On Lithuanian literature

  • Author
    Eugenijus Ališanka

Lithuanian literature in the 20th century was marked by plateaux and sudden drops. After the country declared its independence in 1918, its literature expanded and came to life again. The possibilities to get better acquainted with European culture and literature, the abundance of literary journals, and the changes in social life were all conducive to its flowering. Alongside poetry, the genre that usually pre­vails in societies which have no possibilities for free dissemination, the novel, capable of reflecting existential and social processes, thrived. War and occupa­tion, however, interrupted this process.

During the Second World War, about 70 per cent of Lithuanian writers fled to the West. Most of them later settled in the USA. Therefore, the most significant literary discoveries bearing signs of the trauma were made there, on the other side of the Atlantic. The creative work of emigres was banned in Lithuania; however, it nonetheless reached readers through various illegal channels. Today we may say with confidence that emigre poets such as Antanas Mackus, Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas and Henrikas Radauskas are writers of a European standard.

However, writers who found themselves abroad felt alien, they did not try, or perhaps were unable, to integrate into the foreign culture. Therefore, today, these authors are almost unknown to foreign readers, although their influence on Lithua­nian literature is profound. After the reestablishment of independence, many of these authors were published in Lithuania again, their work received a lot of atten­tion, and it eventually allowed Lithuanian literature to form a more integral whole.

 

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Lithuania's return to Europe, which has been going on for over ten years now [2004], reached its final stage this year. The country became a member of the European Union and Nato. For 50 years it was part of the invisible side of Europe, but cher­ished European values even under the difficult conditions of oppression, behind the Iron Curtain. Thus, the euphoria with which Lithuanians joined the EU is un­derstandable. It was a long-awaited return, after almost all hope had been lost.

But today the time for euphoria is over, and the country is starting a new life which will pose its own questions and present new problems. Next to the hope of creating properly functioning democratic mechanisms and the opportunity to be better off, we will constantly have to tackle the issue of our identity. It has not so far been crossed off the European agenda. In the near future, we will have to formulate it in a slightly different way. Will we remain on the periphery of Europe, from a geographical and a cultural point of view? Will the attempts to cr.eate a "regional Europe", in which the "centre/periphery" division is alien, be successful? Will Lithuania become a fully-fledged region?

This will, to a large part, depend not only on decisions made in Brussels. A nation's identity is not something fixed. It is in a continuous process of creation. Thus, beyond any doubt, we will have what we create under new political and economic conditions, in an atmosphere of openness and creative dialogue.

This year is not only significant because we have joined the European commu­nity. To commemorate the centenary of the recovery of our language, the year 2004 was declared The Year of the Language. For four decades the Tsarist authorities banned writing in Lithuanian. Despite the ban, or maybe because of it, Lithuanians preserved the language as an essential element of their identity. Today special attention is being paid to the native language; thus it is not threatened with the same fate that befell Irish.

These two events, accession to the European Union and the centenary of the restoration of the language, combine the future and the past. They are significant to what matters to us today, which also includes literature. Good literature always thrives between the future and the past; therefore, it also plays an important role in creating a nation's identity. Today, Lithuanian literature tries to avoid such trite phrases, but it does not distance itself from the vital issues. Sometimes it approaches those issues with an old-fashioned seriousness; sometimes with irony; sometimes simply with wisdom.

 

[From THE VILNIUS REVIEW 2004-2005]