VILNIUS - The Vilnius Book Fair organizers are happy. Despite the crisis, 59,200 visitors came to this main annual cultural event of Lithuania which was held on Feb. 18-21 in the Litexpo exhibition center. This is 1,500 more visitors than in 2009. The amount of sold books was 1.5 times higher than in the previous year. For comparison, the first Vilnius Book Fair, back in 2000, was visited by 30,000 visitors. This year, despite the crisis, visitors were spending money like drunken sailors. The fair was also a good opportunity to meet famous writers.
The most famous writer who visited the fair was Norwegian Jostein Gaarder. His best known novel is Sophie’s World, subtitled A Novel about the History of Philosophy. Since 1994, it has been translated into 55 languages. However, not everybody at the fair was fascinated with Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. Lithuanian philosopher Arvydas Sliogeris described it as “profanation of philosophy.”
Sliogeris is a good-hearted philosopher for whom god is nature and the villages of southern Lithuania. Sliogeris is capable of doing what is ‘a must’ for every intellectual, i.e. provoke society. In the past, he provoked with his statements the anger of fans of the romantically patriotic concept of Lithuanian history of the Middle Ages and, more recently, provoked the anger of feminists. At the fair, Sliogeris presented the album Archipelagos of Melancholia, which consists of photos made by him and his philosophical texts. Philosopher Leonidas Donskis holds Sliogeris’ book in high esteem and described its genre as “photosophy.”
On Feb. 20, Donskis himself presented his book, 99 Baltijos Istorijos / 99 Baltic Stories, at the fair. The book is bilingual, in Lithuanian and English. The book presents current and historical personalities and places of the Baltic Sea coastline - Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Konigsberg-Kaliningrad. A couple of hundred readers gathered to listen to Donskis and his friends: historian Egidijus Aleksandravicius, essayist Rolandas Rastauskas, photographer Gytis Skudzinskas, and Mykolas Drunga, translator of the book’s text from Lithuanian into English.
“It is an intellectual autobiography and very jazzy book,” Aleksandravicius said. No wonder that at this presentation, both of Lithuania’s biggest jazz stars, saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas and percussionist Arkadijus Gotesmanas, played their musical improvisations on stage during the presentation of the book. Donskis agreed that it is his “disguised autobiography.” Drunga said that the book is about all “humanists, progressive people, democrats and liberals” of the Baltic coastline who have shaped Donskis’ character.
The book is album-size. The publishers should consider a pocket-size paperback in case they think about a new edition.
The text is really a valuable introduction into the intellectual life of the Baltic coastline, for those who know nothing about it but would like to learn - the potential readers deserve a more user-friendly issue. The book’s added value is Drunga’s translation into English. Drunga’s translation is perfect, not similar to translations by the Vilnius University-produced translators, who are understandable only for Lithuanian students. Of course, Jonas Ohman, Swedish translator and documentary film producer, should regain his original name (he is not “Jon Ohman” - translator’s mistake) in the English text in case of a new edition. Drunga spent most of his life in the U.S. Now, a large proportion of Lithuanians know him from his weekly digests of the world press on Lithuanian Radio. His pronunciation of the Spanish-language newspaper titles can sound funny for those who know some Spanish, but his English is probably better than his Lithuanian.
Speakers at Donskis’ book presentation spoke about their love of the Swedish island Gotland, where Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky were shooting their films and where, in 1989, representatives from all of Lithuania’s political spectrum, from communists to Soviet-era political prisoners, signed a communique stating that their final goal is Lithuania’s freedom and independence.
Donskis has warm feelings towards the Baltic coastline. No wonder that Kazys Pakstas (1893-1960) is mentioned in his book. This pre-WWII visionary promoted the idea of a Baltoscandian federation consisting of the Scandinavian countries and Baltic states (Finland was considered to be a Baltic state before WWII). Pakstas also urged the Lithuanian government to extend Lithuania’s territory by buying a piece of land in Madagascar or South America. That would enable the Lithuanian government and some of Lithuania’s population to move to that territory, of a free Lithuania, in case of attack from the USSR or Germany.
Such ideas were not original - there were ideas about a Polish colony in Madagascar in prewar Poland. At that time colonialism was not considered to be something immoral. However, the governments of Lithuania and Poland were shortsighted and paid little attention to such proposals.
Donskis also presented another of his recently published books at the fair. It is his textbook for pupils of the 10th grade in secondary schools, about civic society. The textbook is good news for Lithuanian education. It was not easy to push this liberal textbook through, because many conservatives, who are much closer to the rather provincial Lithuanian mainstream thinking, wanted to write such a textbook as well.
The book fair was also a place for intellectual public discussions. Philosopher Alvydas Jokubaitis, professor at Vilnius University’s International Affairs and Political Science Institute, following the footsteps of Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, compared liberalism to Satan. There is no developed tradition of intellectual debates in Lithuania. Usually friends are supporting friends in such discussions. He was echoed in that discussion by Conservative MP Mantas Adomenas. On the eve of the fair, Jokubaitis, in his interview to delfi.lt, launched an attack on Donskis.
“Recently, when I read texts by Leonidas Donskis, which are written from Brussels, I think that if he were George W. Bush, he would send troops to Lithuania like Bush did to Iraq, seeking a quicker triumph of liberalism here,” Jokubaitis said.
Another star at the Vilnius Book Fair was Russian historian Mark Solonin, who proves with documents the uneasy truth for the Kremlin and the West: in 1941, Stalin was ready to start occupying the whole of Europe and impose his totalitarian regime there, but he was stopped by the attack by Hitler. The latter was much weaker, militarily, however, he was successful at the beginning of the war because Soviet soldiers saw no motivation to fight.
Julius Sasnauskas, Catholic priest and editor of Catholic radio programs on Lithuanian Radio, and Antanas Saulaitis, the Chicago-based Catholic priest who worked in Vilnius a couple of years ago, also presented their books. Both priests are admired by the rather intellectual Vilnius Catholics because they both are not very typical for Lithuania - they both believe that the Christianity is about love, not hate.
The best book award was given for the novel Silva Rerum, by Kristina Sabaliauskaite. “Silva rerum” means “forest of things” in Latin. Such was the name of diary-style books, which every family of Lithuanian nobility passed on to their ancestors. This Vilnius-born and London-based author wrote about life of the 17th century’s nobility in Lithuania. The period of the 16-18th centuries used to be neglected by Lithuanian researchers because the Lithuanian nobility then spoke in Polish. However, the nobility were the only patriots of Lithuania then, taking into account the mentality and education level of the peasantry.
The Lithuanian fairytales in one of Afghanistan’s languages was also presented at the fair. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry initiated the issue of Lithuanian folklore fairytale translations into Dari Persian. This is the language of Afghanistan’s Ghor province, where Lithuania leads the Provincial Reconstruction Team. The books of Lithuanian fairytales will be donated to children of the Ghor province.
It is symbolic that the fair was visited by Vygaudas Usackas, former Lithuanian foreign minister. On Feb. 22, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, appointed him to the post of EU special representative in Afghanistan. This is the highest post ever occupied by a Lithuanian diplomat.