A Soviet whodunit: Murder, Independence

  • 2014-08-06
  • Review by Jonathan Brown

“Love Songs of the Revolution”
By Bronwyn Mauldin
Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, May 2014

In due course, The Baltic Way will be judged alongside Gandhi’s Salt March, or Dr. King’s march on Washington, his “I have a dream” speech. It is among the singular moments in history where populations amassed for peace, not blood.
The Baltic Way triumphed because a multitude of voices became one. United by song, hands, and political ambition, the Baltics formed an immutable force for peace and independence.

But because the Way is defined by this mass congregation, it’s rare to hear one singular voice from this volatile period. “Long Songs of the Revolution,” Bronwyn Mauldin’s debut novel, is just that.
Martynas Kudirka, a “second-rate” painter (he makes the same prediction of his writing skills - a clever disclaimer) of Lithuanian Soviet Realism, wakes from his mindless itinerary of womanizing, drinking, and intellectualizing, when he discovers his wife’s corpse on the floor of their Vilnius kitchen. He navigates the political nuances of this epoch in Lithuanian history, deciding, “If there was any truth to my wife’s death, I would have to find it myself.”
Fiction though it is, “Love Songs” refuses to be pigeon-holed: “… a love story, a murder mystery, a story of political intrigue. Perhaps by the final page, those stories will converge.” And converge they do, but sometimes these ambitions tangle or unfold unconvincingly.

The narrator, Kudirka, writes his memoir as an embittered exile. His resentment is born of living as a stranger in a faraway and ugly land, a country he clearly abhors, exiled, “it is as bad to live in LA as it is to die in it.” He is misunderstood, lonely; he has “wept every day since leaving Vilnius.” He is revolting, sometimes bankrupt, but Mauldin has succeeded in crafting a fully sympathetic narrator.

A surprise of “Love Songs” is that a novel with a deeply underwhelming title opens with robust vehemence, a ferocious outburst: repeated, scathing accusations of the reader’s ignorance and dismissals of the reader’s aptitude for understanding literature and the world. Unfortunately Mauldin doesn’t sustain the rash and potent tone of the introduction. Inexplicably, his harrowing retrospection rapidly becomes the narration of a cheaper whodunit or choose a-your-own-adventure novel. The Kudirka who laments the loss of his country, wife, and citizenship, is unrecognizable to the Kudirka who reacts to his wife’s murdered corpse.

Nationality is one of Mauldin’s constant concerns. Always, there is a bitter reminder that the narrator’s origins are Lithuanian - not American. With this comes dismissals of kitch, American, whodunit conventions. “If there were one your American detective stories today, I should have worried about moving the body, disturbing the “trace evidence” and the police could used to cleverly track the killer. Remember, though, this was 1989, and it was not the West.” Mauldin uses Kudirka’s narration to distance “Love Songs” from the whodunit genre, but not effectively enough to definitively place the novel in any other genre.

What compelled journalists in droves to the Baltic States and Eastern Europe after independence and the fall of the Soviet Union? Certainly, there was a voyeuristic allure in lifting the veil or “curtain.” Mostly though, wasn’t it about seeing a world where the West’s political morals were turned upside down? Wasn’t it about seeing a world where corruption goes unchecked, the bad guys don’t go to jail, and the good guys lose out?
It’s exactly this political climate that Mauldin coolly and impressively puts on display in “Love Songs.” “The dead remain dead, and the guilty go unpunished.

Entanglements aside, the mystery slides sleekly from one suspense, emotional pang, or clue to another, ensuring impeccable timing and delivery. In this, Mauldin’s prose and poise equals that of the highest calibre mystery writing. The book calls to be picked up, even if it’s put down. Poetic gems glitter throughout. Mauldin is sensitive to detail and nuance, her prose is always vivid and alive.