Vilnius Poker, Ričardas Gavelis (trans. Elizabeth Novickas). Open Letter Books. 485pp, $17.95.
Ričardas Gavelis wrote to intimidate and attack, and his novel Vilnius Poker, seldom subtle in its language, demands attention. It is a masterwork of bitterness and sarcasm, one that descends into the self-destructive impulses of those who, though they physically survived the privations inherent to Soviet Russia, were nonetheless emotionally traumatized. Part national rant, part passage into madness, Vilnius Poker is more than a product of the Cold War. It is a condemnation of everything Gavelis thought was wrong with Lithuania, and this first English translation, published twenty years after Poker was originally written, feels fresh.
Vilnius Poker is disorienting, as right from the start Gavelis offers Vytautas Vargalys, an extravagant, energetic narrator whose thoughts shift between the lucid and the figurative. The speaker for the first two-thirds of the book, Vargalys is a survivor of a Russian prison camp where he was physically beaten and emotionally destroyed. His once-brilliant future was ruined by the camps, and he now obsesses and rants about the failures of Lithuania; in fact, so thorough was his transformation that his survival of the camps seems almost futile. As with much of Vilnius Poker, Gavelis never says precisely how Vargalys survived; instead, the inhumanity of the camp haunts Vargalys as he suffers from post traumatic stress—induced flashbacks.
Within the first few pages our narrator flashes back to one of his torture sessions, conducted by a sadistic Lithuanian in the service of the Russians. At first the Lithuanian beats him on the feet, then moves to other parts of the body, and then, as if reaching a climax of torture, he takes a blowtorch to Vargalys’s penis. It so arouses the Lithuanian, he masturbates onto Vargalys’s face:
The slug devours your pain; it quivers with bliss, its stumpy head upreared. Can it hurt more, can it? Where’s the end, you ask of the slimy fetidstech slug’s eye, and it suddenly spits in your face, a sticky white spittle. The little flame slowly rise from your crotch, you see nothing more; the slug’s sticky spittle sealed your eyes. You hear quivernostrils breathing heavily, everything in your crotch is probably scorched, quivernostrils buttons his fly, hides his slug.
Here, political powerlessness is converted into sexual power in a degradation that extends from torturer to tortured, oppressor to oppressed, and it reveals Gavelis’s idea of a Lithuania where only power, not logic or reason, has currency. It is a sign, too, that Gavelis will only reach the emotional depths of his characters through obsession. He isn’t interested in a nuanced exploration of relationships between men and women; rather, he concerns himself with how power relationships manifest themselves as obsessive control and deform interactions between individuals.
Gavelis’s use of sexual power, though, is problematic, for it converts all action into sexuality and it makes women into the symbol of total powerlessness, mysterious recipients of degradation that do not have rich lives as characters. Lolita for instance, Vargalys’s twentysomething lover, is used by men, but it is not clear why she lets herself be used. In one scene, a second narrator notes he saw her once after an all night session with Vargalys and a friend. She is worn out and dirty and the men go on as if she wasn’t even there. Yet she continues on without any reason, continually subjecting herself to them. Lolita becomes a tool for projecting obsession.
After he is freed from the camps, Vargalys is employed as a programmer in a state library. In addition to a public collection, the library holds secret books, some of which are so secret that no one can get into them. These collections contain knowledge that could undermine the state, so they are locked away, an ever-present reminder of Soviet irony: praise knowledge, but keep it locked up. For Vargalys, the library serves to fuel his madness. He begins to wonder why the state would want to keep forbidden books when they could just destroy them. He realizes there must be a group, They, that is keeping the books, the same They that have controlled his life. The reader might easily conclude that They are simply the Russian state, but Vargalys believes that They are not just one group: They are a force that has always existed, and that has always controlled.
There was a time when I thought They existed only here: in Vilnius, in Lithuania, in Russia. I didn’t have the strength to think about everyone, about the entire world. A study of history dispelled this fallacy. In the twentieth century alone Their activities mark Italy and Germany, China and Cambodia (They have long been fond of China in general). And then there’s Spain in the Middle Ages, where They ruled for entire centuries!
Gavelis is writing more than an anti-Soviet novel; he is critiquing that which makes a people surrender its individuality to a corrupt state. What is it that makes a people “kanuked,” as Vargalys puts it, a willing participant in its own enslavement? Gavelis is not sympathetic and considers such people weak and undeserving.
If They is Vargalys’s philosophical obsession, Lolita is his sexual obsession. She is an amorphous character, never quite understood, and she provides the narrative mystery that runs throughout the novel. Each narrator thinks they know who she is, and they all try to explain it. For Vargalys she is the love of his life, described in appropriately extravagant language: “She is my song of songs, I’ve long since learnt her by heart, but she cannot bore me or seem, even for an instant, to be known, to not be hiding something unexpected.” Yet the affair ends when Vargalys dismembers her. It is a shocking moment, not only for its suddenness but also for its graphic cruelty. Yet, like in much of the novel, it is not clear what happened. Vargalys gives two explanations, both of which are delivered in his frenzied narration and both of which fail to explain the events. Is this a PTSD flashback, a manic episode, or just murder?
The death of Lola ends Vargalys’s narration. Three more narrators will attempt to make sense of Vargalys and Lolita but will have little luck. Vargalys is clearly unreliable, and the philosophical and poetic logic with which he describes an oppressive world bent on destroying him are can be dismissed as the manic thoughts of a traumatized man. Still, one feels that Vargalys’s insights into self-enslavement and self-destruction are true, and that his unreliability serves to make Vargalys even more profound because what he says is so real. When he describes friends who were arrested or Soviet hypocrisy, it is emblematic of what has happened somewhere, even if it didn’t happen exactly the way he says it does. Moreover, his detailed descriptions of events feel as though they should be true, simply because they seem so complete and explain a world that existed, or at least should have. It is the tension between what actually happened (as best it can be understood from the other narrators) and what Vargalys claims as truth that makes Vilnius Poker such a gripping read.
The book’s second narrator, Vargalys’s friend Martynas, is sane, or at least, more sane than Vargalys and thus able to unwind his friend’s story. Martynas relates the full extent of Vargalys’s sadism with his women: he dares them to have sex with his friends and then is incensed when it happens. As Martynas sees him, Vargalys is a once-brilliant man who now chases ghosts. The more Martynas explains, the more it seems that Vargalys did not murder Lolita. And thus the questions continue.
Although the degradation and masochism of the characters in Vilnius Poker fuel Gavelis’s national rant, this book has developed a certain notoriety for its negative take on Lithuania, and no review of it would be complete without mentioning the descriptions of Vilnius found throughout. Every narrator makes negative comments about it, suggesting Vilnius is a cesspool that has given birth to a nation of fools and weaklings who have brought the problems on themselves:
Vilnius’s gray air. It smells of decay. Every evening street of Vilnius looks like a narrow path through an invisible bog. If you were to go a couple of steps to the side you’d immediately feel the sweetish breath of the swamp, the smell of peaceful decay.
Gravelis’s characters attack Lithuania as they attack each other.
The strength of the Vilnius Poker is in the shifting realities that underpin the disaster of the 20th century that afflicted Lithuania. Some scenes can be tough, but Gravelis’s portrait of a damaged people undergoing post traumatic shock is brilliant. Ultimately, Vilnius Poker is not a nihilistic book from a futureless Europe; it is rather a book from a continent that has seen too much and has no answer. Even the smartest and bravest, such as Vargalys and Martynas, can offer no answer but their obsessions and temporary conquests.
Paul Doyle is a writer, teacher, and web developer based in Seattle. He writes about literature and film especially Spanish and Arabic language literature at By the Firelight. He was recently published in the literary journal Under Hwy 99.
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