Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
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Jurga IvanauskaiteA Colourful Bird in a
Pale Land

Why Jurga Ivanauskaitė's books are crying out for translation
Howard Jarvis

Jurga Ivanauskaitė is a unique figure in the contemporary literature of the Baltic states, so much so that she is often considered, and considers herself, an outcast from Lithuania's art establishment. This is an image created as much by her own individual style and exotic, un-Lithuanian personality as by the condescending reviews of her books by some of the Lithuanian cultural elite.

Ivanauskaitė is probably the most widely read writer in Lithuania. Her most recent book, Sapnų nublokšti (Gone with the Dreams; Vilnius: Tyto Alba, 2000), was given a print-run of 5000, not a small figure in Lithuania, which is currently struggling to shake off a deep recession. By contrast, following the success of the translation of The English Patient into Lithuanian, the publishers Tyto Alba are about to give Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost a generous print-run of 3000.

Born in 1961, Ivanauskaitė graduated from Vilnius Institute of Arts. Her paintings and photographs, which like her books underwent a complete transformation after her travels in India and Tibet in the mid-1990s, always draw crowds when exhibited. They have been used to illustrate her three non-fiction books on Tibetan life and religion, Ištremtas Tibetas (Tibet in Exile; Vilnius: Tyto Alba, 1996), Kelionė į Šambalą (Journey to Shambhala; Vilnius: Tyto Alba, 1997) and Prarasta Pažadetoji žemė (Lost Promised Land; Vilnius: Tyto Alba, 1999).

Punk pioneer

It was her first books that established Jurga Ivanauskaitė's reputation as an unconventional writer. They circulated widely, particularly among young people who had previously shown little interest in the turgid prose and poetry allowed through Glavlit, the Soviet literary watchdog. The easy style and contemporary characters of her first short stories, published as Pakalnučių metai (The Year of the Lilies of the Valley; Vilnius: Vaga, 1985), were an immediate popular success.

Like Tomas Venclova before her, Ivanauskaitė made use of her family's unusually rich library—her grandfather was Kostas Korsakas, one of Lithuania's foremost Marxist literary critics—to popularise non-Marxist ideas. In her case, this meant glamorising Western attitudes, albeit in a rather naive, Gorbachev-era way. Her youthful characters played Beatles songs, enthused about surrealist painters, wore leather jackets and contemplated the exciting mysticism of Carlos Castaneda. They were misunderstood, frequently depressed and disappointed with life.

Partly, it was her family background that helped the writer publish her books through Vaga, which, until the 1990 Law on Private Publishing Houses, was the only outlet for fiction in Lithuania. It could also be said that in her favour was the fact that she was regarded as less of a threat by the Soviet authorities because she was female.

That a young woman could be a literary rebel was unheard of in both Soviet and pre-Soviet Lithuania. Critics generally ignored her books, as they did with anything they disapproved of. Ivanauskaitė's debut novel, Menulio vaikai (Children of the Moon; Vilnius: Vaga, 1988) was reviewed with heavy irony. But it secured her position among the younger generation as the doyenne of "punk" in Lithuania.

On a wider scale, these books were the very first signs of a revolution that was about to occur in the Lithuanian literary scene. They made way for the literary sensation of the decade, Vilniaus Pokeris (Vilnius Poker; Vilnius: Vaga, 1989) by Ričardas Gavelis. Originally written in 1986, this book was kept in sections by friends of the author. The highly unconventional story of a disabled former anti-Soviet partisan and his spiritual mentor, Gavelis had found it difficult to get it published until the success of Menulio vaikai. Vilniaus Pokeris sold 90,000 copies.

It was partly because Ivanauskaitė, Gavelis and other writers such as Jurgis Kunčinas and Zita Čepaitė pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, that Lithuanian literature was able to emerge from the confines of official Soviet censorship in the late 1980s. Subsidised, ideological writing was suddenly replaced by a style that was a wild mixture of inventive fantasy and neurotic national self-obsession.

Rather than offer up sentimental, nationalistic prose to help the political drive for independence, these writers often satirised rural and urban Lithuanian life. Both Ivanauskaitė and Gavelis worked as journalists in this period. They wrote truthfully, and for their readers this was the most powerful protest against the rapidly weakening Soviet ideology.

Unethical writer

Once independence was declared in 1990, however, the young authors continued to meet with mixed reactions. Many critics in independent Lithuania raved about the energy and realism of the new writing, with its coarse language and increasingly liberal doses of sex and violence. Young readers now saw the authors as rebels against the wish of conservative Ministry of Culture officials to reinstall the traditional, heavily romanticised styles of the literary language of pre-Soviet Lithuania.

Some critics allied to the ministry also saw themselves as the saviours of Lithuanian literary heritage, and now that the country was independent they felt free to criticise modern styles of writing as unpatriotic. This was especially the case with Ivanauskaitė, whose family ties were no longer to be feared. Writer Saulius Šaltenis, who later became Lithuania's minister of culture under the Conservatives in the late 1990s, described Ivanauskaitė's books as "like coloured parrots on our pale land." He did not mean this as a compliment.

Ivanauskaitė's 1993 novel, Ragana ir lietus (The Witch and the Rain; Vilnius: Vaga) caused a national scandal. A love story told by three women—a modern-day bohemian outsider, a medieval witch and Mary Magdalene—it was immediately condemned in official circles as common pornography.

At this time, the Vilnius municipality had a committee that carefully monitored morality in society. It passed a legal ruling that banned the novel from the capital's bookshops. The ruling stated that it could only be sold in shops selling erotic products. Meanwhile, the author was being discussed on weekly crime programmes on Lithuanian state radio.

There is nothing pornographic about Ragana ir lietus. Most of the Lithuanian population is Catholic, the committee did not state whether or not it objected to the novel's portrayal of the Virgin Mary. But naturally the unnecessary uproar was the perfect advertisement. The book quickly sold out, as 20,000 copies were bought nationwide in two weeks.

A faithful translation into Latvian met with no such controversy, and the episode reveals something of the paranoid and conservative Lithuanian society of the immediate post-Soviet years. Ričardas Gavelis was one of the many fellow novelists and critics who spoke out in favour of Ragana ir lietus, remarking that it would not have attracted so much attention had the author been a man.

Ivanauskaitė's next novel, Agnijos magija (Agnija's Magic; Vilnius: Vaga, 1995) failed to build on the strength of her writing, which had until then been developing well. It was reviewed poorly, even by friends of the author. The novel is set in Amsterdam around a romance between two tourists, one from Lithuania, the other from India. Since the author had recently been to a book fair in Amsterdam, much of the press surrounding the book was speculation and gossip: was the novel autobiographical?

Journey to the East

Reviews of Jurga Ivanauskaitė's next book were more favourable. Having popularised Western culture and attitudes in her earlier books, Ivanauskaitė now turned her attention to introducing Tibet to Lithuania. In fact, the first in her trilogy of non-fiction books is precisely that, an introduction. Until Ištremtas Tibetas, there had been no books on Tibet available in the Lithuanian language.

A collection of traveller's tales and insights into the religion, political situation and everyday reality of Tibetans living in exile in Northern India, Ištremtas Tibetas delves deep into the soul of one of the world's most profoundly spiritual societies. It also has a personal foreword by the Dalai Lama, whom Ivanauskaitė has met on several occasions.

Ivanauskaitė is no historian, and like much Lithuanian non-fiction it should not be relied upon for historical fact. But it is beautifully written. According to one literary critic, Almantas Samalavičius, "It is easy to notice that the book was written by a professional and observant writer, attentive to detail and everyday life, which enhances the authenticity of the narration and the notion of actual truth that no ardent reader can resist."

Kelione i Sambala
  Tibet: a mirror of Lithuania?
The subject of Tibet chimes in well with both the Lithuanian character and the Lithuanian experience. The idea of a distant mountain kingdom relates to the romantic ideals of the Lithuanian character, while its fate of invasion and exile relates directly to Lithuanian memories of occupation and harsh, often religious, persecution. Lithuania was the only former Soviet republic with a majority Catholic population, and priests were dealt with particularly severely.

In Kelionė į Šambalą, Ivanauskaitė describes many of her personal experiences and her experiments with Buddhist spiritual practices and insights, both joyful and painful. It is, she says, "the story of my inner and outer journey." The book is illustrated with mandalas, which she painted at moments of intense inner conflict between her Western background and her very new experiences of living and being instructed by lamas in Ladakh and Nepal. None of the details of this very personal psychological trauma are omitted. The book ends optimistically, however:

Upon leaving Ladakh, I feel as if I have to be separated from a person who I love madly. I want to say farewell by making some tangible gesture, so I can feel a physical closeness. But what should I embrace, clasp to my breast, kiss—the mountains, the deserts, the air, the light, the silence?

Prarasta Pazadetoji zeme
  Punished for fulfillment
Prarasta Pažadetoji žemė recounts Ivanauskaitė's journey to occupied Tibet. For some time before her departure in June 1998, her name had been on a Chinese blacklist as the leader of a Tibet support group in Lithuania. Reaching the sacred land by, she writes, a "secret route via Hong Kong suggested by friends," she discovers not only the ruinous "lost promised land" of Tibet, but also the debilitating knowledge that the promised land of a pure inner state of mind and soul are lost forever to the people of the West, the author herself included. Having reached Tibet she has accomplished one of her life's goals, but she recalls the proverb that God will punish the man whose greatest wish He fulfils.

It is in Prarasta Pažadetoji žemė that Ivanauskaitė includes some of her verse, masking it as the poetry of a 19th-century Tibetan. "I wrote these short poems on a few consecutive evenings," she told me. "They were a surprise even to me. I didn't dare misappropriate the authority of these spontaneous insights to myself. Only my closest friends know that the poetry is mine and not that of some mysterious Tibetan yogini."

Spiritual supermarket

The despondent feel continues with Jurga Ivanauskaitė's latest book, which maintains the theme of Tibet but reverts to novel format. If the trilogy of non-fiction was full of exaltation and prophetic or missionary intonations, Sapnų nublokšti is more paradoxical and ironic, and for the first time Ivanauskaitė's writing contains a great deal of self-parody. She does not mock Eastern spiritual practices, but she does jeer at those involved in what she calls the "spiritual supermarket":

both the credulous Western students who hope that enlightenment can be bought, like a Cadillac, and the Eastern teachers who sell ancient and very powerful esoteric knowledge like antiquities in a bazaar.

Each interrelated chapter tells the story of a character that finds himself in a dreamlike Tibetan town called "Neten," which in Lithuanian means "not there." The book follows the complicated love stories, fortunes and fates of these strange characters, while the author tries to express the idea that neither Westerners nor Easterners really know the meaning of life. Perhaps every one of us creates or dreams his one reality, or perhaps we are all simply the dream of some great cosmic consciousness:

People most often haven't the slightest idea that they dream not only at night but also in the daytime. Right after they wake up and recklessly forget the mysterious nocturnal existence with its mountains, forests, stormy seas, stairways to heaven, destroyed bridges, tumbles into the abyss, dizzying flights, ruthless persecutors, angels, bizarre beasts and perfect lovers, they rush headlong into what they call "being awake." But they are terribly wrong in thinking that they have finally found themselves in reality; they are in a dream again.

Jurga Ivanauskaitė is as popular a choice for journalists' interviews as ever. She wears extravagant make-up and Eastern clothes, whether speaking about her work at a meeting of enthusiastic fans or going to the store to buy groceries. Yet these days, very few serious reviews of her books appear in the press. Despite the depth and professionalism of her writing on Tibet, and her obvious similarity to Hermann Hesse, she still carries the burden of the image of an eccentric, scandalous pop-culture writer. Critics too often ignore her books.

Perhaps this is because four books on Tibet are too many for one small nation. Or perhaps it is because literary criticism is a poorly paid profession in Lithuania today. Lolita Varanavičienė, Tyto Alba's Director, also laments that "there is no one in Lithuania who is qualified to write serious reviews of books about Tibet."

Lithuania: in Her Own Words
  Early Ivanauskaitė translated
The recession has dealt a strong blow to the book trade, which was booming until last year. The most widely respected publishers in Lithuania, Tyto Alba hoped to publish ten books in June. It could find the funds to publish only two. "Young people have no possibility to read. There are no book clubs, and certainly no tradition of ordering books through the Internet. And now that the state has all but stopped its funding for libraries," Varanavičienė continues, "the bookshops are expensive and the libraries are empty."

Hope for Ivanauskaitė lies in translation. So far, her books have been translated only into Latvian, while just one quite unrepresentative early short story, "The Day that Never Happened," appears in an anthology of Lithuanian literature in English, Lithuania: in Her Own Words (edited by Laima Sruoginis, Vilnius: Tyto Alba, 1997).

However, the Stephen Spender Memorial Trust recently expressed an interest in funding the translation and publication of three contemporary Lithuanian novels in English. It is because of the courage of her individuality and scope of vision within the confines of a small country, as much as her writing skills, that Jurga Ivanauskaitė should be the first choice to represent the literature of today's Lithuania.

Howard Jarvis, 10 July 2000
Photo credit: Tyto Alba publishers, Vilnius, Lithuania

The author:

Howard Jarvis is a freelance journalist based in Vilnius who writes on issues related to the Baltic states and Belarus. He is Editor of Discover English, a magazine for students and teachers of English in Lithuania.

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