Though Lithuania has yet to export a Jo Nesbo styled writer of thrillers, or a Baltic Henning Mankell, an increasing number of its most respected authors are now finding their way into the hands of English readers.
Over the last few years, Noir Press has published six writers (seven novels): three women and three men.
While the themes and styles of the novels have varied wildly, darkness seems to stalk the undergrowth of most Lithuanian fiction
The novels of the three women could not be more distinct; one is a post-modern detective novel, one a family drama and the third a whimsical love story.
Yet unifying all is the dangerous tug of a dark undercurrent.
Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite’s Breathing into Marble (translated by Marija Marcinkute), which won the European Union Prize for Literature, tells the story of an adoption that goes badly wrong. The novel is written in beautiful, poetic prose. World Literature Today wrote about its ‘sensual’ detail. But it is a disturbing novel about an abused, obsessive woman teetering on the edge of madness.
In tone, Rasa Askinyte’s playful The Easiest (translated by Jura Avizienis) could not be more different. The novel, which describes a young woman’s infatuation with a man called Alex, is light and laugh-out-loud funny and plays with form, including Wikipedia-esque entries and a list of the character’s previous lives. Yet here too, the lightness feels skin deep; beneath the glitter there is an existential hole.
While madness lurks beneath the surface of both Breathing into Marble and The Easiest, it is centre stage in Renata Serelyte’s clever detective novel The Music Teacher (translated by Marija Marcinkute). Set in a provincial Soviet town, it tells the story of an investigation into the murder of a young woman at a local hotel. It quickly becomes clear, however, that the culprit is both known to the female detective and intent upon murdering her too. As the plot develops, the narrative becomes increasingly distorted as the detective is infected by the poisonous plants left as gifts on her desk.
While in the female fiction, the darkness is often internal or domestic, for the male writers it is the external world that seeks to squeeze the light from the world.
The novels of Grigory Kanovich and Saulius Saltenis depict the effects of the Second World on Lithuania’s Jewish population. Kanovich was born in 1932 in Jonava, Lithuania. In Shtetl Love Song (translated by Yisrael Elliot Cohen) he paints a loving portrait of his pre-war Jewish home which comes to a shattering, heart-thumping conclusion with the invasion of Nazi Germany in the final pages of the book. His novel Devilspel (translated by Yisrael Elliot Cohen), which won the EBRD Prize for Literature, picks up the story of the German occupation with the tale of inhabitants of the imaginary village of Mishkine.
However, despite the darkness of Kanovich’s novels, what shines through is the humanity of the storyteller.
The problems are altogether more fantastical in Jaroslavas Melnikas’ book of short stories The Last Day (translated by Marija Marcinkute), which won the BBC Prize for Books in Ukraine when it was first published. The title story tells of the effects of the discovery of a set of books cataloguing the death dates of everyone living on the planet, while another story chronicles of the growing horror of the narrator as he discovers that one-by-one the rooms in his up-market apartment are disappearing until eventually he find himself sharing a bed in a Kommunalki.
(Stephan Collishaw is the author of ‘A Child Called Happiness’ and ‘The Song of the Stork’. He the Founder and Editor at Noir Press.)