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2021.09.25 10:00

‘From Soviet backwater to place of beauty.’ Canadian author describes 90s Lithuania – interview

Kristina Kybartaitė, LRT.lt2021.09.25 10:00

The Canadian author Gordon Mott has published two novels inspired by his time in Lithuania in the lean years of the early 1990s.

Lithuania Lullaby, published in February 2021, follows the lives of six people as they experience the unprecedented world events in the decade between 1987 and 1997. The Angels of Klaipėda, which appeared half a year later, follows up on two of the characters from the first book.

Gordon Mott spoke with LRT.lt about his taxing experience of living in 1990s Klaipėda and why it might be interesting to people who may have never heard of the country.

How did you come into contact with Lithuania and what was your experience here?

When I was at university in Canada in the early 1990s, I met an exchange student from Lithuania. Those were exciting times – things were changing so quickly. Darius was an inspiration – he was so devoted to the liberation and well-being of his newly independent country. He suggested that, after university, I teach English in Lithuania. I thought that a very interesting idea – I was fascinated by developments in Eastern Europe.

Darius made all the arrangements and the Ministry of Education offered me a position at Donelaičio mokykla (now Vytauto Didžiojo gimnazija) in Klaipėda. I taught eighth and tenth form and some gymnasium classes – I loved those kids, many are still in touch today.

I lived in Klaipėda for a year starting in the summer of 1993.

In those days, you could not survive in Klaipėda with English. So I learned basic Lithuanian to survive. I struggled with it and much has faded over these three decades. I found it a complex language. It was also difficult because when I spoke to strangers with an improper accent, I frequently received replies in Russian, which made conversation even more trying! Klaipėda had a large Russian community and most foreigners in Klaipėda understood Russian.

Just before leaving Lithuania, I was offered an opportunity to teach at Klaipėda University. However, I’m embarrassed to say that I’d had enough of life in Lithuania by that time. You see, living conditions were taxing. There was no hot water, little heat, crowded buses, the food was repetitive. The winter seemed really long – Lithuanian cities were poorly lit and the nights were long. I returned to England and enjoyed central heating and hot showers.

You see, living conditions were taxing. There was no hot water, little heat, crowded buses, the food was repetitive. The winter seemed really long – Lithuanian cities were poorly lit and the nights were long.

Shortly before my departure, my university friend, Darius, held a farewell party in my honour at his parent’s flat on Asanavičiūtės Street in Vilnius. There were quite a few people there. I met a girl called Asta from Kėdainiai. She told me that she had a scholarship and was soon leaving for Oxford. I invited her to call me if she ever wanted to visit London. I was hoping that she wouldn’t call, but she did and our first meeting in London ended quite differently than I would have expected. At the start of the day, I just wanted to fulfil my obligation of showing her the sights. By the end of the day, I couldn’t imagine spending another one without her.

In my novels, I explore similar unorthodox love affairs. In Lithuanian Lullaby, one couple doesn’t share a common language, another couple marry for convenience then fall in love. I also explore peculiar Lithuanian spiritual beliefs in The Angels of Klaipėda. Most people were Catholic, but many also held Pagan beliefs (perhaps without even knowing it). People talked about Perkūnas, dream interpretations, cloud formations – storks were welcome to nest on village house rooves as they brought harmony, fertility and luck.

I think my first unorthodox ‘date’ with Asta was shaped by some type of Pagan influence. We quickly became engaged in conversation and lost track of time. We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant where she struggled with chopsticks. There was something so beautiful about her soul.

By coincidence, my flatmate in London was that same university friend, Darius. He’d received a scholarship to study in London. He studied on Saturday mornings, so I told him that I would show Asta around in the morning, then he could meet us and take over the conversation with the Cucumber Princess. He was supposed to page me in early afternoon to co-ordinate the handover.

The country has emerged from a Soviet backwater to a place of beauty. And the changes aren’t just aesthetic.

I never got a page. When I got home, he demanded to know why I never called him back. I checked with the paging service – there had been a page, but it must have occurred while we were in the Underground. It was also suspicious that Darius only paged once – then gave up? Now that I think about it, I should have checked our flat block that evening for nesting storks on the roof.

How often do you visit Lithuania? What has changed since the 1990s?

Every other year or so, we visit my in-laws in Kėdainiai and Varėna. I also spend time with Darius in Vilnius. I could safely say that it is even hard to compare the Lithuania of the early 1990s to now.

I’ll tell you a funny story. Early in this new millennium, we flew into Vilnius and I started a conversation with someone at a bus stop. He asked where I was going and I replied, Kėdainiai. He said: “Oh, that’s a beautiful city, so gorgeous.” I wanted to reply sarcastically by asking if he’d ever been there. However, he was quite right. Kėdainiai had transformed from a rough, industrial city to something quite beautiful – the old town had been miraculously and lovingly restored.

I guess you could say that about the whole country. It has emerged from a Soviet backwater to a place of beauty. And the changes aren’t just aesthetic. When I lived there, the average wage was under $50 per month. Few people had cars, there was no hot water, even telephones were a rarity. Modern laundry machines or dishwashers were non-existent.

It took almost a day to do a family’s laundry using a machine which hadn’t been seen in the West since the 1940s and clothes dryers didn’t exist. Also, in those days, all the domestic chores fell to women, so they were usually lumbered with these painstaking domestic chores – in addition to any child care responsibilities.

In Lithuanian Lullaby, I explore the re-emergence of the LDDP in 1992 – the first post-communist party to return to power after the revolutions across Eastern Europe. It was on the power of women’s votes – shock therapy had gone too far.

I think the situation now is very comparable between an industrial country like Canada and Lithuania. Lithuanians probably feel they are well behind economically, but the gap is closing and it’s increasingly difficult to see the differences.

The situation now is very comparable between an industrial country like Canada and Lithuania. Lithuanians probably feel they are well behind economically, but the gap is closing and it’s increasingly difficult to see the differences.

What inspired you to write a book about Lithuania? Are there scenes and characters inspired by what you experienced here?

Ironically, Lithuanian Lullaby didn’t start as a book about Lithuania. You might read the first chapter and ask “where is Lithuania?”. As the Lithuanian plot began to unfold, I realized that I was onto something rather interesting. There are few historical fictions covering this era and it’s a tremendous story of David defeating Goliath and setting his people free.

The story focuses on three characters from Eastern Europe and three from the ‘West’ as their stories become intertwined – Darius (Lithuania), Vana (Hungary), Tanja (an ethnic Russian-Lithuanian), George (USA), Sandra (Britain) and Steve (Britain). It’s a time when the struggling East is rising and all the eastern characters symbolize that rise as their lives improve through the novel. Some of the western characters’ lives decline.

Those six characters are fiction, but the backdrop is very real and real people appear through the book. For example, Landsbergis has dinner at Vana’s restaurant. Prime Minister Prunskienė telephones Darius in Oxford to offer him a visa for his British Travel Document. Gediminas Vagnorius eventually offers Darius a cabinet post in the Seimas.

The initial success of that book seemed related to the depiction of living conditions just after independence. The book’s first wave of readers often lived through those times. However, I didn’t just write about the paltry salaries and hard living. I tried to capture the incredible momentum of the time and the new opportunities for the young.

Tanja falls in love with an American and has the opportunity to move to the USA – something that would not have happened previously. Vana has little start-up capital, but is able to renovate a building in Vilnius’ old town and establish a business renting flats and running a restaurant on the ground floor. Although he’s young and inexperienced, Darius is able to climb the political ladder. Even George, an American, is offered a decent job at a Klaipėda shipping company – just because he’s a native English speaker.

When I lived in Lithuania, Lithuania was looking West and there was a sense in the country that their current predicament was just bad. However, I try to challenge that a little in my Lullaby. At the time, Lithuanians relied on networks of close friends and relatives – to distribute goods, socialization and for emotional support. It was a sense of solidarity that didn’t exist in the West. Tanja loves her American boyfriend, but she doesn’t want to leave Klaipėda. She wants to stay to help her mother and her brother who has Down Syndrome. In contrast, the English couple, Steve and Sandra, also grapple with a special needs child, but they manage things quite differently. When English people are under stress, we can ‘cocoon’ ourselves.

Despite its shortcomings, there also existed a unanimous sense of pride in that re-emerging country. In the novel, Darius initially describes the 1992 election of the LDDP as a catastrophe. Later, he realizes that their promise to maintain independence was real and he even ends up working for an LDDP assistant deputy minister. He’s surprised when he first meets that young woman. His first thought was “where was Brezhnev?” Mind you, Darius is still determined to move the country toward something more conservative and runs for election as a Homeland Union candidate in 1996, but it’s a difficult precinct as it has a Polish majority and the seat is held by an MP from the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania. He might learn a lesson about solidarity – we’ll see.

What message did you intend to send to your readers with this book?

That’s a complicated question. I write stories and I want readers to draw their own messages. I use symbolism throughout my novels, but I don’t like to talk about it. I like readers to stumble across things that relate to their own lives – but I do cover the national awakening, post-independence life, unconventional love, spirituality, judgment.

There is one thing that I will confess. I did want to tell the story of Lithuania. There was a time that people would ask me “what is Lithuania?”. That’s right – not “where” but “what”. I never want my adopted country to be occupied again. I had the chance to tell the story of brave people and I hope it humanizes the place and, if the time comes, there will be sympathy for provocations against its freedom.

Lithuanian Lullaby was really successful, it became a bestseller on Amazon. Did you expect this?

I can safely say, no. It was my first novel. The book was number one in its Amazon category for over two months in Canada; it also hit number one in the USA and was widely read in the UK. It’s also been purchased in places like India, Australia, Spain, Germany, Denmark, France. It was even stocked by Walmart in the USA!

It’s hard to believe that a book partly revolving around a tiny country in central Europe could attract that kind of attention. However, for many readers, I think Lithuania inspires something mysterious – as if it’s a place on the edge of the world. That description might be a bit ironic as it currently sits on the edge of the free world!

Is your new book, The Angels of Klaipėda, a sequel to the first one?

It is, but I’ve written it as a new novel. You don’t have to have read the Lullaby to enjoy The Angels of Klaipėda. It’s a much different book, it focuses on two characters, George and Tanja. George disappears on a business trip to Beirut and is presumed dead. Distraught, his wife Tanja returns to her beloved Klaipėda with her children and brother to begin a new life. It’s difficult to establish a new life and things don’t go to plan, but it’s even more difficult when George re-emerges.

Are you planning to write more books about Lithuania?

I wanted to leave Lithuania for a while, but the pressure from readers is intense. A common question is “what happens to Vana?”. In Lithuanian Lullaby, Vana leaves Hungary with her boyfriend by cutting through a wired fence at the Austrian border. She spends the first part of the novel being exploited by smugglers and mistreated by her boyfriend. Eventually, she’s mugged in central London and that robbery alerts the authorities to her lack of status in the UK. She’s held in immigration detention where she meets Darius. He’s granted refugee status, her application is denied. He offers to marry her because he wants someone to help him with domestic chores while he focuses on his studies. She is so desperate to remain in the UK that she agrees to it.

By the end of the novel, Darius and Vana are in love and she is pregnant. Readers really seem interested in what happens next. I might give it one more book!

However, then she takes control of her life and explores her passions. She becomes interested in cooking and works herself from a kitchen job at a pub to head chef. She becomes interested in business and becomes a successful landlady and restaurateur. She becomes interested in spirituality and later tries to influence the direction of the Lithuanian Catholic Church.

By the end of the novel, Darius and Vana are in love and she is pregnant. Readers really seem interested in what happens next. I might give it one more book!

In many ways, I feel a bit odd making a literary career writing about a country where my only personal connection is a year of residency in the 1990s. It’s true, I have a Lithuanian spouse and we visit frequently and Lithuanian customs are practiced in our home, our son is half-Lithuanian, but it still seems odd.

It’s just that the country has such peculiar and heroic characters, a fascinating culture and an unusual history. So something is compelling me to write about Lithuania – I’m not sure what it is. Anyway, I’m prevaricating and I’m likely boring you now, so I’ll leave it at that. Besides, I have to check the roof for storks.

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