Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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New thriller set in Vilnius, 1989

At a recent literary event here in Chicago, I got my hands on a surprising book, Love Songs of the Revolution by Bronwyn Mauldin. It’s a thriller (spy novel and murder mystery) set in Vilnius in 1989, and the primary action takes place before and during the Baltic Chain demonstration that occurred in the late summer of that year.

While Mauldin’s book offers quite a bit of interest to the general reader, I want to say some things Lithuanians will find intriguing, and I hope this post encourages members of the Lithuanian media to investigate Mauldin’s work.

Love Songs of the Revolution is, as mentioned, a thriller. As a first-person account, it’s a faux-memoir penned by a former member of the Lithuanian revolutionary underground. A work of meta-fiction, the book employs a variety of epistolary techniques, including faux-research, blogs composed by readers of the memoir, and tweets of a researcher interested in the identity of the memoir’s author. While slim, only 184 pages, Love Songs packs layered commentary on the nature of letters, the process of historiography, the validity of memory, our preoccupation with memoirists’ “accuracy” and other meta-textual concerns common to contemporary studies of narrative.

With nearly a third of the book—indeed, the final third, including the book’s climax—dedicated to this self-reflective shuffle, I found Love Songs as worried about itself as about the socio-politics of the Lithuanian SSR or the identity and psychology of a revolutionary. I don’t mean anything negative by this observation. Indeed, what can be said about a revolution or a revolutionary? Quite a bit but nothing absolute. Love Songs critiques the unenlightened assumption that “truth” lies in data and precise documentation, not in the immeasurable fear and confusion (lust, pleasure, boredom) felt by people in conflict.

No doubt, some Lithuanian readers will pick bones with Maudlin for setting her novel in a city she has not visited and staging conversations in a language she does not speak. I can hear the camp that’ll point out, “Inaccuracies!” (and there are some, including a map that mixes up Kaunas with Švenčionėliai) as I can hear someone saying, “This book is about imprecision because the author is self-conscious about her lack of knowledge.” I think any critique like that fails to take the book on its own terms. It might be ironic to fake a memoir when the author is depending on the memories of others and must imagine how the gaps glue themselves to bannisters. That is, however, the nature of historiography.

I don’t actually feel this book is, at its heart, about Lithuania or the end of the Soviet Union. I feel it’s mostly about contemporary consciousness, primarily in America, an empire in very serious decline. Without including spoilers, I’ll reveal that the book draws parallels between the collapse of the USSR and contemporary America. Our American methods of delusion are different from the Soviet kind, but we avoid facing reality all the same. To quote from Love Songs:

Perhaps the differences seem smaller for those of us who have lived under both systems. In the Soviet era, it was the state who told us how we could and could not live. Here in America, it is the corporations that control our lives, and we are willing participants. Corporations decide what we will see on television and in the movies, what will appear in newspapers, what chemicals and inedible ingredients will be put into our food. If a government did those things to them, Americans would protest, but because something called a corporation does it to them, they pay money for it and beg for more.

There is also this:

I warn you now, my fellow Americans—yes, I am a citizen by choice now in your country—you will be disappointed by this story. You measure the quality of literature by the complexity of its plot twists. Unpredictability and “originality” are valued above all else. You insist on a happy ending, or at least a glimpse of a silver lining behind every cloud. You want to know that no animals were harmed in the making of this story. I can promise you none of this

The story I am going to tell is true; therefore it will not please you. It is direct and straightforward. The dead remain dead, and the guilty go unpunished. The sepia-tinted dream you might wish it to be turns out to be a dull, faded reality. When you close this book, you will frown and use words like “unresolved”. You will come to conclusions, and ask why no one took the actions that are plainly obvious to you.

That is because you are Americans, and you believe there is a solution to every problem. That every grief concludes in closure, or that it should. That hard work pays off, and cream always rises to the top. That every crime can be solved in an hour, minutes eighteen minutes for commercial breaks. That satisfaction is guaranteed. You are fools to expect anything but heartache and disappointment. It is your expectations that make you weak.

Someone might read that and say, “Maudlin really nailed Americans here.” I hope those same people will realize she nailed, in the same three paragraphs, the post-Soviet mentality as well. And that’s the real triumph of this little book. Every gesture connects the sides it critiques.

 

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Photo courtesy of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.


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Revolution in Kiev, Ukraine

My wife is from Kiev, grew up there during Soviet times, and we still have family and friends there. One of her dachia neighbors is photojournalist Dmitri Larin (Дмитрий Ларин). This guy is currently taking amazing pictures of the demonstrations against the Yanukovych government. You can subscribe to his feed on Facebook without friending him if you want to see all his pictures. They’re offering a better vision into the nature of the protests than any news reports I’m reading in English. I’ve been depending on his updates and on my wife’s translations to get an idea of what’s happening there.

Here are some examples:

Holiday tree

Downtown Square
Snow at nightMetro Station
Lenin statue
This one of the piano player is not Dmiti’s photo. I got it from the Обличчя Майдану Facebook page. They were helping to organize the million person march that occurred on  December 8th.
Music as protest
To get more from Dmitri, subscribe here:


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The myth of independence

You are not independent, no matter what you do. You might break away from the king, but you will immediately find yourself dependent on some other force, if even on the fellow revolutionaries who helped you kill the king and now want to build a society. Perhaps you did not notice how dependent you have always been on the dead. They built your city. They invented your culture. They gave birth to the king you killed.

People get angry with me for pointing this out. I often get a lot of resistance from students when I bring this question up during discussions: is independence a myth? (Yes, it’s rhetorical and loaded.)  They claim they are in college in order to achieve independence. But all the occupations they can possibly train for depend on work with and for others, and on a society that supports every kind of activity. Forget about work. In the modern city, it is impossible to support oneself without a store. You cannot grow enough food to feed yourself for the whole year, even if you have a sizable garden. During stretches of the year, you will depend on food from some other place, and on the people who bring it to you. Then, to buy it, you’ll depend either on customers supporting your business, or on the proper management of your place of employment. Most of these relationships are out of your control. You can influence some of them to lean one way or another. But you are not ever independent. If you believe that you are making money because of your superior ability to trick people into buying your services, you’re dependent on a delusion far more tragic than independence.

Even in Walden, Thoreau’s book about self-reliance, he depended on tools built by others, clothing sewn by someone else, a political system held up by a massive group of people, most of whom he did not know.

Many of us will attend a fireworks display. We will depend on someone to pick up the garbage that falls from the sky after the bombs go off. If those people don’t do it, we’ll complain to the authorities: What the hell? Can’t we depend on anyone anymore?

We depend on each other. Constantly. A revolution in Egypt has consequences in Kansas.

On independence day, let’s pledge to be dependable.