Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Vilnius, Lithuania

Getting lost in a strange city can be unnerving, especially when you find yourself in the less salubrious areas, but having survived the experience it can be quite invigorating and leave you feeling that you have peered behind the tourist façade.
The centre of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius oozes quaintness: narrow cobbled streets, crumbling buildings, baroque churches – both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox – tavern-style bars and restaurants and even clanking armoured guards outside the presidential palace.
Surrounding the old city is a more functional belt of late 19th/early 20th century buildings rising three to four storeys and it was in this area that we ended up staying – a good 20 minute walk to the more picturesque part.
However, Lithuania is a former region of the USSR and that legacy is evident in the outlying suburbs where functional blocks of flats and industrial estates sprawl.
Most Lithuanian street names seem to have five or six syllables which when squeezed into a map can make them difficult to read – well that’s my excuse for getting lost anyway.
The advantage was a long peregrination into areas which were well of the beaten tourist trail but left me with a smug feeling of having experienced Vilnius in a more intimate way than if I had simply traipsed the cobbled roads and the not unpleasant streets leading back to the apartment where I was staying.
Although there is a distinct Lithuanian national identity the country has had historical ties with Poland and been claimed as part of Russia at various periods in its history. The onion-towered Orthodox churches stand testament to that legacy.
Lithuania’s 50-year membership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is grimly marked by The Museum of Genocide Victims located in the former headquarters of the KGB. Its main purpose is to remember the country’s partisans who resisted Soviet occupation until the mid-1950s. Tens of thousands were arrested and sent to gulags thousands of miles away, often with their entire families and their stories are told in words and pictures.
In the cellars below are dozens of prison cells where the dissidents were kept before being deported and where others, even deeper underground in a sinister bunker, were executed.
During the Second World War Lithuania was occupied by Nazi Germany and the country’s Jews were gathered into ghettos in Vilnius and murdered there or sent to concentration camps. Their fate is commemorated in a small but poignant museum and the former ghettos are close to the city centre.
There are more than 30 museums and art galleries listed on the tattered tourist map which led me astray but quite often these seemed to have disappeared or to be inexplicably closed.
A museum of Russian Art was closed on the two days that I tried to get in to it and a long trek – four kilometers each way – outside the city to visit a museum dedicated to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin also proved fruitless. There were signposts, but no museum, or at least I didn't see it.
Pushkin never actually visited Vilnius, although his grandfather lived there and one of his sons did as well. Neither did Californian psychedelic jazz-fusion guru Frank Zappa, but there is a statue to him in Vilnius anyway which, after a fair bit of searching I did manage to track down.
A 30-minute bus trip took us to the small town of Trakai on Galvė Lake, where a 16th century castle overlooks the surrounding lush green countryside and five linked lakes.
The architecture here is unique and refelcts the history of many of Trakai’s residents whose ancestors were brought from Crimea 700 years ago.
I was expecting the food to be stodgy – blood sausages and cabbage with a side of gherkins and stubborn black bread – and to be fair it was there if you wanted it. However, the menus in the restaurants that I visited were varied and surpsingly fresh and healthy.
A Ukrainian restaurant close to our apartment was a highlight with superb borscht and some excellent fish dishes. The surprise treat was a bowl of cold beetroot soup, served with a hard-boiled egg and a dollop of sour cream. It shouldn’t work but somehow it did.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Tres by Roberto Bolaño

A series of prose vignettes, an extended verse poem and a sequence of short meditations form the three sections of this bilingual collection.
The first and longest section, Prose from the Autumn in Gerona, reads like a series of scenes in a movie—an experimental European one—in which a narrator living in the Catalonia region of Spain reflects on his life and a nameless woman.
The narrator is a familiar Bolaño creation that, as with so many of his literary personas, reflects the life of the author: a Chilean who has come to Spain via Mexico, an illegal immigrant, a poet imbued with a sense of alienation.
Words, phrases, and images repeat themselves to create a shifting verbal “kaleidoscope” (one of the recurring words) that draws the reader inward.
“Paradise, at times, appears in the general arrangement of the kaleidoscope. A vertical structure covered in grey blotches. If I close my eyes I’ll see dancing in my head the reflections of helmets, the quaking of a field of spears, that thing you called jet. Also, if I cut the dramatic effects, I’ll see myself walking through the plaza by the cinema towards the post office, where I won’t find any letters.”
The next section, The Neochilians, is a verse narrative telling the adventures of a young band traveling through Chile and across the border into Peru.
It is peppered with proper names of band members and those they encounter and the place names of the towns they visit. Straightforward narrative is interwoven with philosophical musing.
It opens with the lines:
“The trip began one happy day in November,/But in a sense the trip was over/When we started./ All times coexist, said Pancho Ferri,/ the lead singer. Or they converge.”
Finally, A Stroll Through Literature is the most uneven section of Tres, burdened by an aimlessness that makes it seem as if it was just thrown together—a few lines on each page that are sometimes not all that interesting.
However, there are moments:
“In these ruins, father, where archeological remains are all that’s left of your laughter.”
Señor Bolaño’s writing can haunt, exposing tears in reality and shifts in perspective and there is plenty in this collection to satisfy those who have already been hooked by the late Chilean’s occasionally flawed but always stimulating output.