Lithuania? where's that again?

  • 2001-12-06
When Jonathan Franzen randomly selected Lithuania as the setting for his best-selling thriller "The Corrections," he probably chose the perfect country to remake as his bleak, post-Soviet, crime-ridden wasteland.

In ultra politically correct America, Lithuania is still fair game to poke fun at. Lithuanians are white, Christian and obscure enough so that no one's feelings will get hurt.

Many Americans have actually heard of the country, perhaps more than know of the existence of Estonia and Latvia. The U.S.A. has a substantial Lithuanian-American community of a million strong.

They may also recall Lithuania's front page headlines from March, 1990, when Lithuania proclaimed the re-establishment of independence, or January, 1991, when the Soviet army tried to take it away.

But the Lithuanian-American community is unlikely to make much of a fuss over how its homeland has been portrayed. These people are predominantly middle class, not billionaires. They are not well-known for making violent protests or having a particularly strong lobby.

So many Lithuanian-Americans are third- or fourth-generation themselves that they know little about Lithuania aside from stories told by their grandparents.

Moreover, Lithuania itself is not as concerned with its own image as, say, Estonia. Popular Lithuanian culture likes to poke fun of Estonia for this very reason. The idea is that Estonians strive not to make a life for themselves but with the aim of impressing someone else.

Whether that's true or not, it may not do any harm for some of that character to rub off on Lithuania. Sure, Americans may have heard of Lithuania, but what do they really know about it?

Most readers, let's hope, will realize on some level that Franzen's work is pure fiction and that life in Vilnius is not full of bandits and horse meat. Vilnius is safer than most Western cities, as people who have been there know.

Lithuania has received some great free press thanks to this book. It's better to be talked about than not to be talked about at all. Now is its chance. The country needs to spend a few litas to promote itself outside the region. Or at least raise a ruckus over this book.

Stereotypes are easy to popularize, but this one needs to be shaken before it sticks.