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Tomas Vaiseta (b. 1984) is a Lithuanian writer, historian and associate professor at the Faculty of History of Vilnius University. His debut collection of short stories Paukščių miegas (The Sleep of Birds, 2014) and his novel Orfėjas, kelionė pirmyn ir atgal (Orpheus: A Journey There and Back, 2016) were included in the top five books for adults in the Book of the Year selection in Lithuania. His latest novel, Ch., was nominated for European Union Prize for Literature 2022 and was awarded the Jurga Ivanauskaitė Literary Prize 2022, it was also included in The List of Top Twelve Most Creative Books of 2021 in Lithuania. Vaiseta has also written three historical monographs: Nuobodulio visuomenė (Society of Boredom, 2014), Vasarnamis (Summerhouse, 2018) and together with historian Valdemaras Klumbys - Mažasis o: seksualumo kultūra sovietų Lietuvoje (The Little O: Culture of Sexuality in Soviet Lithuania, 2022).

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Dovilė Kuzminskaitė

by
Dovilė Kuzminskaitė

 

 

Photo by Nina Rivas
Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

Birute Grasyte review 02Tomas Vaiseta. Ch, Baltos lankos, 2021

If contemporary Lithuanian literature (or Lithuanian literature in general) has any examples of intellectual fiction, without a doubt one such example is a novel by Tomas Vaiseta, titled Ch and published in 2021. Vaiseta is a historian and author of books on Soviet Lithuania, so it is no surprise that he constructs his novel through a conceptual rather than emotional or visual approach. We have seen a similar approach in his 2016 novel titled Orpheus, the Journey Forward and Backward, which is conceptually concerned with art, while the leitmotif of Ch is language and the very act of speaking.

The novel is as mysterious as the title itself, recommended to be pronounced as “Cha” and easily associated by Lithuanian readers with laughter (“Ha”). However, it is up to the reader to answer the question of who does the laughing – is life laughing at Charlie, or is Charlie laughing at the reader? Does history laugh at culture? Or perhaps laughing has nothing to do with the novel at all? In Umberto Eco’s terms, Ch is an open text, accessible through the reader’s commitment to interpret it. The novel takes place in a multidimensional theater environment where the boundaries between reality and fantasy as well as reality and fiction are nonexistent, perhaps because they aren’t required anymore. So it could be said that fiction and re-creation are among the foundational elements of the novel.

The hero of Ch is a stagehand named Šarlis (Charlie), who Vaiseta describes as a “little man,” in other words, someone who speaks from a position of inferiority (despite his regal name, Charlie persistently excuses himself and discursively flirts with the reader throughout the novel, clearly establishing the latter’s superiority). Charlie’s exceptional in his averageness – he does not go on great quests, does not ponder deep thoughts, and his biography is free of plot twists. Charlie is a humble servant with a conflicting and ambiguous personality who belongs backstage. He makes no attempt to engage in leadership or competition, does not “seize” any moment, and makes no attempt to become the postmodern individual that is revered in the twenty-first century.

On the other hand, the mere fact that Charlie gets so open and carried away with his thoughts and the way he sees the world implies that he’s aware of his desire and his right to be heard, while some of the ideas that he has are radical and perhaps uncharacteristic of the humble little man. It is true that Charlie does not hide his multifaceted personality. He says the following: “Ambiguity is like a gate that closes behind us without a sound, but the lock stays open. As if the gate were politely telling us, your way ahead, we will protect you from everything on the other side, but if some misfortune were to happen, if something unplanned were to transpire, or if you were to decide to get out and go on searching for another path, open us and go where you please. A direct person is not a free person – one who does not hear the calling of the gate. One deaf from the obligation to oneself and one who seeks deafen the others. How can we, allow us to ask without some concealed audacity, endure this directness among everyone?” (p. 22). The novel’s  readers may seek connections between Charlie and other literary personas or even with the author himself, but I see Charlie first as a reflection of the human condition: Charlie exposes our own contradictions, insecurities, and our nagging ego, arrogant yet in pursuit of validation, an image of ourselves that we avoid, instead presenting ourselves as infallible, clear-cut – something which does not interest Vaiseta. “Order requires boredom and resignation” (p. 45), says Charlie, hinting at our frequent passion for fixing our personal lives and our own subconscious.

Despite how the novel seemingly implies the importance of chaos as a creative power, Ch is not an impulsively written work. On the contrary – a contemplation of the novel shows us the author’s penchant for strategizing throughout the multiple layers of the novel. For example, the inner structure of the novel fluctuates between the poles of intertextuality in the general sense, with references to the Bible, the Middle Ages, and various cultural works of literature, and human drama. Charlie is not merely a worker diligently preparing the theater for a staging of the martyrdom of St. Dionysus, during which the actors on stage in fact die in a macabre fashion, but also a father mourning the loss of his daughter, who hides in the dark, closed theater to escape his own pain. Thus, light and darkness, as well as life and death, collide on stage as well as in Charlie’s mind. Other characters of the novel undergo similar dramas and tensions, namely the actors of the theater, who serve as a chorus to Charlie’s speech.

As I said earlier, Ch is concerned with language. The novel is essentially actionless; save for a few interludes of cats fighting and chasing each other and a couple of other fragmentary episodes, not much happens in the story (perhaps this is why on more than one occasion a certain guru of Lithuanian literary criticism gave their verdict on the novel – “boring”). Yet in the novel, speaking is of the essence – Charlie’s ruminations may irritate, but they grow on the reader and allow the story to reveal its beauty. Ch is also a novel that ensnares the reader – one must sit through it like an experience, even losing the sense of magic of reading in the process. Ch serves as a manifesto of its own kind – an attempt to prove that art can leave space for itself to ruminate. It doesn’t have to talk of events and happenings; it doesn’t always need to teach, profess, or postulate. Charlie keeps revolving around language, stumbling on his own ideas and arguments – in the same sense as he wanders the obscure and seemingly infinite space of the theater, comprised of nooks and crannies. Yet even though the novel is built on what Charlie is saying, it has no characteristics of confessional literature and does not offer an intimate look at the protagonist. It is more focused on existential contemplations and philosophical discourses on being, especially concerning its connection to culture. Vaiseta tests the limits of time, space, language, and even the reader’s patience, devising a Borges-like ordeal meant to separate those who will withstand the text from those who’ll yield to the weight of its discourse.

Therefore, I’d say that Ch is an insistently non-contemporary novel that goes against the prevailing literary trends of sociopolitics, economics, autofictional “weeping”, and investigation of trauma. The novel’s language and theme have a note of historicity, if not perpetuality, as if the text is independent of the flow of time, for it testifies not to circumstances of reality but to undertones of being.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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