Feverish novel about life in the closing days of Soviet-ruled Lithuania—though just who’s in charge doesn’t matter, since it’s always Them.
Gavelis (1950–2002), a physicist by profession, wrote this novel from 1979 to 1987, publishing it in that magical year 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire began its collapse; this is the first time the book has been translated into English. Gavelis’ vision, prescient in several respects and perhaps absurd in others, recalls both the alternate worlds of Stanislas Lem (and, for that matter, Richard Price) and the acerbity of Vilnius-born Csezlaw Milosz. Its protagonist/antihero, Vytautas Vargalys, has done a spell in the Gulag and been repaid for that injustice with a busywork job that pays the bills but has no meaning: He is a digital archivist in a library that no one is allowed to visit or consult. “But,” he says, “there is an ordinary world too, the real world; you always return to it, you’ll never escape it—just as you’ll never escape from Them.” Obsessed by the female form (“I was a headless stuffed dummy, a doll drowsing on a bed of dreamy breasts”), among other things, Vytautas finds it ever more difficult to distinguish reality from the hallucinogenic world that lies behind his eyes. What he is sure of, however, is that They are in charge, and the rest of his compatriots and indeed the citizens of the world have ignored Them because they are bombarded with “impressions, images, and words” that disguise the real reality, so to speak. As the narrative progresses, it becomes ever more perceptibly unhinged, paying homage to Céline and Dostoevsky as Vytautas encounters odd, dangerous people in the street who are beginning to figure things out for themselves, including one threatening character who “smells like a holy man who has murdered his own God.”
Think of it as The Matrix behind the Iron Curtain—unsettling and profoundly interesting.