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From the October 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 10)

A New Light on Lithuanian Literature

Robert von Lucius, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (conservative), Frankfurt, Germany, July 17, 2001.

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 Brazdzionis—who was now being greeted by his fellow citizens like a prophet—had 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, Lithuania’s 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 language—the oldest living Indo-European tongue, comparable in age to Sanskrit—can 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 literature appeared.

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 for them.

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 country’s 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. Ivanauskaite’s 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 elite—the 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 censorship.

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 in Lithuanian.

This makes it all the more disappointing to see how little interest there has been in Lithuanian literature in Germany. Lithuania’s 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.

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