Vilnius Poker


Read 10/10/2021-27/10/2021

Rating 3 stars

Over the Baltic to Lithuania for the next read in my literary tour of Europe. Vilnius Poker was recommended to me a while ago by fellow blogger Inga at Readingaread. Coincidentally, Inga’s blog documents a literary tour of Europe in 20 books. Inga is from Vilnius, and recommended Ričardas Gavelis’s novel to me as a classic of Lithuanian literature.

I know very little about Lithuania, other than that it was one of the three Baltic states occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, and the one that regained its independence first, four months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a year before the Soviet Union ended.

I also don’t know much about Vilnius, other than the architecture of its Old Town provided the backdrop to the BBC adaptation of War and Peace. Appropriately enough, given Napoleon’s presence in Tolstoy’s epic, I’ve learnt that Napoleon called Vilnius the Jerusalem of the North, thanks to the large Jewish community that used to live there. Its other nicknames include the Rome of the North and the Athens of the North. I often feel sorry for cities that are given comparative nicknames like that, positive as they can be, indicative of the rich culture and architecture of a place as they are. It seems like a denial of the uniqueness of the place itself.

Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its buildings range from the mediaeval to the baroque. At its centre is a neo-classical cathedral. There is a cluster of pictures on the Wikipedia page for Vilnius, showing key buildings in the city, including the cathedral. My attention, though, was grabbed by The Gate of Dawn.


Image by Marcin Bialek CC-BY-SA 4.0

This is the only remaining example of ten city gates originally set in the fortified wall surrounding Vilnius when it was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and dates from the 16th century. It also houses the chapel of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, home to a stunning icon originally placed inside the gate to protect the city and bless visitors.


Image from Wikimedia commons

Lithuania’s history means that the city also has a KGB museum, a former prison where Lithuanians were tortured, repurposed to tell the history of the Soviet occupation. Which brings me to Vilnius Poker, a novel that is set during the Soviet era and whose main character is a survivor of Soviet torture meted out by the NKVD and later the KGB.

Vilnius is as strong a character in the book as the human actors. Gavelis has his narrator describe the city thus:

In Vilnius, every building, every narrow little street crossing is simultaneously the scene of ancient life and today’s catalepsy. Vilnius is innumerable cities laid one atop another. It isn’t just the earth that lays down archaeological layers here, but time, and air, and language do too. In the same spot, layers of Eastern and Western cultures lie hidden and turn into one another. Vilnius is the border where Russia’s expansionism and Europe’s spirit went to war. Here absolutely everything collided and mixed. Vilnius is a giant cocktail, stirred together by the insane gods of fog. If a city could exist alone, without people, Vilnius would be the City of all cities. But it’s people who express the spirit of a city, and if you attempt to understand what the figures in Vilnius’s streets mean, what that atrophying spectacle in which you yourself play means, you’d immediately realise you’re dreaming.

Vilnius Poker is considered by some to be a turning point in Lithuanian literature, with Gavelis mixing philosophy with fantasy in an almost stream of consciousness style. Dreams and reality merge, time seems to stack rather than flow linearly, and the fractured prose is used by Gavelis to conjure the mental turmoil of his protagonist, a man who observes the decline of Vilnius and also stands for that decline.

The novel is split into four parts and documents the life of Vytautas Vargalys, starting with Vargalys’s narration before passing the story on to two of his colleagues and a dog. The four narratives are contradictory around key points, so that it’s impossible to truly understand what is going on. The core of the novel is Vargalys’s perception of events, almost two thirds of the book, with contextual narrative in the final third.

Both Vargalys and his closest friend Gediminas share forenames with key figures from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – Gediminas with the Grand Duke who led Lithuania’s expansion as a state, Vytautas with one of his grandsons, the man who lost the Grand Duchy – forming a link to a past in which Lithuania was free.

Vargalys works for the Soviet-controlled Lithuanian government, tasked with creating a digital library catalogue that will never exist, because the library catalogue in Moscow hasn’t been computerised yet, and nobody in the Vilnius library has a computer. The novel opens with a dream before moving into a dreamlike reality which confused and unsettled me, because I couldn’t tell whether the dream had ended or not. Gavelis drops us straight into Vargalys’s world without preamble and through the text we become party to the structured chaos of his life. This is a man who has suffered extreme abuse and is broken. His response to the world around him is fragmentary, punctured by recollections of past experiences. The narrative feels hallucinatory at times. This is compounded by the first part of the novel concluding with the continuation of the opening scene. It’s a circle but not.

The writing is compelling, flowing like the infinite thoughts of Vargalys from one perception of reality to the next. I felt echoes of science fiction works like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s WE, and of the madness captured in the pages of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl. While I was reading, reading was all I wanted to do, even when that reading was queasy, but sometimes, coming back to the story after putting the book down (we all have to eat/sleep/socialise), I had to re-read a previous passage to remind myself of what was going on. Its essential disjointedness made it a difficult story to retain at times.

Vargalys’s paranoia takes the form of a belief that some cabal, that he names Them, is running the world and their influence runs through everything, from the monitoring of civilians by the NKVD to Roman Polanski and the Manson Family cult via the people on television whose purpose is to make the viewers brain dead and compliant. Vargalys believes he can find evidence of this cabal in books and manuscripts, so gets a job at the library. Here, he’s surrounded by colleagues who are either Communists or people whose lives have been ruined by the Soviet regime. Vargalys is never sure whether the latter are real, or plants installed at the library to monitor him.

The novel created conflict in me. On the one hand, I was fascinated by the setting and the narrator’s relationship to the state machine he is part of but strives to resist. Gavelis uses the novel as a vehicle for expounding upon the Soviet era in Lithuania. There are scenes that feel almost clichéd, such as the time Vargalys and a colleague, Martynas, go for a drink and encounter a KGB officer who won’t allow them to leave the bar. They escape the bar and find the square full of people playing the roles of happy citizens and a shop full of produce never usually seen in Lithuanian stores, because a Communist Party officer is paying a visit, and the lie of Soviet plenty and worker happiness must be played out. There are references to black sedans patrolling the streets, occupied by grey faced men, monitoring the activities of the city’s residents. People comply with Soviet dogma in order to survive. Those who don’t comply are disappeared or their lives are otherwise disrupted, leaving them unemployable, destitute, outsiders. Gavelis manages to transform this story of repression and the systematic abuse of those perceived as dissidents into something else. The fractured narrative stands for the fractures in Lithuanian society under Soviet control. Vargalys might have some conspiracy theory-fuelled beliefs about the world, but he has endured a labour camp, he lives under a regime built on suspicion and informing, anyone would become paranoid, their minds fractured by such experiences. The combination of allegory, fantasy and hallucination in Vargalys’s story is what kept me reading.

The flip to all this, and the thing that made the novel a difficult read for me, is Vargalys’s attitude towards women. For some of the novel, Vargalys has a relationship with a young female colleague he refers to as Lolita. That’s a warning bell to some in itself, I know, and it’s important to say that this novel is more complicated than just an old man lusting after a much younger woman. Vargalys’s Lolita is at least an adult, not a child, and their relationship is instigated by her. Vargalys’s attitude towards women casts a shade early on, however, in the language he uses to describe an encounter with a prostitute, while he’s out with his friend Gediminas. The recollection is triggered by Vargalys being unable to look away from Lolita one day at work. He remembers that the prostitute is aloof, but also inviting. She’s unknowable, but also transparent. Quite aside from the inevitable “predatory thighs” and “indolent breasts” that “shouted for caresses”, Vargalys has this to say about his male reaction to the simple fact of her existing:

She really did want touching. She craved this herself, she entwined us both with long, invisible arms; you wanted to obey her, but within that sweet obedience a melancholy fear flared – it seemed as if this Circe of Vilnius’s side streets could at any moment turn you into a soft, brainless being.

This scene setting was grim reading, with the woman so physically passive and both men having their turn on her. Not to excuse it, but the reason I carried on reading was because the narrative felt more like a description of debased humanity and one abused man’s inability to inhabit a socialised skin, than it did an absolute monument to misogyny. It is misogyny, of course, of a dispassionate kind, but I was curious enough about the Lithuania depicted by Gavelis to hold the misogyny separate from the rest of the narrative. It was difficult at times. Throughout the story, Vargalys reduces women to breasts, legs, thighs and hips, to the almost holy and mystifying vagina. On a couple of occasions, a woman turns out not to be who he has told himself she is, and he physically attacks her, in one instance almost raping a young colleague he has only a short time ago anointed as his perfect assistant. His reason is that the woman is reading his secret stash of books, meaning that she must have been sent to spy on him. Towards the end of part one, Vargalys encounters a pathologist who has the partially dissected body of a woman on his table. He’s of the opinion that he knows women through his work, and that they are disgusting and obscene creatures who think with the hole between their legs. “Look at this one,” he says. “Even dead she lies there with her legs spread.” By this point in the novel, I really felt for Elizabeth Novickas, the woman who translated it into English. She probably needed a deep cleanse of her psyche to recover.

Elsewhere, Vargalys describes his relationship with his wife, Irena. She rescues him from alcoholism, appearing to him as a Madonna. They have a quiet life together, during which Vargalys completes his university studies, supported emotionally and financially by his wife, and becomes a programmer. But one day, Vargalys notices that Irena has changed. To him, it’s a fundamental shift almost akin to Irena having been replaced by someone else. To me, a middle aged woman, his description is of a woman whose body and mindset is changing due to the passage of time. Irena also seemed to me to be trying to please herself rather than Vargalys. Gavelis doesn’t allow his character Irena a voice of her own, though, so we don’t know her other than through Vargalys’s eyes. And in those eyes, Irena has become a revolting whore. Unlike someone with Freud’s Madonna-Whore complex, though, Vargalys is still able to have sex with his apparently revolting non-wife.

Coincidentally, I read an interview with Charlotte Wood not long after starting Vilnius Poker, where she talks about growing up as a Catholic and how Catholic dogma instilled in her the ability to hold two opposing views at once. She was talking about Norman Mailer and his pearls of wisdom juxtaposed with his misogynistic posturing. It interested me because the idea of holding an appreciation of one person’s knowledge and wisdom separate from their objectionable behaviour is a source of conflict for me, particularly in our modern world of cancel culture that doesn’t permit failure or redemption. There is a wealth of artists out there who create works of beauty and meaning but who are objectionable individuals or hold objectionable views. Do we cancel them all? Is there nothing we can learn from them? Wood’s proposal that her ability to not turn away from people when their views offend her is due to growing up Catholic made me wonder whether cancel culture is the result of people turning away from religion, and that grounding in holding conflicting ideas in parallel, and turning instead towards self-belief and seeking out only those other people who agree with us. Is an unwillingness to hold two opposing views at once, to enter into dialogue with those whose views offend us, the reason our politics are in such a mess and public discourse so imbued with hysteria? The ability to hold two opposing views is picked up on by Vargalys’s colleague Martynas in the second part of the narrative, through a discussion around the official torturers and murderers in the Nazi and Soviet regimes being cultured men, and through a question: “if a person with that much intelligence behaves in a way we don’t understand, couldn’t that mean he grasps principles of higher import, ones we cannot perceive?” That question makes me uncomfortable, because it seems to excuse the worst in humanity through the preferring of intellect.

Martynas through the eyes of Vargalys is an interesting character. Vargalys tells us that Martynas holds a belief that nobody living in Lithuania has a past. They simply exist in each moment and can disappear at any time, leaving no trace. This is the result of Martynas writing an academic thesis that calls for a more open education system that encourages thinking and analysis. It is seemingly praised by his tutors, only for all copies of the document to disappear and Martynas himself to be consigned to a non-existence, working in the library on the digital index, but without a computer to actually do the work on. Quite aside from the immediacy of Martynas’s non-existence, it struck me that this sense of having no past must be how forcibly becoming part of the Soviet Union must have felt for many; that their past was taken from them and their future, too, because they were no longer individuals, no longer separate nations with a clear identity. In Martynas’s narration of part two of the novel, which begins in the aftermath of Vargalys’s story, he’s slightly easier company than his friend. He reflects on the man he feels he never really knew, has a different angle on the events presented in Vargalys’s narrative, and provides a slightly less paranoid view of Vilnius, its citizens and the nature of Lithuanians. He wants to write a book about Vilnius: “what all of us could have been, if we hadn’t been turned into what we are.” He is, however, a misogynist, particularly about Lolita, branding her a man hater, a leech, “a woman who led three great men to their deaths.”

Alongside Martynas, Stefanija is the only other colleague that Vargalys can be bothered with. He’s reductively obsessed with her hips, of course, but she is kind to him following the mysterious and violent death of his best friend Gediminas, and so becomes slightly more real to him as a person. Although she frequently irritates him with her attentiveness. Martynas describes her relationship to Vargalys differently: she is his housekeeper and saviour, the woman who keeps him alive without his acknowledgement. Stefanija, as the narrator of part three, briefly has a voice of her own, unlike most of the other female characters, whose words, if they speak at all, are reported by Vargalys. Inevitably, some of what she says could only have been written by a man. Gavelis writes her monologue as a woman who can’t shut up, interrupting herself with other thoughts, chattering and breathless, a gossip. Her take on Vargalys’s story is different again, imbued with her knowledge of his family and the village they both came from. And, for all the intellectualism of Vargalys and Martynas, it’s Stefanija who seems the most clued up.

Lolita is described by each narrator as different to the others, aloof and silent until the day she enters Vargalys’s office and kickstarts their relationship. According to Vargalys, she, too, has ideas about the state versus the individual, about the way the state takes away individualism and replaces it with conformism, so that everyone uses the same meaningless language to try to express their lives. During the walks through the Old Town that she and Vargalys take together, Lolita speaks her thoughts, while Vargalys wonders why an attractive woman half his age is interested in him, wonders whether she is a spy sent to monitor him. As time goes on, their relationship remains physically unconsummated; for Lolita, because she feels like a sister to Vargalys; for Vargalys, because if he had her, he’d have to kill her. Vargalys wants nobody else to have her either, and for something to happen to her that would mutilate her. “Only then, when the entire world has turned away from her, will she understand how much I love her.” Immediately after having this thought, Vargalys acknowledges that it stems from his insanity, but it’s still the logic of an abuser.

Lolita’s thoughts centre on the concept of innocence. She tells Vargalys about the construct her mother installed into her head as a child – consummate innocence, a concept focused on maintaining sexual purity for as long as possible but mixed in with a more abstract innocence that avoided building knowledge of the world. It left six-year-old Lolita with an idea of innocence as a hairy beast living inside her that mustn’t be touched. As an adult, she began to understand innocence as a national illness, a way for Lithuanians to avoid the truth of the world around them, a means of denying the horrors done to them and in their name. For Lolita, watching her mother behave in a way that denied her experience of the world, almost as though she was personally trying to make amends for Eve taking a bite of an apple in the Garden of Eden, innocence became something she was determined to lose by trying everything, “to constantly look, to look for something never seen, never experienced, never known”. Lolita is the opposite of the compliant citizens that Vargalys observes around him, and it is this quality that means he feels he can almost trust Lolita.

Vargalys periodically tries to refute his own belief in Them and their mission to turn the world into a place where nobody thinks for themselves but are grouped into factions – something Vargalys refers to as kanuking. If They don’t exist, he argues, “How can you explain that always and everywhere, as far as you can see, one idiot rules a thousand intelligent people, and they quietly obey?” It’s a good question, speaking as someone who struggles to understand why so many people in the country where I live, in the face of so much evidence of government doing harm to the majority in order to benefit a very precisely defined minority, believe that Boris Johnson is doing a good job. The problem with Vargalys’s conspiracy theory, as with most, is that he can’t explain why They do what They do – what the end purpose is, what they get out of manipulating people on a global scale. I suppose it’s easier to attribute the hell you’re living in to some greater power manipulating the world, than it is to acknowledge that it’s just human nature and a lust for power that creates autocrats and one party states, on both sides of the political divide.

The background to who Vargalys is, is his childhood, revealed in recollections scattered throughout his narrative. He grew up during the 1930s, becoming a teenager by the time the Russians took control of Lithuania in 1944. He witnessed his father’s descent into alcoholism, unable to contend with both the strength of character of his own father, Vargalys’s grandfather, and the work he must do when first the Nazis and then the Soviets occupy Lithuania. He plays by the railway tracks that carry Jews and other Lithuanians in cattle trucks to concentration camps, reading the letters thrown from those trucks in the hope that they will find their way to the people left behind before they, too, are taken. It’s sobering reading, both the confirmation of the atrocities of the past, and the callousness of Vargalys and the boy he plays with towards the letters they see as nothing more than toys.

Vargalys claims to have accidentally saved three Jewish children during the Nazi occupation, hiding them away, in response to his grandfather being punished for resisting a group of Nazis who visit the family home. Stefanija later reveals that it is the grandfather who saves Jews from deportation and murder. The children are with an old Jewish man who disappears after entrusting the children to Vargalys. Elsewhere in the novel, old Jewish men appear to Vargalys at moments of crisis, symbolic of wisdom and a people who are beyond notions of nationhood and citizenship. Unfortunately, Gavelis is at best clumsy in his depiction of Jews as a trope, presenting them as caricatures.

Vargalys also witnessed, as a youth, his mother’s silence and her attempts to find solace in a sexual relationship with one of the farmhands, the brother of the woman who relieved Vargalys of his virginity. At the age of 17, he was taken to a Russian labour camp, living among men, leaving as an adult who has had little experience of the world, unable to form a balanced relationship with anyone, shattered as a human being. It felt as though Gavelis was suggesting that Vargalys’s experience explains his attitude towards women. He has Vargalys say, when considering mutilating Lolita, that his insanity is “A stinking soap, boiled from the corpses of the camp.”

Stefanija and Martynas tell other stories about Vargalys’s youth, his time as a rebel with the Forest Brothers that led to his deportation, and about the Vargalys family more broadly. It’s a shifting picture drawn by unreliable witnesses, people who rely more on hearsay than fact.

This unreliability is a feature of the narration in part four. A dog stalks as a bit part character in all three of the previous parts. He gets his voice in the fourth, and reveals himself to be a reincarnated Gediminas. He makes for a very philosophical dog, ruminating on truth, religion, the wheel of life. He tells us that the disparities between the narratives that have gone before don’t matter; Vargalys, Lolita, Martynas, Stefanija, everyone in the story is all the things others think of them and none of those things. The only facts are that they exist, or existed and are now dead. These disparities and their unimportance are down to the nature of Vilnius as a city, the dog Gediminas says.

There’s nothing real in Vilnius anymore. Its houses can change, switch places, disappear, and then show up again. Its people can apparently be several places at once, act several different ways at the same time, and invent not just their future, but their past too. It’s always because they have neither a real past, nor a real future. It’s always because the city itself lies shamelessly, so it has taught its inhabitants to lie too.

I went to stay at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales, while reading this novel, and took the opportunity to find work by another Lithuanian writer, the poet Czeslaw Milosz. His poems ‘Lithuania, After Fifty-Two Years’ and ‘City of My Youth’ are the words of an old man returning to the place he once called home, and are kinder to Vilnius than Gavelis is. Milosz is ethnically Polish; Vilnius is Wilno to him. He was born there in 1911, but left for Poland and then America. I dipped into his essay collection Beginning With My Streets, an informal autobiography, to learn more about him and his Vilnius. From his ‘Dictionary of Wilno Streets’, written in 1967 when Milosz hadn’t been in Vilnius for 30 years, I learnt that prostitution in the city was a firmly established profession along the lines of that depicted in Dostoevsky’s work, as a function of a society in which men’s sexual needs are more efficiently serviced in the brothel than the marriage bed. I also learnt that Polish was the dominant culture of Lithuania from the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with Lithuanian culture kept firmly to the servant and working classes. In his ‘Dialogue about Wilno with Tomas Venclova’ from 1979, Milosz compares Vilnius’s complex history with that of Trieste, a place occupied by other nations, never truly part of anywhere, something I have only recently become familiar with through Jan Morris’s book about that port city. Milosz was a child of pre-Soviet Lithuania; Venclova a Lithuanian poet who grew up during the Soviet occupation. Milosz describes the bristling defensiveness of the Lithuanians towards Polish culture “because it was ‘denationalizing'” – something that comes through strongly in Gavelis’s book. Venclova describes Vilnius as a city that, although architecturally the same as Wilno, is culturally and spiritually different, thanks to the Soviet influence. Much of what he says about Vilnius losing its normality is echoed in Vilnius Poker, particularly Vargalys’s perception of the city. Venclova is a similar age to Vargalys, and explains that there was an independent Lithuania, separate from Vilnius, which sat at the junction of Poland and Lithuania, and that most ethnic Lithuanians only came to Vilnius in the aftermath of Hitler’s invasion. Vilnius was very much a Polish city before 1939. In Venclova’s youth, the large Jewish population had largely been annihilated and most of the Poles had moved to Poland. Under the Russians, Lithuanian culture didn’t exist, and the names of Lithuanian writers and translators were censored, many killed in Stalinist purges. He also describes how entire families would be deported to Siberia because the head of the family had served in the Lithuanian Army. This was all useful context for understanding Gavelis’s book.

I’ve explored the reasons why Vilnius Poker intrigued and revolted me. I feel like I should say something more positive about it. The thing I liked, setting aside all other things, was how literary the novel is. Gavelis positions Vargalys as someone well read, who refers directly to Nietzsche, Kafka and Beckett, in passing to Camus, Genet and Joyce, and critiques the philosophies of Socrates and Plato. Aristotle, Shakespeare, Hume and Einstein also get a look-in. Martynas also has a literary bent.

I also appreciated the four narrative voices, and the unpeeling of events from different perspectives to build a picture of a group of people who have varying truths and a city where suspicion and paranoia poison everything. For the record, my favourite narrator was the dog.

18 thoughts on “Vilnius Poker

  1. You make this sound so intriguing with its idiosyncratic narrator and atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, despite its implied misogyny. Would I read it? I’m not convinced—having lived through the Cold War I’m not keen to relive it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a difficult one for me to say whether I would recommend it or not, Chris. There’s a lot to recommend it, not least its structure and philosophical bent. For me personally, the Cold War setting is a big selling point. It was the backdrop to my childhood, ending as my twenties began, and an implied threat throughout, while simultaneously seeming very distant. I’m fascinated by accounts of life within the USSR and the Eastern Bloc. This particular account was grim, though. Definitely not for everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I long had nightmares in the 1960s and 70s of conflict, and especially being paralysed by visions of atomic bomb explosions. The current regimes of Poland and Hungary have brought memories of those times back to me, though I believe a coalition of parties may threaten Viktor Organ’s repressive government in the coming elections.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I can well imagine. We were shown films in primary school about what to do in the event of nuclear attack. I was too young, I think, to really understand what they meant.

        Fingers crossed that democracy prevails in Hungary and Orban (I might start calling him Organ) doesn’t go full autocrat.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I was the same. I have a couple more on my list now from Noir Press – Renata Serelyte’s The Music Teacher and
      Rasa Askinyte’s The Easiest. It will be interesting to hear female voices from Lithuania.


  2. I’m astonishing at your stamina in getting through a book which seems so distasteful in so many ways. I doubt if I’d have shared your persistence, or been promoted to write such a thoughtful piece after. My Eastern European ethnic origins should perhaps make me put the book on my TBR list. But … nope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a feeling you’d say that, Margaret! I don’t regret persevering but I wonder if I would have chosen it knowing what I know of its contents now.

      Where in Eastern Europe do your predecessors hail from?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My father was one of those Poles who came to join the RAF at the beginning of WWII. He never talked much about his past, and as he’s been dead for years, I shall never know now.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. We don’t think to ask when we’re young, do we? They’re just mum and dad, not people who had a life before we existed. What an admirable reason for moving to another country, though.

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