Thursday, 22 October 2020

Literature and the Collapsing World

Jurga Tumasonytė

Literatura ir griuvantis pasaulis 02Jurga Tumasonytė
Photo by Monika Penkutė

That Sunday, just like my parents had done (more than thirty years ago, having watered the tomatoes and clipped the heavy heads of dahlias), we sat in the car and headed to town from our summer cabin. With just a little over an hour left to go, we were crawling along like turtles, stuck in a traffic jam. The closer we got to the center of town, the more we saw people wearing white. Things were getting exciting: “Faster, faster!” Finally, we reached home, carried in our bags, jumped in the shower, fed the dog… We ran out with wet hair, our son laughing, not understanding the hurry. He was lucky – thirty years previously, my parents did not take me, a one year toddler, to join the Baltic Way, leaving me with relatives instead. As we walked towards the Cathedral, the crowds of people dressed in white grew thicker until we connected ourselves to the human chain and grasped the edge of a Belarusian flag that was as long as the street. From his perch in the stroller, our son at first thought it all quite funny, but then started to grow vexed over the fact that everyone was wearing masks. We took him out of the stroller kicking and screaming. He agreed to take part only so long as he got to hold the edge of the flag, and then he decided to jump on the flag, and if not on it, then to run around underneath it. In other words, our part in the “Freedom Way” was not long, but affecting: together with other fellow-citizens not indifferent to the events in Belarus, we took a time machine back to 1989. And just like people from the future, we wore surgical masks and latex gloves.

My childhood, during which the Soviet Union collapsed, seemed like a miraculous time because the narrative of attaining freedom was seen through the eyes of those who were there. In those days, people would fill stadiums to listen to poets reading their work, and writers played an active part in political and social initiatives. Afterwards, in the flood-tide of wild capitalism, art moved to the margins and the times became difficult for even the most famous of the “engineers of the soul.” I used to constantly hear about all of this while I was still in school. After a while, the life of the poet became similar to the Western model – more limited press-runs, the possibility to participate in international festivals, new state-sponsored grants, and, of course, the need to look for additional, better remunerated work. We sometimes discussed with friends whether writers would become important to society again if there arose some need for us to come together as in a war or some other cataclysm.

The end of February is traditionally the time of the Vilnius Book Fair, which sees more and more people every year (almost seventy-four thousand this year). I participated in several events and worked at a book stand. At the time, the Covid virus had reached a few Italian towns, but it still seemed far away and we could imagine nothing too serious might happen. A week later, Lithuania had its first official case, and by the middle of March we were hunkered down under quarantine, holding our breath in anticipation of what would happen next, counting the numbers of those infected and those dead.

The Vilnius Film Festival was supposed to take place, but moved into virtual space. Similarly with theatrical productions, museums, and literary events. For the first few weeks it was hard to be excited by fiction because reality seemed just as strange. I work in a small Vilnius Old Town bookstore. At first we sat in our closed quarters and tried to make lists of forthcoming books for libraries. Purchasing activity on our website was sluggish, so we decided to go on vacation. It was rather an oppressive and anxious time. My family and I established ourselves up in our summer cabin and, muffled in many layers of clothing, we were ready to live out the quarantine in the arms of the awakening natural world.

In April, Eurika, the owner of the bookstore, sadly broke the news that the store would probably not survive. Sixteen years of Eureka’s operation had seen numerous literary events, performances, unofficial meetings with writers, outings and business trips. The bookstore was like a best friend, a beloved. For Benas, Sandra, and I, it was an important part of our lives. We understood that the end was approaching. We announced our impending demise on Facebook, carefully reminding people that we have hundreds of selected books in English and Lithuanian that can be purchased on the internet. The result was an explosion – people shared our post en masse, and our online store filled with orders. Our bookstore team spent the next week packaging books day and night, carrying the packages to the post office and to automated postal points. There were so many orders that it seemed as if we lived through several of the biggest book fairs all at once. Journalists interviewed Eurika about the formula for her success. Probably it was not just our sincere communication with readers, but many years of work put into our relationship with them, especially important given how few independent bookstores are left in Lithuania. The sad story of Eureka’s demise proved to be greatly exaggerated. On top of that, we gained new clientele, including those who heard of it for the very first time. Now we joke with each other that the quarantine success stories were the food delivery company Barbora, pharmacies, and Eureka.

Our friends from the publishing house, Kitos Knygos [Other Books], were inspired with fresh ideas once quarantine ended. They opened a summer bookstore in the resort town of Nida. At first, everyone laughed at the thought, thinking this was just some kind of joke or game they were playing. After all, books don’t have much of a mark-up, the publishers will have to rent space for the store and the staff… Will there really be enough vacationers who want to buy serious literature? Do holiday-makers even want to buy books? Well, hopes were fulfilled with interest. People readily flocked to the only bookstore on the Neringa peninsula. They bought quality literature. The “joke and game” of the publishing house paid off. What happened for them and for us gave us all hope. We began going once again to literary events and book launches. Art, of course, will not save the world, but it can console, it can fly us off to another place.

As I write this text, the numbers of people in Lithuania infected with Covid are steadily rising. The cold season is coming and nobody knows what exactly awaits. Maybe we will all sink once more into quarantine? Maybe there will be no more resources for feasting in the time of the plague? Will all literary events be virtual? Is depression on our horizon? Who will create quality works on the theme of Covid? There is so much uncertainty that we have to live for today. But when you are walking on a thin line, poetry sounds a bit different than during your other, previous life:

You dream your grandmother eating Atlantic Cod liver conserves,
the closet in childhood’s wall,
and you sitting in it as if on a swing, your head upturned,
    perhaps about to kiss,
and next to you – an agreeable, famous gentleman
showing you a wad of money or postcards
with fluorescent iguanas:
the lizards are smiling:
strange and wonderful.

All of this happens
while bacteria grow their colonies in the dark:
grannies breed grannies,
fixing fertility and health,
fixing the microbial balance between good and evil.

                      (from Vaiva Grainytė’s “Mycology before Sleep”, tr. Rimas Užgiris)



Jurga Tumasonytė has published numerous interviews with artistic people of various fields. Her first book of fiction, Artificial Fly (2011), won the Kazimieras Barėnas literary prize. Her second collection of short stories, Mermaids (2019), was short-listed for best prose book of the year, and listed as one of the twelve most creative books of the year, also winning the Jurga Ivanauskaitė Prize. The short story, “Realm”, won the Antanas Vaičiulaitis Prize. Her novel Repair was published in 2020.

Translated from Lithuanian by Rimas Uzgiris






Lietuvos kultūros taryba
Lietuvos Respublikos kutūros ministerija
EU: Creative Europe