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Virginija Kulvinskaitė is a writer. She is the author of three books – the poetry collection Antrininkė (Doppelganger, 2017, Naujas vardas), the novel kai aš buvau malalietka (when i was a malalietka, 2019, Kitos knygos), and the short story collection Keturi (Four, 2023, Kitos knygos). Her writing has been translated into English, German, French, Russian, Latvian, and Ukrainian.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

by
Lina Buividavičiūtė

 

 

Translated by Diana Barnard

 

Virginija Kulvinskaitė, Keturi. - K.: Kitos knygos, 2023

I was looking forward to the third book by Virginija Kulvinskaitė: I was particularly curious about the turn the author would take after her auto-fictional novel kai aš buvau malalietka (when i was a malalietka). This time it’s Keturi (Four), short stories told in the name of the Other, from the point of view of the Other. A small book – like a nut that can't be cracked. I've read it several times, and I'm still identifying new meanings and layers. I think that for a work of literature, that’s a sign of quality and impact.

Creation of meaning begins right from the cover of the book. It depicts four symbol-“stuffed” sushi, or rather abjects[1] (Kulvinskaitė uses the term coined by Julia Kristeva), which represent four characters in the stories. The choice of Japanese cuisine is also purposeful and becomes a symbol of strangeness, altered reality, and uncertainty: Lukas, the hero of the first story, is treated to this still somewhat exotic food by a Pajūris book club member. It should be noted that the function of the symbol is amplified and unfolded by additional circumstances: Lukas does not know how to use chopsticks, and the women of the seaside eat the dish in a predatory manner. This implies that the protagonist finds himself in an environment yet unexplored, a kind of quasi- or turning-point reality that frightens and entices at the same time. Also, the sinister, fatalistic, and vital nature of seaside witch-women resonates with horror stories, a genre of children's folklore. These are stories about a menacing world, about unexpected and unmotivated death, which would typically be told by 7-12-year-old children. “Give me your heart” is one of those horror stories that resonates in the first story of the book. In a sense, Lukas will have to surrender his heart – it is for this purpose that such an abject has been chosen for the book cover.

The second abject is a sharp-toothed girl who the heroine, Inga, meets at the end of the story and who bears an eerie resemblance to her. The ambiguity of this motif and the end of the text itself should not be overlooked. The girl may symbolize both death and renewal, that is, a person merging with their true self. The heroine reflects on this ambiguity: “There are only two things you can’t escape, yourself and your death” (p. 60).

A bullfinch is the abject in the third story. Like in the second text, here the underlying motif occurs at the end of the story. Marius finds a dead bullfinch in the snow, and for a moment he thinks he sees his own reflection in the “black bottomless” eye of the bird. It is the assertion and taming of death, the “profession” of Marius, an adult, because the bodies that “do not flinch, flounder, or try to escape” look “so calm. Lifeless” (p. 89).

The fourth text and its abject is lilacs, in full blossom at the time of the narrative. On the one hand, it is life and the time that implies light. Yet the fragrance of the lilacs in the story is as though “it is their last blossom” (p. 93). At the end of the story, we see that for one of the characters, it was indeed the last spring of lilacs in blossom.

Once the key symbols of the four short stories have been displayed, it is somewhat easier to grasp the axes of these texts and how they could be reduced to a common denominator. Keturi is most united by the complexity of the characters' selves and psyches, by the ambiguous interpretations of their actions and choices. While reading, I thought that the main characters of the stories were “impassable,” “indescribable,” ever evolving, and infinite. It would be easy to write off the stories of Inga and Marius to the traumas of childhood and the teenage years, to that early life-changing lovelessness and abandonment. However, this only partially applies to the interpretation of Kulvinskaitė's texts and does not exhaust the identified mystery and complexity. There is no doubt that traumatic events of the past, dependencies, and co-dependencies can make a huge difference, but the darkness of the past does not help to solve unequivocally the riddle of human existence. While reading the stories of the protagonists, it often seemed to me that the characters are also incognizant to themselves: they do not fully understand what they will choose in the end, how they will solve their dilemmas, where they will go, and what they will do “after.” For example, the protagonist of the third story, Marius, when still a child, begins to realise that there are no definitive, self-evident answers to the question “why”: “Grownups always ask ‘why,’ but Marius has no idea what he should or could answer. Why?” (p. 76). The ending of the story is also significant: the boy realizes that although he still has many “kilometers” before him, “he is not even aware of where he is going” (p. 89). The open ending of Inga's story, which has already been discussed in this review, is particularly suited to the enigmatic nature of the human self and existence. Nora's part is just as ambiguous. It would seem that this naive, independent woman in her early fifties is blindly slaving away and pandering to her lover, the drug addict Denis. Yet the subtle details reveal important nuances: about a person’s sense of their own power, about the conditionality of love, possessiveness, and the peculiar happiness of holding a “dead bullfinch” in their palm or the dead body of the beloved in their arms – never again will you be abandoned, you will always have a frozen image and a memory: “But you can't do anything – sometimes you have to feel your power. Make amends. Everything in this world, even unconditional love, has the other side” (p. 100); “But Nora doesn’t see it. Because it’s only one side. Nora chooses the other. Kneeling on the wet floor, she is cradling Denis and weeping with joy. Denis won’t leave. He will never ever leave her again. He won’t betray or hurt her again. Nora is smiling sweetly” (p. 111). The motifs of the stories are also linked by a kind of menace: Lukas’s encounter with the seaside “witches,” Inga's hunches that “someone is following behind” (p. 60). Also, a fresh treatment of nature motifs: in short stories, nature frightens, triggers confrontation, points to discrepancies between external reality and the inner state: “Children hate nature inherently. Only later they are persuaded that nature is good. That the world is good. But nature is cruel – we have to fight to survive. There is simply no other way out” (p. 24). Lukas goes on to say that the human is a stranger to the world: while reading the stories, I kept thinking of (self-) destruction, the sweet temptation of darkness and decay; I felt the reflections of existentialism and the philosophy of the absurd.

I would like to point out yet again that it is not only external motifs that connect the stories: it is also the setting, a fictitious seaside town. The characters travel through the book – they just flit through a story, and in the next one we learn about a new character. The inner motifs are also important – the way in which the worlds of Marius and Nora and the aforementioned motifs of the “dead bullfinch” and the “dead lover” interact, Inga and Denis’s self-destruction, Tadas and Nora’s codependence, the altered reality of Lukas and Inga.

The overall setting – a fictional seaside town – deserves a couple of words as well. It is a conditional symbolic space, a peculiar connecting and decision-making place, which at the same time implies the state of being stuck and the need to go on and look further. This is what Kulvinskaitė says about the setting of her stories: “A nameless town where all the stories are set is also a symbol. It is a space of transformation, temporality, and uncertainty, a town-limbo where those stay, who for some reason cannot go to heaven, hell, or purgatory.”

Having discussed the connecting motifs, I would like to expand on the differences between the stories. For this I chose to discuss the characteristics and individual approaches in two of them. Lukas's story with its macabre and dark humor is also about the discrepancy between projections and reality: a well-known writer who poses on a magazine cover, and a man upbraided by his common-law wife, plagued by insecurity and ignorance, and unable to contribute his share of payments. It also addresses the essence of the genre of auto-fiction, the projections of the people around, and a writer's peculiar destiny to “sell out” – the women of the book club welcome Lukas as an exotic exhibit, and they are not particularly interested in his spiel on postmodernism and the literary divide between the “I–not-I.” The second – Inga's – story stands out for its self-destructive motifs and the effects of trauma, but as mentioned above, this does not exhaust the complexity and motivation of the heroine’s inner world. Sex and alcohol “would disconnect Inga from her self” (p. 41). Inner emptiness, lack of fulfilment, and the failure to unfold her true self are vital motives for Inga's behavior. The plot line of Inga's ex-husband Tadas is also important. The more Inga moves away, the more obsessed with her and even more dependent on her he becomes. The internal crack is revealed by relevant details in the story. A little girl is holding a ladder on which her mother is standing and cleaning the cobwebs in the corners. And Inga’s wish is “to see her fall.” Yet again I recall Camus's The Stranger and Mersault’s thought that all average people probably have, at one time or another, wished the death of those they loved.

Finally, I would like to note not only the “what” but also the “how.” Kulvinskaitė's short stories are cinematic and extremely atmospheric; she managed to create and maintain a unified whole, to choose impressive linguistic registers, to pay considerable attention to detail, to use intertextuality and interpret them authentically.

It’s an interesting, important, dark, and needed book, and it has many more layers that I have not discussed here.

 

1. According to Julia Kristeva, the abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. These reactions and states can be triggered by bodily experiences and conditions (open wound, faeces) and perceptions, even objects. The peculiarity of the experience of the abject is its polarity. That which is in a way “forbidden,” that which frightens and attracts at the same time (for more on the abject, see: Introduction to Julia Kristeva, Module on the Abject (purdue.edu).

 

 

 

 

 

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