and those he thought of as enemies. I agree that the first narration is the strongest, but I also felt the subsequent ones enriched the book a lot, if only in contorting its absurdism into different channels! I loved the way the different narratives both explain and contradict each other.Very glad Stefa got her own section, also – I think that went a long way toward counteracting Vargalys's misogyny, even if I hated reading the rape scene. In any case, thanks so much for joining us for Vilnius Poker, Anthony – it was a real commitment, so great to have you along!

  3. >Thanks, Emily, I wouldn't have read Vilnius Poker without this inducement, and I am delighted that I did.I didn't mention how Gavelis manipulated time, but have thought a lot about it since.Agree completely about Stefa's narration. It was important.

  4. >I was so annoyed by Gavelis' style (in particular the first narrator's obsession with the odd couple of genitalia and italics), especially after what I'd considered a promising start, that I dropped it after a little more than 100 pages. While I enjoyed both your post and Emily's, Anthony, I'm not sure that the interesting narrative features you both highlight would have made up for the narrative excesses for me. Not my cup of tea and all that.

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