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Best-loved writer Gone with the Dreams

  • 2007-03-14
  • By Howard Jarvis

ESOTERIC KNOWLEDGE: Jurga Ivanauskaite, Lithuania's best-loved writer in 2006.

VILNIUS - Jurga Ivanauskaite is a unique figure in contemporary literature in the Baltic states. So much so that she has often been considered 's and considered herself 's an outcast from Lithuania's staid art establishment, an image created as much by her own individual style and outwardly exotic personality as by the often condescending attitudes shown towards her by much of the Lithuanian cultural elite.

However, as much since her tragic death last month from cancer at the age of 45 as when she was alive, Ivanauskaite remains Lithuania's best-loved writer. In her final years, after a great deal of searching and wandering, she achieved a kind of peace with her home country that brought her life and work to an oddly natural conclusion.
Born in 1961, Jurga Ivanauskaite graduated from the Vilnius Institute of Arts. Her paintings and photographs, which like her books underwent a complete transformation after her travels in India and Tibet in the mid-1990s, always draw crowds when exhibited.

They have been used to illustrate the covers of her books, including her three remarkable and highly personal works of non-fiction on Tibetan life and religion, "Istremtas Tibetas" (Tibet in Exile, 1996), "Kelione i Sambala" (Journey to Shambhala, 1997) and "Prarasta Pazadetoji zeme" (Lost Promised Land, 1999).

But it was her first books that established Ivanauskaite's reputation as an unconventional writer. They circulated widely among young people who had previously shown little interest in the turgid prose and poetry allowed through Glavlit, the Soviet literary watchdog. A book of short stories, "Pakalnuciu metai" (The Year of the Lilies of the Valley, 1985) and her debut novel "Menulio vaikai" (Children of the Moon, 1988) were reviewed with heavy irony, but were immediate popular successes.

Like Tomas Venclova before her, Ivanauskaite made use of her family's unusually rich library 's her grandfather was Kostas Korsakas, one of Lithuania's foremost Marxist literary critics 's to popularize non-Marxist ideas. In her case, this meant glamorizing Western attitudes, albeit in a rather naive, Gorbachev-era way. Her youthful characters played Beatles songs, enthused about surrealist painters, contemplated the mysticism of Castaneda, and were frequently misunderstood.
That a young woman could be a literary rebel was unheard of in Lithuania. Many critics ignored her books, as they did with anything they disapproved of. But her position was secured as the doyenne of "punk" in Lithuania.

They also made way for the literary sensation of the decade, "Vilniaus Pokeris" (Vilnius Poker, 1989) by Ricardas Gavelis. He, Ivanauskaite and other writers pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, so that Lithuanian literature was able to emerge from the confines of Soviet censorship and into the post-Soviet world of the 1990s. Subsidized, ideological writing was suddenly replaced by a commercial style that was a wild mix of inventive fantasy and neurotic national self-obsession.
Another sensation was to follow. Ivanauskaite's 1993 novel "Ragana ir lietus" (The Witch and the Rain) caused a national scandal. A love story told by three women 's a modern-day bohemian outsider, a medieval witch and Mary Magdalene 's it was immediately condemned in official circles as common pornography. The municipality of Vilnius banned the novel from the capital's bookstores, ruling that it could only be sold in shops selling erotic products.

There is nothing pornographic about "Ragana ir lietus," which has just been made into a film (see story, page 9), but the controversy didn't harm sales. The book quickly sold out, as 20,000 copies were bought in two weeks.
Having popularized Western attitudes, Ivanauskaite now turned her attention to introducing Tibet to Lithuania. Until her Tibetan trilogy, no books on Tibet had been available in Lithuanian.
A collection of traveler's tales and insights into the religion, political situation and everyday reality of Tibetans living in exile in Northern India, "Istremtas Tibetas" delves into the soul of one of the world's most spiritual societies. It has a personal foreword by the Dalai Lama, whose visit to Lithuania in 2001 Ivanauskaite helped to arrange.

The book is beautifully written. According to one literary critic, Almantas Samalavicius, "It is easy to notice that the book was written by a professional and observant writer, attentive to detail and everyday life, and this clearly enhances the authenticity."
The topic of Tibet chimes in well with the Lithuanian experience, and its fate of invasion and exile evokes painful memories. Lithuania was the only Soviet republic with a majority Catholic population, and priests were dealt with particularly severely.
In "Kelione i Sambal?," Ivanauskaite describes her personal experiences and her experiments with Buddhist spiritual practices, both joyful and laborious. It is, she said, "the story of my inner and outer journey." The book is illustrated with mandalas, which she painted at moments of intense inner conflict between her European background and her very new experiences of being instructed by lamas in Ladakh and Nepal.

"Prarasta Pazadetoji zeme" recounts another journey, this time into occupied Tibet. For some time before her departure in June 1998, her name had been on a Chinese blacklist as the leader of a Tibet support group in Lithuania. Reaching the sacred land by a "secret route via Hong Kong suggested by friends," she discovers not only the ruinous "lost promised land" of Tibet, but also the debilitating knowledge that the promised land of a pure inner state of mind and soul are lost forever to the people of the West, the author included.

In finally reaching Tibet Ivanauskaite accomplished one of her life's goals. But she recalled on her return the proverb that God will punish the man whose greatest wish He fulfills.
The despondent feel continued in her writing with "Sapnu nubloksti" (Gone with the Dreams, 2000), a novel that also took a Tibetan theme but this time with heavy irony, much of it targeted at the "spiritual supermarket" in which credulous Western students hope that enlightenment can be bought, while Eastern teachers sell ancient and powerful esoteric knowledge like antiquities in a bazaar.

In "Placebas" (Placebo, 2003), Jurga finally wrested herself away from Tibet to create a masterful satirical novel set in Vilnius. A journalist investigating the murder of a psychic discovers that the state authorities are not only behind the killing but also brainwashing the population using the media as part of a vast social experiment.
The next two years saw Ivanauskaite try out other genres of writing including a series of frank and personal interviews with well-known Lithuanian cultural figures, published as "Svelnus tardymai" (Tender Interrogations, 2005), a children's book about a Martian who comes to Earth in search of happiness, a celebrated book of poetry, and the last novel published in her lifetime, "Mieganciu drugeliu trirtove" (Fortress of the Sleeping Butterflies, 2005).
The novel is about a woman in a midlife crisis, feeling self-piteous about her failed marriage, who quite by accident finds herself taking care of several victims of human trafficking and prostitution, a subject that Ivanauskaite became deeply involved in during the course of her research.

The protagonist is partly based on the author herself, a very private individual who adopts a strong sense of public responsibility. This became an urgent theme for Ivanauskaite in the last year of her life once that the severe pains she had been experiencing in her legs were found to be the result of soft tissue sarcomas. Doctors told her in November 2005 that she had only two months to live.

Somehow, despite further surgery in Sweden and an intense period of chemotherapy, she took up painting and writing again and confounded doctors' expectations by recovering so well. She had already begun to explore Catholicism in greater depth as part of her ongoing spiritual quest, and she enjoyed long discussions with local religious figures such as Tolstoyan ascetic Father Stanislovas, Monsignor Vasiliauskas and Franciscan priest Julius Sasnauskas.
A comment by the Dalai Lama himself, that in trying to find faith one does not have to look very far, propelled her even further in this direction. She announced that part of the reason she had found so much happiness during this period was that she had found God.

Jurga always saw herself as working towards her best book. A second collection of poetry, "Ode dziaugsmui" (Ode to Joy, 2007), this time dramatically existential, was published on the day of her funeral. She also left an uncompleted book of essays. This unfinished work may at some point be published. Also planned, in about 18 months' time, is a book of memoirs about Jurga by her friends and family.

There have been 13 translations of Jurga Ivanauskaite's books, six into Latvian and one into Estonian 's but, sadly, none into English. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the work of this most colorful and intriguing of Lithuanian authors is fully appreciated by an international audience.