an area of the map for world news.
the October 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No.
A New Light
on Lithuanian Literature
Robert von Lucius, Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung (conservative), Frankfurt, Germany, July 17,
The arrival in Vilnius in 1989 of a poet coming home
from Los Angeles went unannounced. Only a few of his friends were
aware of it. But within a short time, even though it was still during
the Soviet occupation, many tens of thousands of people were listening
to his readings, first held in parks, then in the stadium or the Vilnius
opera house. Many elderly people came with dog-eared books taken out
of hiding, books published more than 45 years earlier, before Bernardas
Brazdzioniswho was now being greeted by his fellow citizens
like a prophethad had to flee.
The story of Brazdzionis first homecoming says a great deal:
Culture has deeper roots in Vilnius, going back many centuries, than
in most places in Europe. In the years of occupation, language and
literature were a means of asserting national resistance.
The literature of Lithuania is more fragmented than most. About half
of all the major novels and books of poetry written in the second
half of the 20th century appeared in exile, and apparently half of
all writers fled the Russians in 1944, heading for Germany or America.
Even before that, Lithuanias cultural life had suffered a hemorrhage
when its Jewish community was destroyed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian
helpers. [South African author] Nadine Gordimer, for example, was
born to a Lithuanian family.
Lithuanian literature is little known abroad. That may change now
that the Frankfurt Book Fair has named Lithuania a partner country
for 2002. Lithuania is to replace Turkey, which was recently removed
from the list of partners.
The Lithuanian languagethe oldest living Indo-European tongue,
comparable in age to Sanskritcan point to its long tradition
with pride. The University of Vilnius was founded in 1579, and just
80 years after printing was invented in Europe, the city already had
its first book publisher.
In early centuries, most of the books published in Lithuania appeared
in Slavic languages or Latin. Lithuanian, although it has never possessed
a national epic, has always been richly endowed with folk songs and
folk tales. It was not until the end of the 19th century, hand-in-hand
with a rebirth of Lithuanian nationalism, that a broader, secular
At that time, linguists were afraid that Lithuanian, like Old Prussian
before it, would disappear as a language. But Lithuanian literature
thrived, especially in the years of independence that began in 1918.
Numerous literary magazines appeared in Vilnius, and such classical
writers as Juozas Tumas-Vaizgantas and the poet Jonas Maironis wrote
This development was interrupted by the Soviet occupation in 1940.
From then on, the best-known writers lived either in the United States
or elsewhere in Europe: Tomas Venclova, for instance, who taught Russian
literature at Yale, or Jonas Mekas, the poet and filmmaker. Others
returned home after 1991.
One of the best-known poets in exile is Antanas Skema. The most important
of the countrys younger authors include novelist Jurga Ivanauskaite
and playwright and poet Sigitas Parulskis, whose first novel will
soon be published. Ivanauskaite, together with Saulius Tomas Kondrotas,
is one of the few writers whose short stories and novels are available
in other European languages. Ivanauskaites heroes are young
artists in search of the meaning of life and eager to reshape society.
One of the most beloved writers is Ricardas Gavelis, who pokes fun
at the Soviet mentality and the new elitethe former communists,
now miraculously transformed into freedom fighters. The
work of writers who remained in Lithuania is characterized in poetry
by melancholy and the use of allusions and double-entendres to elude
There have not been any significant works telling the history of the
resistance, even now that there is freedom, nor are any major historical
themes dealt with in contemporary novels.
In the last decade, Lithuanian literature has witnessed a new upswing,
encouraged by the rebirth of freedom of the press, the abolition of
censorship, the rise of private publishing houses, the unhindered
exchange of ideas with the West, and the return of many exiled writers.
The most visible result of this trend is the sudden increase in availability
of translations of foreign writing into Lithuanian, led by German
works. Erich Kästner, Erich Maria Remarque, and Hermann Hesse
were already best sellers, but now younger writers are being added.
Recently, translations of Robert Walser, Patrick Süskind, Bernhard
Schlink, and Michael Krüger have appeared, and Krüger himself
came to Vilnius in May to read from Himmelfarb: A Novel, just out
This makes it all the more disappointing to see how little interest
there has been in Lithuanian literature in Germany. Lithuanias
best-known publisher, Baltos Lankos, has published bilingual editions
of the poetry of Aldona Gustas, who has lived in Berlin since 1945,
as well as the work of Sigitas Geda, one of the most important modern
Lithuanian lyric poets. Baltos Lankos has also printed books by Venclova
and Mekas. Athena Verlag in Oberhausen has inaugurated a series of
Lithuanian literature, and the first three volumes are due out in
the next few weeks.
Lithuanian writers and publishers say that this amounts to a narrow,
nonrepresentative sample. Up till now, the government, publishers,
and the market have, it is true, offered incentives to publish, but
little for translations from Lithuanian.
The best overview of contemporary Lithuanian literature is available
in Vilnius, a journal published by the Lithuanian Writers Federation.
Each issue includes an English summary with short descriptions of
new novels, poetry, and literary criticism. The federation, founded
10 years ago, has also published about 200 books itself, most of them
collections of poetry.
One minor obstacle to more translations is the absence of an up-to-date
German-Lithuanian dictionary. Work began on such a project more than
300 years ago. Four years ago, a facsimile edition of a dictionary
first printed in 1680 appeared. This German-Lithuanian work, handwritten,
was discovered in East Prussia in 1945 and is 2,500 pages long.
There is a long tradition in Germany of Baltic studies and scholars
who concentrate on Lithuanian. But this field has been more
interested in linguistics than literature. The 2002 Book Fair
may turn out to be an opportunity to remedy that.