Alma littera – Vilnius, Lithuania 2009
A Cautionary Tale for Lithuanian Teenage Girls: A Review of Aistė Ptakauskė’s Two Young Adult Novels, Nerealios atostogos and (Ne)saugus žaidimas
The young debut writer, Aistė Ptakauskė’s, two young adult novels, Nerealios atostogos and (Ne)saugus žaidimas (part of Alma Littera’s “Mergaičių lyga” series) ought to be read as cautionary tales for Lithuanian (and in general all East European and Russian) teenage girls entering into the particular social constructs of the post-Soviet adult world. The books address rape, loss of virginity, the underground world of sexual tourism, and repressed (due to cultural intolerance) homosexuality, without the usual taint of didacticism, heavy-handedness, condescension or voyeurism such subject matter is want to elicit.
Narrated from a first person point of view in a voice that is punchy, ripe with a balance of contemporary slang and folk wisdom, literary metaphor and street talk, a voice that is smart, honest, and never tedious, the books tell the coming of age story of four Lithuanian teens. The backbone of the two novels is the developing and deepening friendship between Ainė, a home-body, who is shy and pragmatic and is secretly writing a novel; Giedra, a flighty budding artist who has a very hard time reigning in her emotions and anger, especially in public; Rasa, Giedra’s elder sister, who is responsible and terse; and Ugnė, always meticulously made-up and coiffed, and hopelessly in love with hopelessly unfaithful, Martynas.
On a literary and folkloric level the names of the four girls represent the four elements: Rasa (Dew in Lithuanian) is water; Ainė (Ancestor spirits) is the earth; Ugnė (Fire in Lithuanian) is fire; and Giedra (Brightness in Lithuanian) is the sky. On an emotional level each girl must face her own challenges and fears and find her own way. The girls vow to support each other in their endeavors, promising never to leave a friend in need. As with treaties between nations, this promise is often tested and the results are sometimes disastrous, sometimes hilarious, sometimes puzzling. Though, no matter how difficult the situation, the girls manage to learn something and grow as people. Character growth and development is a definite strength in this work for young readers. At the end of the first book, Nerealios atostogos, the narrator, Ainė, who is essentially a home body, learns that experience and relationships are a part of her creative growth and her personal growth, and not something to be avoided at all costs. She decides to begin writing her novel in earnest, based on her life experience. At the end of the second book, (Ne)saugus žaidimas, Ainė learns to be honest with herself and others, both as a human being and as a writer.
The men in the book also represent the likely types of men most women deal with in contemporary Lithuanian society. Martynas is blond, athletic, handsome, and openly unfaithful to Ugnė. He uses her for sex and disrespects her and he gets away with it time and again. Ugnė’s tolerance is cultural. She makes up excuses for Martynas and without him, she feels worthless. Her girlfriends realize that it is hopeless to try to change her and patiently assist her in her desperate relationship, until finally, at the end of the second book Ugnė herself takes a stand and leaves Martynas.
Žydrūnas, the one positive male character in the book, still is dubious. He is a police officer who uses his power as a highway cop to pull over the lovely Rasa and to write his telephone number and a map on the inside of her elbow. Žydrūnas’s side-kick, the “iguana,” Denisas, is a Lithuanian-Russian who is built like a refrigerator, but speaks in a falsetto. He rapes one of the girls left in his protection and is about to rape Ainė when she narrowly escapes. Then, there are the two Mutants—the thugs fromKlaipėda who harass the girls, beat up Martynas, yet do not succeed in raping the girls, only because the girls outsmart them and are able to narrowly escape.
Then, there is the middle-aged publisher, Jonas Kerpė, who holds the key to the publishing world for young writers and is not at all vague about the price young women are expected to pay to get their work published. The publisher’s nephew, Kęstutis, lives with him as a dependent and therefore assumes a servant-like role. That is, until the girls arrive on the scene and he is put into the position of standing up for them and discovers his own manhood. The character Kęstutis is perhaps the closest the reader gets to a male hero, but with a caveat. He is a gentle artist type, though not a slouch when Ainė finds herself in a precarious position and in the isolated village cottage in the middle of the night and nowhere to go but his bed.
The writing and structure of these books is refreshingly Western. Ptakauskė does away with the usual self-indulgence and self-absorption we see in the work of young Lithuanian writers, andtells the story. The reader immediately is drawn in by the books’ strong storyteller’s voice, the contemporary and relevant dialogue, the familiar and recognizable settings, a healthy balance between scene, action and reflection, and a solid plot structure. There is a definite polish and professionalism to Ptakauskė’s work.
At the same time, Ptakauskė consciously embraces a clear American-style approach to writing for young adults, while retaining uniquely Lithuanian, even folkloric, elements that nonetheless ground these books in Lithuanian tradition. Giedra plays at being a witch, using her own unique versions of traditional Lithuanian verbal healing charms to curse, heal, and conjure. The middle-aged pervert/publisher who abuses his power over Ainė in an attempt to force her into having sex with him, is described as a “lašininis,” the mythological fat-man who battles “kanapinis,” the hemp-man, during the Lithuanian carnival festivities that precede the Lenten season. Ugnė’s Lithuanian-American Great Aunt turns out to be a back-to-the-lander of sorts with her pet grass snake Kasparas that protects her home and hearth and her bizarre homeopathic methods that hearken back to earlier agrarian traditions.
As an American woman and writer, obviously my reading of Ptakauskė’s books differ from a local reading. An outsider tends to view a foreign society more closely, perhaps even more critically, though not out of a sense of cultural snobbism, but rather as a survival skill. An outsider arrives on foreign soil and must watch all the cultural road signs carefully, so as not to misstep, not to get lost, not to end up in a dangerous situation. I can negotiate any street in New York City at three in the morning and not feel fearful, but my heart races walking through Vilnius’s senamiestis (OldTown) at dusk. A foreigner tends to watch the shadows more closely.
Similarly, teenage girls entering the adult world must learn to read the signs of danger, and that is what Ainė, Ugnė, Giedra, and Rasa are up against in these two books. Take note, I write “teenage girls entering the adult world” because these books were written specifically to address girls as part of a series designed by Alma Littera. And, for good reason. In urban contemporary Lithuania girls face some very real dangers, which, let’s say, teenage girls in Western Europe, America, Japan, or Hong Kong, or other industrialized nations do not face in quite the same way. Like it or not, let’s be honest with ourselves, independent Lithuania has succeeded in creating a cultural construct for teenage girls and young women that is highly sexualized, and dangerously so. The sexualization of young women in Lithuania has undermined girls’ self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and confidence in themselves as bread-winners and future professionals.
In Lithuania the Soviet cultural inheritance left a patriarchal blueprint on an already agrarian patriarchal society. This, combined with a headlong rush into an outsider’s interpretation of what the West is, coupled with a skewed understanding of the practical meaning of freedom and democracy (essentially, now I am free to do as I wish, rather than now I am free to take responsibility for myself and my country) brings us to a place that is a dark and dangerous jungle for a teenage girl “coming out” into adult life.
Then, there are the economic conditions that limit Lithuanian women: unequal pay practices for men and women and insufficient pay in relationship to cost of living almost immediately place Lithuanian young women in a position of dependence on family, and on men. This sense of dependence is deeply internalized and carries with it a cultural roadmap that girls learn to follow in early adolescence.
Both books involve adventure. Nerealios atostogos is a roadtrip novel in the tradition of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Although the four girls vow that their trip to Klaipėda is a girls’ vacation and they even draft for themselves a set of guidelines and rules that are innocent and positive enough for a gaggle of teenage girls on wheels and hot for adventure, everywhere they go the girls are viewed as sexual objects, though they resist that viewpoint. Their struggle, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, is to maintain their dignity, individuality, and sense of self as a whole human being.
In (Ne)saugus žaidimas all four girls, within a three-day long November All Souls’ Day vacation, experience sexual aggression at the hands of men. Whereas these actions would have involved bringing in the law, the social workers, the psychiatrists, outraged parents and relatives if they were to occur in America, in this novel, which, sadly all too honestly reflects today’s Lithuanian society, are dismissed as commonplace, a learning experience, an opportunity for the girls to grow and mature as women. And, guess what, all four girls move on, evolving into strong, patiently suffering Lithuanian women, accepting of their men’s failings, cowardice, and abuse of male privilege. And they do it on their own, without the help of grown-ups.
At the beginning of (Ne)saugus žaidimas, Ugnė initiates a “girl vacation” by pouting and crying over Martynas spending the All Soul’s Day holidays in his construction worker’s dorm in Panevėžys. She wheedles her girlfriends into agreeing to find a way to transport her to Panevėžys to spend a romantic weekend in Martynas’s dorm room. Rasa appeals to her boyfriend, ŽydrūnasŠunskis, a cop who won Rasa’s heart after pulling her over inNerealios atostogos, to concoct a plan. Žydrūnas sends his partner, Denisas, a hulk of a man who speaks in falsetto, to pick up Ainė, Giedra, and Ugnė in Vilnius. Ugnė is deposited on the side of the road on the outskirts of Panevėžys, where she reunites with Martynas. Ainė and Giedra are brought to Žydrūnas’s uncle’s cottage in a village outside of Panevėžys. There they are met by a tipsy Rasa (drunk on the uncle’s red wine) and Žydrūnas, who introduce them to their eager host, the uncle, an obese man, presumably in his fifties because of his gray hair and gray chest hairs, who greets Ainė by shoving his tongue between her teeth when she bends forward to accept a polite greeting kiss. Later, after coming back drenched from a long walk in the rain to the village bus station (Žydrūnas leaves the scene unexpectedly for a party and Rasa and Giedra set out after him, suspecting him of going to meet another woman), Ainė asks the uncle if she may take a hot shower. He points her in the direction of the bathroom, but when she returns to her bed after her shower, clutching a small towel to her body, she finds the uncle, naked, spread-eagle in her bed, “warming the sheets.”
Ainė reacts like a well-brought up Lithuanian girl, taught to acquiesce to male privilege, in this case the privilege of a middle-aged host, to whom she has submitted her manuscript for publication. She says nothing, but runs upstairs to the man’s nephew’s Kęstustis’s room. She knocks politely on the door and expresses an interest in his art portfolio. After viewing the portfolio shivering under a wet towel, she politely asks if she may sleep in his room because she saw a mouse downstairs in hers and is afraid of mice.
The internalization of culturally specific rules in this situation and Aine’s accommodation of the uncle and the nephew speak to a greater societal problem, one in which Ainė clearly knows her place as a woman. It never occurs to her that violence has been done to her. It never occurs to her to resist. Ptakauskė is a sly writer in that she is able to say so much both to young adult readers and their parents while at the same time presenting a hilarious and completely believable scene.
While Ainė is dealing with her delicate situation, Giedra too is left in a vulnerable position when Rasa catches up to Žydrūnas, finds him “partying” with the two mutants (actually doing undercover police work) and starts a fight between Žydrūnas and the two mutants. The police are called in to stop the fight and Žydrūnas and Rasa are arrested and brought to police headquarters. Denisas is told to watch out for Giedra and to take her back to the cottage. Instead, Denisas locks Giedra inside a private room in the nightclub. He fondles her breasts and proceeds to take her virginity. It does not occur to Giedra to resist him because she is tormented by her own homosexuality, which she considers to be not normal. She thinks that maybe if she allows him to “thrust his way into her skin, like a needle under the skin, he’ll destroy all the viruses there. And then I won’t have any more abnormal thoughts (page 143).”
After the rape, Giedra bleeds and bleeds. But no one comforts her. She asks Denisas to driver her back to the cottage. She feels extremely ashamed, but worse, her
thoughts about breasts do not dissipate out of her head. She realizes that she is doomed to be a lesbian. She makes a sexual appeal to Ainė and is rejected. The horrified Ainė storms out of the house and makes her escape, but ends up stranded in Panevėžys without money or any way of getting home to Vilnius. Believing she has no one to turn to, she answers a text message from Denisas. They decide to meet at the same nightclub, only for coffee, since it’s morning. Ainė arrives at the empty night club and Denisas locks the door behind her. He shows her the stage where the fashion show is scheduled to take place that night. It dawns on Ainė that she has made a mistake. That this meeting is not as innocent as it would seem. She tells Denisas that she needs to leave, but he will not let her go. She cannot get out on her own because the door is locked. Just before the worst happens, Rasa and Žydrūnas show up, innocently stopping by the club. Denisas metamorphoses back into the “good cop” the others believe him to be and his actions are never addresses. Alls well that ends well.
It could seem to a western reader that all these unresolved situations and loose ends are indicative of an inexperienced writer. But this is not the case. The stage here is Lithuania and inLithuania it is more wise to keep your mouth shut regarding the illicit activities of a cop than to make a stink about it. Here the writer’s realistic understanding of her world and her moment in time comes through. Ainė does not tell. Neither does Giedra. They don’t even need to be threatened by Denisas not to tell. They know.
Later, it turns out that Giedra set up the meeting, knowing it would lead to her friend’s rape and “deflowering.” She admits to Ainė that she set up the “date” with Denisas to get the satisfaction of revenge for being rebuffed. Again, the writer displays a subtle physiological situation, but does so seemingly innocently, never departing from the flow of the confessional scene between Giedra and Aine. The moment illustrates the psychology of the oppressed: the oppressed does not take revenge on the oppressor, but on her own peers instead.
I could go on and on, illustrating scene after scene in which the writer reveals a cultural psychology that is deeply intuitive and illuminating. But the truly masterful aspect of Ptakauskė’s writing, is that she does so with humor. Humor keeps the reader laughing and turning pages. Humor allows the reader to absorb the bitter lessons of these books without falling either into a rage or a hopeless depression. We’ve all met the people in these books and we can all recognize ourselves in them. We see our own mistakes and our own triumphs. These books are an important read for young Lithuanian girls. Most importantly, for middle class girls, the types whose parents believe their girls will never have to deal with these types of social situations. None of the girls in the books smoke or use drugs or alcohol. The closest they come to light intoxication is when they share of bottle of fermented cider and Ainė grows light-headed. Indeed, all four girls come from nice homes and are good students in school: The type parents don’t think they have to watch closely.
Aistė Ptakauskė is a talented young writer whose talents have already been recognized in an international context. Ptakauskė has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar’s grant to study in the graduate program in Television, Radio, and Film at the S. I. Newhouse Schoolfor Public Communications at Syracuse University in New York. The Fulbright is a highly selective program that gives grants to study in the United States. These grants are decided by a committee of scholars and are offered only to the very best talents a nation has to offer. It is no surprise to me, having read her work, that Aistė Ptakauskė is joining the proud Fulbright tradition.