Vilnius Poker – Ričardas Gavelis

I received Vilnius Poker through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme. It’s published by Open Letter Books, who publish only books in translation – “contemporary literary fiction from around the world that is unique, distinctive, and that will have a significant impact on world literary conversation.” The package included a catalogue and, while I don’t expect to subscribe to the twelve books a year, several other books did look worth buying.

Like many others who’ve read this book I found it very hard going in the beginning. The first seventy or so pages hop around between about four different timelines with little indication of where one stops and the other begins. Some sections were set in an italic font which would seem to indicate this was supposed to be a digression from the narrative, but even within those things were fragmentary. The use of italic sections gradually petered out, I’m not sure if this was intentional or the translator just gave up.

I mentioned narrative above, and this is actually the problem with the whole first section – the lack of a coherent story, a framework to fit things into in your mind. It’s a stream of consciousness delivery, and the paranoid and deranged consciousness of Vytautas Vargalys at that. His experiences of childhood, time in a labour camp, ‘real’ time spent walking around the city and hallucinations are freely mixed from one paragraph to the next. If this disorienting effect is what the author was aiming for then it has to be said that it’s very well done, but from the point of view of the reader it’s extremely hard work. Perhaps it’s made more difficult due to my unfamiliarity with Vilnius itself, the experience of reading was something like swimming in the open sea with no visible landmarks, I just had to hope that by swimming along I would be getting somewhere.

Fortunately, after the difficult beginning, the book did settle down a bit and a coherent story began to emerge. As it moved on to the other two main narrators, Martynas Poška and Stefanija Monkevičiūtė it became progressively clearer. I enjoyed the way the different characters remembered the same events very differently and this coloured their interpretation, and yet they end up coming close to arriving at the same conclusions. You also start to appreciate just how crazy Vytautas was as you see his behaviour from the point of view of others. It was also quite amusing how the two men seem to completely ignore Stefanija even though she turns out to have been present at many of the events they describe in their own narratives. Indeed, each narrator seems to be more reliable than the previous one, culminating in the final narrator who, in a clever twist, confirms some of the more outlandish paranoid ravings of Vargalys and so reveals him to be not quite so unreliable as initially suspected.

I found completing Vilnius Poker satisfying, but I wouldn’t describe it as an enjoyable experience – there were certainly clever and funny moments, but getting to them was hard work. I’m glad I’ve read it, but I won’t be re-reading it any time soon.

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