Madness and Civilization Converge in 'Vilnius'

Gavelis' novel illuminates a chilling portrait of post-Soviet Lithuania

“Life in Vilnius is a giant poker game, played by madmen.”

“Vilnius Poker,” a novel by late Lithuanian author Ricardas Gavelis, and recently translated into English by Elizabeth Novickas, sets up a metaphorical card game to puzzle even the most seasoned players. With four narrators at the table, each of whom bluffs, bets, and folds accordingly, Gavelis conducts a profound autopsy of Lithuanian identity garroted by Soviet rule.

This ambitious endeavor is admirably achieved. Gavelis’ writing is a paragon of surrealist creativity and an intensely interesting read, filled with effortlessly intelligent prose and a wryly macabre voice.

What’s at stake in “Vilnius Poker” is the namesake city, Lithuania’s capital, which is first introduced through the eyes of the most fractured player at the table, Vytautas Vargalas. Vargalas, a labor camp survivor turned librarian, serves as a paradigm for post-Soviet interstice. He sees life through a lens of feverish paranoia, which makes his observations abundantly surreal and vividly eroticized, simultaneously reminiscent of Kesey and Orwell. Through his eyes, Vilnius is “a dead city, and above it hangs a fog of submissive, disgusting fear.” It has become a landscape “where Russia’s expansionism and Europe’s spirit went to war,” and one that has anticlimatically subsided into an achromatic wasteland. To Vargalas, Vilnius is the worst kind of hell—an inferno devoid of flames and full instead of gray—made in the likeness of its own architects, “Them.” “They” are the silent, gray majority of shapeless shadow beings that are inexorably draining Lithuanian life and stuffing it with emptiness. “They” are perceived by Vargalas alone, a result of his deep pathology: “When discovered, ‘They’ immediately change tactics… It’s impossible to surround ‘Them,’ to trap ‘Them’ in a corner, to push ‘Them’ up against the wall—it’s ‘They’ who surround you, who hold you in a siege like a live castle, whose walls, alas, are pathetically weak.”

In this city of walking dead, Vargalas endures a lone struggle for survival. This struggle is manifested in a search for vital signs of Lithuanian identity—a quest that’s fruitless until Vargalas stumbles headfirst into a live pulse: Lolita, the determinedly unchaste daughter of a brutal KGB colonel. In typical tragic fashion, a love story unfolds between the pair, but it becomes clear that Lolita is, like the rest of Lithuania, damaged goods—corrupted as much by the sinister “Them” as by her own submissive will. In encountering Lolita, Vargalas’ fragile paranoia is thrown into violent imbalance, and he too falls subject to the same designs “They” have exacted on Lithuania—a torture ritual of castration, evisceration, and sterilization. The most lasting surreality Vargalas experiences is a frozen city through which he alone moves, caught in a stillness that, he believes, allowed “Them” inside. Their fated romance echoes Vilnius’ last breath of air, before it’s shut beneath the gray exterior of a Soviet sarcophagus.

The remaining three narrators are peripheral characters in Vargalas’ life—Martinas, a pontificating computer(less) programmer, Stefanija, a jealous and infertile seductress, and Gediminias, a brilliant mathematician turned jazz artist. There is no dialogue among these characters, only isolated observations. This completes the author’s metaphor of a poker game in which “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.”

While Martinas, Stefanija, and Gediminias each provide a more normalized account of Vargalas’ fragmented story; their contradicting observations suggest that Vargalas’ malaise is endemic to all of Vilnius. At times, the threesome seem to act together to introduce “Them,” an invisible main character and a foil for Vargalas (or Vilnius itself), even though none of them share in Vargalas’ paranoia. In subtle fashion, they point out three cards in Vargalas’ hand: sterility, impotence, and humanity. And although it’s never clear what cards “They” hold, it’s evident that Vargalas’ hand is not strong enough to win.

Of the four narrators, Vargalas has the most interesting hand at the table. His narrative spans the majority of the book, and trains the reader to see Vilnius with Vargalas’ self-purported “second sight,” which pays no heed to physical realities, but is acutely aware of the ethereal presence of “Them.” “I had never known the ordinary world that everyone sees,” he says.

“Vilnius Poker” is reluctant to disclose itself. Gavelis leaves the reader to comb through its cryptic geographies—not unlike Vargalas’ own task—for elusive traces of truth that, when lined up, still appear mismatched. The hunt is a fascinating one, and winds through a phantasmagoric suspension of reality that tumbles along chaotically in one moment only to freeze in the next. This halting flow is a product of Gavelis’ own vivid and organic style, which takes a simultaneously sexualized and ebullient look at the human condition in a city that is ultimately at fault for “Their” presence. In doing so, Gavelis holds a mirror to Lithuania’s historical emasculation and inconsequentiality, and the national disenchantment that follows in its wake.

A task of this weight and ambition, however, is not met easily. Gavelis’ quicksand-like prose, while in and of itself an effective literary device in the surrealist tradition, constitutes a difficulty in reading which can distract from the author’s immense talent.

However, Gavelis’ narcotic narrative flow still manages to render this story’s surreality seamless, and “Vilnius Poker” is a fascinating read.

—Staff writer Erin F. Riley can be reached at eriley@fas.harvard.edu.