Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishers – Vilnius, Lithuania, 2003
Augustinas Gricius Prize for the Best Fiction Debut of 2003 in Lithuania
The following review was published in Lithuanian literary magazine “Nemunas” in December 2003.
EVERYDAY GUTTER GLITTER
REVIEW: “LOOKING FOR WORK!”
Translated from Lithuanian by Medeine Tribinevicius
When I pick up an unfamiliar author’s book, I, like many readers, am most concerned about new things I can learn from it; what worlds, experiences, and spiritual depths will be revealed.
In young writer Aistė Ptakauskė’s first book “Looking for Work!” you can sense the glitters of contemporary reality, the author’s sensitive storytelling nerve, and a stinging truth that draws your attention and demands that you listen. The most important feature of this book, however, is the author’s attention to everyday life and its grey heroes, the regular, everyday, oscillating, and totally absurd situations of the ordinary person.
Aistė Ptakauskė writes about ordinary people, working their ordinary jobs, and occupied by their everyday worries, wrapped up in their own loneliness, the coldness of their surroundings, even though it seems that a vital, interesting, and busy life flows through them. And I do say – it seems – because that flow of life can appear to take on an alternative form, one that is real but unreachable. One of these alternatives is the ceaseless babbling of information, entertainment, lottery, events, annoyances, and “innocuous” advertising on the television that fills the days. It is hard to enumerate the breadth and height of the wall this comfortable babbling erects between entertainment and the ability to recognize reality. It finds a person at the start of their life – in children’s shows and cartoons – and continues into old age when sensitive pensioners get teary eyed night after night watching the most banal of soap operas. And when this miracle, this story-book tropical island where the wealthy relax and amuse themselves, and beautiful models advertise creams or some kind of delicacy, suddenly ends the person feels trapped in silence, in loneliness, in the coldness of their surroundings – foreign and betrayed. But worse can happen. Sometimes that hypnotizing box, a television set, can refuse to be unplugged, shake its owner like a live wire and cause some crazy actions. This is my own “free” interpretation of Aistė Ptakauskė’s story ”Kleptomaniac”. The characters in this story and others are hypnotized by the widespread myths of television commercials and billboards. They are people whose trustfulness is easily preyed upon. They, quite unsuspectingly, approach that thin, nearly invisible line beyond which waits an unhappy encounter with yourself, with your empty existence, your insanity, your sins, your identity crisis – you name it. And it seems that there is no way to defend this ordinary person from the many who wish to degrade and suck out his or her spiritual and physical strength. And really who can protect and enlighten them? The civil norms that most of us disregard, and the public and many of its institutions that are becoming more and more like a super market – stalking and capturing individual weak souls (see “Holy Camp”)? A hero like Sandra (see “Dream Fulfilled”) is central to this author’s work, and can be compared with characters of Lazdynų Pelėda (Owl of Hazels, the penname of a famous 19th century Lithuanian female writer), written a century ago for naïve girls coming to the big city and its hell of witchcraft and deception. This kind of comparison rings true and endures over that century; not much has changed in a human’s ability for deception and degradation, only the technologies they use.
Finally, you say to yourself after having read Aistė Ptakauskė’s fine little book, a literature that attempts to return to its humanist duty and do its true work – to protect the ordinary person, searching for happiness and rarely finding it! Even the weirdoes, losers, the depressed, the power-tripping, the eternal don quixotes. This is the most important of her themes, and her most realized calling.
We live in a second period of independence, in a state of freedom that is different from any other decade. Someone has to see our reality for what it really is and paint a picture of it – even if that reality is not what we expected when we gained our freedom. And who can do this? Only this new, young generation of writers. Thinking of this young author’s work I cannot say that she has completely succeeded, or that her work is entirely shocking, but she certainly walks that path. Like other older and more famous writers – Sigitas Parulskis, Renata Šerelytė, Marius Ivaškevičius, and others. At some point one of them will (or have already) succeed in shouting out at full volume, and there is no doubt that we will see an impressive and truthful literature about our contemporary life, about all its hidden spiritual layers, one that is about ourselves. This kind of literature – call it critical, magical, miraculous, or some other kind of realism – will capture the intense lives of the contemporary and developing nations of the world, the lives of those who were not stifled by the stuffy reservations of socialist realism.
Aistė Ptakauskė does not only recognize our everyday reality, but she also has insight into its characteristic arcs and details, capturing behaviour, language, and individual thoughts, while also succeeding in expressing them in an evocative way. In her stories contemporary existence appears as a noisy and colourful carnival where the characters (or fate) have dressed themselves in all sorts of strange masks, which, when they are removed, reveal shocked and sad faces of ordinary people. Her protagonists find themselves in grotesque situations; just when you think they are living their dreams they find themselves in the clutches of frauds. While looking for a job one character is put down by the owner of a slovenly enterprise, and suddenly feels that he is a total nothing, that his whole life has been empty (story ”Looking for Work!”). One heroine, who seems to have succeeded in life (apparently as an actress), looks at herself in a multitude of posters and feels as though some kind of evil force is pulling her lifeblood from her, that the ground is shifting beneath her feet (story “Solipsist”).
Using a realistic style, the author creates paradoxical and absurd situations from the conditions of ordinary life. This “elevates” her writing, giving it an artistic tone. In this life there has never been, nor will ever be, a shortage of strange, funny, and crazy parody and a writer needs to turn them into another, more artistic reality so that the reader feels – happy, sad, hurt. Art begins where the ordinary eyes see existence end, extending into the unseen, that which is felt – be it wisdom, the subconscious, even insanity. It is this unseen side of existence that Aistė Ptakauskė manages to make real and vivid, rendered in the unpretentious language of the ordinary person. This now-ness is marked in both the characters and the author’s voice through the use of a wealth of foreign words, barbarisms, jargon, slang, English-language song lyrics, and in the epigraphs. I don’t know if this will hold, if it is good or bad, but time will tell; for now, it certainly reflects the background reality of our everyday. At any rate, as evidence in the book’s annotation, the author is an English language specialist, having deepened her knowledge in universities abroad. She wouldn’t lay bets on how one can learn subtle humour from the English or grace and playfulness from the French, and most people, not having English or French, will remain growing in their own earth, existing though changing, as plants grown of Lithuanian soil. It is only out of fashion that I talk about this “literary life”; it is not as though literature is born from the air or from nothing. Not unless you count those middling, commercial “euronovels”… Every nation’s real literature will always be shaped from truth, as though from good clay.
At this point someone will inevitably ask: what about sex? How is it depicted in this book? And this question would not appear silly, because in contemporary Lithuanian writing for every time that sex is written about openly, without allusion, there is an equal amount of perversion.
This book pays no mind to this kind of deliberation. Aistė Ptakauskė’s heroes and heroines are “bodily” people and the differences between sexes and their pull to one another are felt everywhere they meet, they touch each other but even this remains “under wraps”, and the most real dramatizations and complexities of a person’s identity are transferred to the realms of fate. For a young woman like Sandra in “Dream Fulfilled” womanliness is her happiness and meaning in life, but after experiencing deception she awakes from her reverie, her dream, and begins to understand who she is and how she should live. Maybe the construction of this story – that of sin and retribution – is elementary, didactic, and even old fashioned, but it is redeemed by the vividly painted portrait of a “dreaming” girl, a vision of contemporary existence, at the hands of this expressive storyteller. In the same way the little loser Tolik “dreams” about his Pamela (what an exotic name! The Lithuanian name origin dictionary explains it this way: Greek pan “all” + meli “honey”…), who, though she is a salesclerk in a fashionable clothing store, is really just like our own Kazimiera, a daughter or granddaughter from some tiny village in western Lithuania. This unsimplified and realistic imagining of a dramatic woman’s life, her dreams and mistakes, show this young writer’s humanism. In her work I did not find a tendency to narrate her own woes, the kind of exaltations found in the books of some of our contemporary woman writers. Perhaps the author is too young for such things; maybe she has not yet felt the woman’s difficult lot, or perhaps she is simply not of this disposition.
I may have praised her too much, but what can I do. You must simply believe that the furrow she ploughs will only grow deeper; that she will feel obligated to the greats of women’s literary tradition; and that the mages and sketches in her work will, in time, come to represent a comprehensive, complicated picture of contemporary life.