Tragedy and comedy are a potent mix in the work of Sigitas Parulskis

Jonas Ohman

Lithuanian literature is rising if not from the dead then at least from an existence in the shadows. In recent years we have definitely been able to feel the creative heat from several writers in deep need of expressing their experience of a society in transition.

This has not gone unnoticed in other countries. The most significant signs are the presentation at the main European book fair, in Frankfurt in 2002, and now at the end of September at the biggest Scandinavian book fair, in Göteborg in Sweden.

One of the most notable contributors is Sigitas Parulskis, a poet and essayist on a somewhat rough journey through life, something which I felt at our meeting in the summer in central Vilnius.

I was struck, at one and the same time, by the difference between his timid, almost humble, personal approach and his expressive, powerful writing. The difference is as great as that between the wide scope of his vivid, subtle nuances, and the stinking, cursing outcries emanating from his pen at the same time.

There are few established writers in Lithuania, and possibly in the Baltic states, who are as rough and who can still be as sensitive on the same page, a fact that has established him as a big name.

Parulskis was born in 1965. He started writing as a teenager, trying to express himself through poetry, a common way for young creative types in the former Soviet Union. Later, he went to Vilnius University to study Lithuanian language and literature; but the Soviet system came between him and his desire. He was called up into the Red Army, and spent two years in the former DDR as a paratrooper, a period of time that has undoubtedly to a very large extent formed his view of the world and his writing.

Anyone familiar with Soviet, or, for that matter present, Russian military structures might imagine the impact such an experience has upon a sensitive mind. The alarming reports, still circulating today, about the harsh and primitive conditions in the Russian army, created a hellish environment, with little or no mercy to be found and nowhere to hide.

Bullying was combined with a lack of respect for the individual. This is even more accentuated in a tough elite unit such as an airborne one, and makes a deep scar in the skin of someone who has been through it.

He expresses the essence of it all in one short sentence:
“The army, well, it goes for nothing short of your soul.”
Parulskis graduated from Vilnius University in 1990. He worked for various publications, and started his career as a writer. He was soon rumoured to be one of the most daring and rude of the newcomers, giving many shocking impressions with his writing.

In 2002 he created one of the most striking novels in modern Lithuanian literature, Trys sekundės dangaus (Three Seconds of Heaven), based upon his encounter with the cruel and indifferent Soviet army, forming men into killers, but depriving them of the ability to live.

The novel was greatly appreciated in Lithuania, and has been translated and published in Italian and Swedish.
Why the title?

“Anyone who has served in the army or has been in prison will understand. You are disconnected from the rest of the world by a tiny but nevertheless very real distinction in time, maybe as little as three seconds, let us say, the time it takes for a parachute to open.”

His star has been rising ever since the appearance of the novel, and in 2004 he was awarded the National Prize. He is more active than ever, producing different kinds of texts, including plays and short novels. His writing is an ongoing source of discussion among critics, and the expectations of his works are increasing with time, a burden that would be tough to bear for any writer, definitely so in the case of Parulskis.

When reading his work it seems that he is almost always at war, taking cover behind words, fighting, trying to conquer the subtle, esoteric qualities in real literature. His fight also includes a great effort to get down to the essentials, to “communicate with the archetypes” that we find in our relations with each other, and also in religion.

He constantly returns to existential matters, often in the guise of Christianity. As an agnostic, but nevertheless a “Church person”, according to him, he time and time again returns to the tension in the relationship between man and God, and His relationship with us.

Often the conclusions are very grim. It is no surprise that Parulskis refers to the Old Testament as one of his favourite sources of inspiration.

“The Lord provides lots of good stuff for my stories, I must admit.”

Furthermore, he tends to emphasise the parallels between religious belief and human life in general.

“Love and religion have much in common, in that they are very unfaithful matters.”

The form, when writing, is extremely important to Parulskis. Tomas Venclova, a well-known Lithuanian dissident and a famous poet, has become one of his mentors, with his extreme attention to the structure and form of what is to be said. Parulskis further emphasises the need for discipline and searching, especially in order to create mature poetry.

“You must read a lot, really a lot. A line here, a metaphor, an impression there. In my writing, I am trying to embed primary experience, in order to provide a framework to get hold of the basics: sin, redemption and, after everything else, hope.”

Good writing means, among other things, tension, and an ongoing dynamism. One of Parulskis’ ways of addressing this is his aim for a very subtle balance between comedy and tragedy.

When shattering the dreams and illusions of his literary heros, and getting ready for disappointment and betrayal, the reader must often give way to an involuntary laughter, because of the absurdities and the comments coming together with the pitch-black disillusion.

For instance, his description of a desperate meeting with some call-girls in Trys sekundės dangaus is possibly one of the best-written tragic-comic texts in modern European literature.

One of his literary benchmarks is the German poet Georg Trakl and his Schwermut. Parulskis appears to have deep doubts about the ability of mankind to stand up for the right thing.

This is well expressed in his descriptions of the tension between the group and the individual, something he has experienced on several occasions, as a soldier and also during the very turbulent time of transition from the Soviet Union to the present state of independence.

“When you are only one out of hundreds or thousands, you are not the same as when you are by yourself. And it is not always pleasant to realise it.”

At present, Parulskis is involved in several different projects, including writing for the stage. Recently, another book of his, Dorifore, referring to the name of a Greek soldier in antique times, has been published; and also a collection of short stories.

There are, however, lots of things yet to be done. He seems to be driven by creative forces not discernible to everybody.

After our meeting he disappears quickly down a quiet Vilnius street, on his way back to writing. In order to get a glimpse of his motives, we might refer to another of his mentors, the dynamic Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Nobody can counsel and help you. Nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write. Find out whether you would have to die if you were denied the chance to write.”