2021.03.06 12:00

Identities in search of a city. Vilnius Wilno Vilna by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė

Mikko Toivanen2021.03.06 12:00

LRT English presents a series of articles about seminal works by Lithuanian authors – all of them are available in English.

Read more:
Lithuanian immigrant song from post-war New York. White Shroud by Antanas Škėma
Atrocities closely observed. Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis

Vilnius. Wilno. Vilna. Three Short Stories by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė

(Baltos lankos, 2015; transl. by Romas Kinka)

For this third piece in our series, a slight change of pace: rather than a novel, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė’s Vilnius. Wilno. Vilna. is a compact collection of three short stories, making it an ideal entry point into Lithuanian literature for curious readers, but also allowing a fascinating diversity of perspectives on the stories’ shared topic, the titular city.

The framing is interesting: whereas Darkness and Company (discussed previously) told a very self-consciously national story and engaged in national-level debates, Sabaliauskaitė instead zooms in on the local and through that lens deftly challenges the very concept of ‘nations’ and ‘nationalities’ in the Lithuanian historical context.

Not that this work is any less political. The thrust of the case being made here is evident from the title, composed of the Lithuanian, Polish and Yiddish names of the country’s capital. Vilnius has been a city of all those communities and the book deliberately foregrounds this multiplicity of identities, perhaps in opposition to the globally resurgent nationalisms of recent years.

The three stories represent this diversity of perspectives. One narrates the fates of a class of students in an interwar Polish girls’ school; another sees an Americanised, Jewish businessman returning to the city of his birth; and in the final story, a Lithuanian former KGB informer lies helpless in a hospital bed, finally facing up to his past misdeeds.

It is important to note that the stories were not originally published like this: the selection has been made specifically for this English edition (from 2015) by the publisher Baltos lankos. That muddies the waters a little, suggesting the possibility that the – arguably fashionable – focus on multiculturality has been achieved by editorial fiat rather than reflecting the author’s intentions. Yet the stories themselves seem to justify the framing, each of them touching upon the vagaries of national or ethnic identities and mapping out their relationship with urban space.

Thankfully, Sabaliauskaitė’s touch is light throughout and her purposes far subtler than a mere simplistic celebration of diversity. All the stories revolve around the theme of illusions and disillusionment, and if anything, offer a sustained critique of all attempts to impose identity on the city.

In Franco’s Black Pearls chapter of the book, a schoolgirl remembers getting caught up in a crowd of Polish nationalists marching through the streets: “for several moments she had completely drowned, disappearing into that sea of people” and “without being aware of it, had been shouting with them”. Importantly, this is not presented as a joyous occasion, but rather as a shocking violation of selfhood through mass hysteria, making the girl “afraid of choirs and large crowds” for the rest of her life.

The Weathervanes of Vilnius is concerned with a similar forging of identity from nothing but flips the perspective from the street level to the top of pyramid, as an ex-Soviet official thinks to himself how “Vilnius is Lithuanian and that is in large part due to him personally” – it is “his creation”, achieved through censorship and redesign of monuments and architecture.

Ethnically defined visions of the city are shown to be either dangerously attractive fever dreams or deliberately engineered fictions.

This changeability is symbolised by the weathervanes of the title, with which he wants to replace the crosses on all the city’s churches. In these stories, ethnically defined visions of the city are shown to be either dangerously attractive fever dreams or deliberately engineered fictions, in both cases achieved through some form of erasure – of a person’s individuality, or the very physical form of the city.

Erasure is also at the heart of The Return of Samuel Vilner, whose protagonist arrives on a pilgrimage to 21st-century Vilnius, only to find that there is no trace left of the ghetto of his childhood memories.

Sabaliauskaitė depicts this absence, on the one hand, as a lasting and heart-wrenching legacy of the tragedy of the Holocaust; yet on the other, Vilner’s disillusionment with modern Vilnius is also ironically juxtaposed to the millions he has earned in advertising, selling dreams to American consumers. Maybe the idealised city of his childhood is really just another one of those illusions, one that he has successfully sold to himself for decades on end?

Raging at his failure to find a proper bakery and the humiliation of supermarkets, Vilner comes across as a faintly ridiculous character, just another old man out of touch with the times. The historical trauma of Jewish Vilnius is, to him, a tangible experience, but the city he witnesses seems to have long since left it behind.

Far from proposing a vibrant, multicultural Vilnius, Sabaliauskaitė suggests that these multiple visions of the city rarely truly engage with each other. People look past each other; there is a lack of understanding. “I am not a Jew!” a young Lithuanian artist in New York harrumphs at Vilner during an awkward dinner, choosing to see the difference between them rather than engage with the histories that had brought them to the same place.

Such subtle parallels between and within the stories suggest an inextricable interweaving of the fates of the city’s communities. As if accidentally, it emerges that Vilner’s Jewish childhood sweetheart went to a Polish school much like the one depicted in Franco’s Black Pearls; while in separate but mirroring scenes we find both him and the nameless KGB informer lying in hospital beds, ruminating on their long lives that in different ways were given direction by the tumultuous years of the war.

The prose, reminiscent of Olga Tokarczuk, mixes irony and longing into a rueful blend that is one of the collection’s great strengths.

There is a humanity to Sabaliauskaitė’s writing, and while her characters are not always likeable, they feel real. The prose, reminiscent of Olga Tokarczuk, mixes irony and longing into a rueful blend that is one of the collection’s great strengths, lucidly conveyed by Romas Kinka’s translation.

Beyond its concern with identities, Vilnius. Wilno. Vilna. is also a book about the city itself, taking on a theme with long roots in Lithuanian literature: the myth of Vilnius.

There are grandiose statements scattered throughout, emphasising the mystery of the capital: “nothing in this city is what it appears to be at first glance”; “the logic of life does not always work here”. We will see later how this mythos has been utilised by different authors. Here, Sabaliauskaitė wistfully nods at the tradition while simultaneously deconstructing it, refracting the ideal through a cast of characters who have largely already lost sight of it.

Another constant presence is, once again, the legacy of the Second World War, as was also the case with White Shroud and Darkness and Company, the two works covered earlier in this series. Yet unlike those novels, anchored by the weight of the past, Sabaliauskaitė emphasises the unrelenting forward march of time, with characters struggling to hold on to their truths while the world moves on. History endures, but “one cannot tell if it is the truth or only a plausible fiction”.

This instability makes Vilnius. Wilno. Vilna. feel particularly timely in this era of contested truths and deliberate misunderstanding, providing a valuable reminder of Lithuania’s diverse histories without, however, smoothing away their many internal contradictions and frictions.

Mikko Toivanen (@aruinedmap) is a cultural historian with a lively interest in the literatures of the world and the craft of translation. He is also the co-author a blog of fragmentary fiction.