After my call for more Lithuanian works in translation, I was glad to come across this book of three short stories by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė on my last visit to Vilnius.
Kristina Sabaliauskaitė is a Lithuanian writer and Art Historian based in London. These three short stories are contrasting snippets about Vilnius from the perspective of: group of young Polish girls, a ex-KGB agent and an old Jewish business man.
I really enjoyed the way the different stories opened up three different ways to experience Vilnius.
The first story, Franco’s Black Pearls really didn’t interest me much at all. I found that the syntax and grammar at times were confusing. I’m so glad that I didn’t put the book away at this point because the last two stories were excellent.
The Return of Samuel Vilner is a retrospective look on – you guessed it – the life of an 85 year old business man, Samuel Vilner who returns to re-live the good and bad memories it holds.
This story really documents the contrasting viewpoint of Pre and Post War attitudes; as well as Pre and Post War Vilnius. Samuel Vilner finds that the once thriving Jewish community is not as prominent as it once was:
“…where are all the bakeries, where are the bread shops, why is there no aroma of bread coming from them?” (P.94)
In this quote the cultural differences are felt in his frustration. The simple answer is a sad one; that the quaint little shops have been eaten by the corporate elite.
The last short story, The Weathervanes of Vilnius is told from the perspective of an old KGB agent who is in the hospital. His early purpose was to turn Vilnius into a city that catered for the ‘needs of the Soviet Man’.
One idea of his, which never materialised was to replace all of the crosses on Churches with a weathervane. We also are told of the time he ruins the career of a talented young lady who is caught taking photos of the buildings about to be destroyed and re-built by the Soviets.
“He had asked her that: why photograph what is going to be demolished. She answered: so that it would survive at least in photographs, after all – it was history, the city’s history and hers, after all our purpose is to preserve history” (p. 125)
This is statement directly contradicts the mantra of the “soviet man” – to look forward not backwards. Our unnamed KGB agent made sure she never worked as a photographer again; finding out later that she was “working as a cleaner and road sweeper” (p.128)
The Weathervanes of Vilnius, deals with the consequences and the paranoia that comes with being part of a Dictatorship (The Soviet Union) and no matter how strong that system; when it comes to death, we are all alone.
Overall, a really great look into Vilnius. The technique used was excellent; using old photographs and giving them a voice through character and narrative which allowed for intimate storytelling.
I only hope that more of Kristina Sabaliauskaitė’s writing is translated into English.
Section that Stayed
This passage is from The Return of Samuel Vilner and is about how he fled the Jewish Ghetto to avoid being captured by the Nazi regime.
“He had hid in the cellar like a rat, like a non-human. The Germans had wanted to make a rat out of him, a non-human; to exterminate him like a rat. But the irony of fate wanted things to turn out differently, fate wanted him to survive, even though in order to do so he had to eat rats.” (p.98)
If you have any suggestions or discussion points then get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.