About 150 pages into Ričardas Gavelis's Vilnius Poker, I am overcome with the desire for visual images of the city of Vilnius itself—one of the strongest presences in this dark and gripping novel.
She improvises as she speaks, returning to the same place (in the story and in the city) a hundred times, or turning in circles, or wandering aimlessly. She starts to talk about her village, about her grandparents, and I know we'll shortly turn up in Gediminas Square. Mentioning her husband, we're surely cutting across Vokiečių Street (now it's Muziejaus). Her jazz of words and routes has become part of me; we're not just walking through Vilnius, but through my internal streets, too.
The water of the Neris turns and turns in a circle, you can wade into the same stream many times. You can scoop up a handful of water that saw the founding of Vilnius, drink a gulp the Iron Wolf once drank. You fling a pebble into the murky current, it plops into the water, and its echo summons some ancient sound, words pronounced once upon a time—maybe even your own.
I remember the day and the place very well. The same place: across from the Russian Orthodox Church on Basanavičiaus Street. The day was sunny and clear—not just externally, but also on the inside.
Now Vilnius itself is a dream city, a ghost city. [...] Only the ancient castle in the new city is unavoidably real: a lonely tower, emerging from the overgrown slopes of the hill—the phallic symbol of Vilnius. It betrays all secrets. The symbolic phallus of Vilnius: short, stumpy and powerless. An organ of pseudo-powers that hasn't been able to get aroused in a long time.
Vilnius is a giant cocktail, stirred together by the insane gods of fog. If a city could exist alone, without people, Vilnius would be the City of all cities. But it's people who express the spirit of a city, and if you attempt to understand what the figures in Vilnius's streets mean, what that atrophying spectacle in which you yourself play means, you'd immediately realize you're dreaming.
I walk slowly through a dream called Vilnius, while the weird sensation that all of this has already been pierces my brain. Once I went down the street in exactly the same way, in exactly the same way I considered what the dream—the yellowish leaves, blown about by the wind, and the old house in the depths of a garden—could mean...
I got dressed and went out to wander the streets. Something inside of me forced me to take just exactly that route, pushed me along like a doll. Vilnius turned into an empty, meaningless labyrinth in which you could wander until you died without ever understanding there is no exit, that this is an absolute labyrinth. The kind where you'd never come across a dead end—that's how gigantic it is.
All excerpts from Vilnius Poker, by Ričardas Gavelis, translated from the Lithuanian by Elizabeth Novickas.