Lithuanians shudder in disbelief at bestseller

  • 2001-12-06
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis and Bryan Bradley, VILNIUS
Lithuanians are smarting over their country's portrayal in a bestselling work of fiction that has just won the United States' prestigious National Book Award.

Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections," which won the award at a star-spangled ceremony in Manhattan on Nov. 15, portrays contemporary Vilnius in the grip of crime and anarchy, with "chronic coal and electricity shortages, freezing drizzle, drive-by shootings and heavy dietary reliance on horsemeat."

Currently topping the U.S. bestseller list and nominated by showbiz personality Oprah Winfrey as her book of the month, the novel claims that foreign investors can have a Vilnius street named after them for $100 and a city of 5,000 inhabitants for $5,000.

An incident in which a Russian businessman uses his private army to take control of the Ignalina nuclear power station may have been intended to amuse a country traumatized by September's terrorist attacks, but it had columnists in Vilnius spluttering with rage.

Likewise, the portrait of a fraudster who cheats gullible U.S. investors via a Website.

Jonathan Franzen has never been to Lithuania.

After Lithuania's largest circulation daily Lietuvos Rytas extracted a confession from Franzen that he had never traveled farther east than Prague, Lithuania's Ambassador to the United States Vygaudas Usackas wrote to him expressing his "sadness" over the book and invited him to visit Lithuania to get a "real picture" of the country.

"I'd like to invite you to visit Lithuania and discover the beauty, the vitality of our people and the shared sense of values my country has with yours," he wrote.

Reaction to the book in Lithuania has been divided. Most locals are laughing it off, yet re-ïmigrïs from the Lithuanian-American community are angry.

"This book is nonsense," Kazys Bobelis, an MP and leader of the Lithuanian Christian Democrat Party who spent most of his life in the U.S., told The Baltic Times. "The Lithuanian government should start legal action against Franzen. Such proceedings are very popular in the States."

Foreigners living in Vilnius have also sprung to Lithuania's defense. Swedish freelance journalist Jonas Ohman's response was curt.

"This guy seems to be an alchemist. Take some vague rumors, add the worst of your imagination, throw on top of that a few nasty comments, and you've got gold!

"As if this were a true picture of Lithuania - one could with far more credibility say that the United States is a country of nothing but hamburger-eating, 300-pound fatsos and gun freaks where no one even can point out Canada on a map," he told The Baltic Times.

"Vilnius is one of the classiest minor capitals the European continent can offer."

John Rowell, businessman and member of the board of the United States Chamber of Commerce, was quick to add his voice to the protest.

"I haven't read it, but I've heard about it. My only rebuttal is that we have no more electricity outages than most other countries, and we certainly have no more drive-by shootings than the United States," he said.

All of which seems to have been lost on The New York Times' reviewer David Gates, who had nothing but praise for Franzen's flight of fancy.

"He writes with convincing authority about the minutiae of railroads, clothing, medicine, economics, industry, cuisine and Eastern European politics, and he knows just when to push his conceits over the top - like his Lithuanian city built of radioactive cinder blocks from Belarus," wrote Gates.

The Baltic Times spoke to two people from the Lithuania-based public relations company Summit Communications, which is currently preparing a supplement about Lithuania for The New York Times. Frenchman Christophe Bonami said Lithuanians should not pay too much attention to Franzen's book.

"This is a work of fiction. Lithuanians shouldn't take it personally. In a way, it's still exposure for Lithuania," Bonami said.

Sofie Nielsen, project director, brought up another point.

"This touches on something very interesting, the lack of awareness in the U.S. about Lithuania. They have very little knowledge about Lithuania - the standard of living, the habits of living - and that's why for a book like this it's very easy to come in and paint a wrong picture in people's minds. There's no basic knowledge," Nielsen said. She added that the book could harm Lithuania's image abroad.

"I was born in Denmark. I can go anywhere in the world and find that people know something about Denmark and have certain expectations. And that's necessary for a country, because otherwise there's an open door for all kinds of wrong assumptions," she said.

Lietuvos Rytas reminded its readers of other aspersions on Lithuania's reputation that have originated in the U.S. Mel Gibson was quoted last year in Entertainment Weekly saying that he was prepared to fight "sharp-toothed" Lithuanians wielding baseball bats who come to the beaches of Los Angeles.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton's spokesman Jake Siewert further vexed the Baltic nation when he told journalists that Clinton would be writing a movie for Steven Spielberg's film company Dream Works in which Lithuanian terrorists hijack Air Force One and demand that Washington forgive Lithuania's $3.2 billion debt to the United States.