Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Support City Paper!
The doldrums of relentless propaganda, surveillance, shortages of consumer goods, and officially enforced mediocrity pervade the lives of the four characters who narrate RiÄardas Gavelis’ Vilnius Poker. The cast includes a psychotic whose mind was broken in Stalin’s prison camps, a dead mathematician reincarnated as a dog, a demented and promiscuous villager, and one miserably sane librarian. The Lithuanian capital itself, a gray, monotonous Soviet city that Gavelis renders with startling and brutal clarity, offers them no escape, nor does memory. In the 1940s, Lithuania saw more than 132,000 of its residents deported to Siberia in cattle cars as part of Stalin’s attempted ethnic cleansing. The atrocity lingers like a nightmare, weighing down even the grisly ’70s murders the novel rather oppressively chronicles. Indeed, the reader sometimes feels crushed beneath a tremendous ocean of misery. When the story is told from the perspective of Martynas the librarian, however, the novel soars. Martynas gives a darkly humorous analysis of two equally pathetic species, homo lithuanicus and homo sovieticus, the former from a personal perspective: “I’m told to just repeat someone else’s words and not ask any questions….What am I? I’m not a human—obviously humans are entirely different. But what am I then?” Martynas lives in despair, but it is a rational despair, based on an accurate analysis of his world. The main character, the psychotic Vytautas, also despairs, but the cause is paranoia. His rantings and conspiracy theories are better viewed through the lens of Martynas’ sanity than through his own warped eyes. For instance, Vytautas describes his ex-wife Irena as a physically hideous monster, a description demolished by Martynas’ passing remark that “Irena is still beautiful. She looks like a suffering Madonna.” One of the difficulties of the novel is that so much of it comprises Vytautas’ deranged monologue. And just when you’re coming to terms with that, there’s the revelation that Vytautas, the dog, and possibly another narrator can’t distinguish between dreams and reality, calling into question whether any of the events in the novel have actually occurred. Was it a murder or a suicide? Was there a killer? What even happened? Don’t look for easy answers: The remaining narrator, the former villager Stefanija, only adds to the confusion by rambling lengthily in a clear debt to Molly Bloom. Although the professed literary pedigree of Vilnius Poker is extensive—Kafka, Camus, Beckett, and numerous others are cited—it is most impressive in its portrait of the novel’s true main character: the city of Vilnius itself, which Gavelis describes as “cloaked in dusk. Buried in a ravine, it seemed to be sinking deeper every minute.”