Tomas Venclova is a writer who needs no introduction. A leading Lithuanian poet of today, Venclova is without a doubt a man of the world. His poetry, which has been translated into several languages, can be read and appreciated on a par with that of the brilliant constellation of his fellow poets and friends, Czesław Miłosz and Josef Brodsky.
The present collection unveils another facet of Venclova's talent: an equal mastery of the art of essay writing. After his recent monograph on the tragic life and under-appreciated art of the leading twentieth-century Polish poet and prose writer Aleksander Wat, the essays in this book, written between 1975 and 1997, shift the emphasis of the author's work. The reader discovers Venclova's unambiguous and sometimes emphatically expressed political and cultural views in the context of ever-changing Soviet and post-Soviet situations in the Baltics and Eastern (Central) Europe.
Venclova is not afraid of exposing the darker sides of his own country's national behavior, yet he draws strength from the deep cultural awareness of its cultural and historical heritage, thus maintaining a perfect equilibrium in presenting the complete, unadorned picture. The book reads as a testament of a humanist, a poet with a mission and a person with a strong ethical stance, who, in the sea of die-hard ideologies and against the ebbs and flows of conflating attitudes, proclaims the primacy of individual human conscience. For this reason alone, Venclova's work will remain a resounding testimony to the devastating effects of the bygone Communist rule on the Baltic and surrounding regions and an admonition to the Baltic countries not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Democracy and the dangers of nationalism
The poet opens the volume, which is divided into two parts (the first is devoted to politics, the second to literature and culture), with his political credo in the "Open Letter to the Communist Party" (1975), in which he unequivocally delineates a political stance that marks his complete departure from the past and makes him a leading figure in the camp of East European political and cultural dissent. "Communist ideology is alien to me and, in my view, largely false. Its absolute reign has brought much misfortune to our land" (p 3).
While reading the political essays, however, the reader discerns Venclova's almost unique posture with respect to mainstream Lithuanian nationalism. While condemning Soviet rule in Lithuania, Venclova does not lapse into extremes; he retains an objective posture when raising the most painful and fundamental questions of national existence.
It takes courage even nowadays in young East European democracies, not to mention the diaspora, to voice a dissenting opinion against the strict and often parochial attitudes of the majority, and revisiting the dark pages of national history is often perceived as an attempt against national independence. The most disastrous effect of totalitarian rule is the tendency toward monologism still prevailing in the popular consciousness of those countries. This dangerous tendency substitutes liberal cultural values with the immediate needs of the collective and national. This emphasis on the new ideology deprives an individual of a choice, thus making the repetition of historical mistakes almost inevitable.
In a series of essays, Venclova unearths the roots of the most complex and potentially dangerous problems of the region: nationalism. It is not a coincidence that the volume opens with a dialogue with Miłosz on Vilnius, or Wilno, in which the idea of national reconciliation finds deep roots and justification in the mutual national history epitomized in the Baroque architecture of this beautiful city.
This opening dialogue is cleverly projected against the poet's travelogue of South Africa, which he visited before the fall of apartheid. Once full of interesting parallels with Soviet life, South Africa is today a model of how to make national reconciliation a reality.
The most profound and, for the Western reader, shocking observations on inter-ethnic relations throughout Lithuanian history are openly and objectively discussed in the controversial essays on Lithuanians, Jews, Russians and Poles in Soviet Lithuania. Fighting Soviet chauvinism, Venclova does not close his eyes on the other side of the coin—requited nationalism, the mirror image of its progenitor.