March 2009

Andrew Wessels


Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis, translated by Elizabeth Novickas

This book digs up names. Lots of names -- Kafka, Camus, Joyce, Genet, Nietzche -- rise to the surface. But only two names are important in Ričardas Gavelis’s novel Vilnius Poker: Vilnius, the Lithuanian city, and Vytautas Vargalys, the overbearing, monstrous, and immense main character who charges through Vilnius hell bent on a paranoid search for Them, a hidden society spanning the history of civilization whose purpose is to destroy the lives of anyone who goes against their unknown wishes.

Vytautas works in a library supposedly updating to a computerized system, but it is a library where the books are unavailable to any person in Vilnius. Though the task is computerizing the collection, the library is not allowed to computerize before the library in Moscow, as “[o]utdoing Moscow is forbidden.” So the workers drift among the books, take extended and frequent coffee breaks, and grasp at anything that can make their existence move forward. Vytautas descends into the depths of the library searching for evidence of Them in the books, or more specifically the gaps where, he believes, they are purposely not mentioned and thus leave their mark in absentia.

The story is told from four different perspectives: Vytautas, a coworker Martynas who is not so secretly writing what he calls a "mlog," a jilted ex-lover Stefanija, and a dog whose presence skips throughout the novel -- a silent, panting observer. Each narrative centers around one event involving Vytautas and his lover Lolita, their backgrounds, and the events that lead to Vytautas’s downfall. These narratives contradict and interplay with each other, ultimately providing entirely opposite versions of the same events or even physical descriptions. While this facet of the novel could easily become unwieldy and confusing for the reader, Gavelis’ prose is both engaging and dark, wrapping the reader within a labyrinthine cocoon of contradictions, questions, and descriptions. Although he employs the now common trope of the multiple conflicting narratives, his ability to push that concept beyond merely raising a couple of minor questions as to the authority of the storyteller gives it a fresh and necessary approach to the novel. The conflicting narratives are not merely an authorial construct, they are born out of the uncertainty and madness that was the Soviet’s rule of Lithuania, a desperate race for survival and understanding:

Life in Vilnius is a giant poker game, played by madmen. Everyone hides his cards, raises and raises the bet, grimaces and makes faces, hoping to deceive the others, but no one ever finds out what his cards really are. It’s a madmen’s poker game, there is no logic or sense in it: here they pass with four aces and raise to the skies without any face cards. Here everyone plays jeopardy, but no one wins the jackpot. Our life is an endless game of Vilnius Poker: its cards are shuffled and dealt by a scornfully grimacing death.

Though virtually unknown presently in the English speaking world, Gavelis is one of the greatest Lithuanian writers of the 20th century whose writing defined a people’s culture and initiated a culture of writing. He wrote between 1976, when his first collection of stories was published, and 2002 when he passed away. This first full length translation by Elizabeth Novickas succeeds in offering a readable English version of what is undoubtedly a difficult Lithuanian text, juggling multiple voices, flashbacks, and rantings.

Vilnius Poker succeeds in creating Vilnius as a literary center, in the same way that Joyce created literary Dublin or Kafka literary Prague. At times shocking, at times depressing, Gavelis’s Vilnius bursts with intensity and purpose, demanding that attention be paid to it. This novel is not for the faint of heart; it is a forceful statement that is on its way towards becoming a touchstone of 20th Century literature.

Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis, translated by Elizabeth Novickas
Open Letter
ISBN: 1934824054
485 Pages