LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 34, No. 3 - Fall 1989
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1989 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
"HOMECOMING" IN TWO LITHUANIAN SHORT STORIES ABOUT WAR
The short story, as a genre, according to Algirdas J. Greimas, "can be considered as the equivalent in prose of a poem, because of its simultaneous paradigmatic and syntagmatic structure".1 The two Lithuanian short stories in this comparative analysis (one, written by an author in present-day Lithuania, the other by an emigre Lithuanian writer in the United States) do have such a simultaneous dual structure and a dual system of signs. That is, in both, meaning depends on reference to linguistic context, as well as on recourse to collective memory.
The first short story Tik du sūnūs (Only Two Sons), by Algirdas Pocius,2 deals with a tragic event during the postwar guerrilla fighting against Communist rule in Lithuania. The second one, Kardinolo pati miršta (The Cardinal's Mate Is Dying), by Liudas Dovydėnas,3 centers upon the painful experience of a Lithuanian-American family in the United States during the Vietnam War.
In both narratives, the central situation around which the plot is constructed, is the expected return of a son from a desperate war. The guerrilla fighter in Lithuania is gunned down just before he reaches his home. The United States fighter pilot, who survived a plane crash over Vietnam, with the loss of his legs, is on his way home in a wheel-chair.
The protagonist in each story, however, is neither the fighter himself, nor his mother (who just sits there waiting). It is another member of the family: a brother in the first story, a father in the other, who is trying to make sense of it all. The narrator in the Dovydėnas' story is also a character a visiting friend, who participates in the action.
Duration time in both stories is briefone night, one evening. Fictional space is confined to the home and its immediate surroundings.
* * *
Roman Jakobson has stressed the fact that in poetry, the force of the simultaneous prevails over successivity, while in prose, the reverse is true: the chain of events is the fundamental factor. But the simultaneous element coexistsin repetitive or equivalent structures, parallelism, comparison by contrast.4 In our two stories the force of simultaneousness predominates. We can observe that the structuring principle in the composition of both narratives is based on the binary logic of an inside/outside opposition. A spatially conceived, symmetrical structure is superimposed over the chain of events.
"Outdoors" is the man's domain (the father's, the brother's). It is associated with physical activitywalking,
running, working, fighting. "Indoors" is the woman's realm (the mother's domain), associated with inwardness, feeling, silent suffering. A chain of binary oppositions of such properties as darkness and light, silence and noise, immobility and motion is formed in both domains. In the Pocius' story, "Only Two Sons", the first half of the action takes place inside, the other halfoutside. In the Dovydė-nas' story, the order is reversed.
* * *
As we know, at the present time, topics such as post-war guerrilla warfare, Stalinist repressions, and Siberian exile are being treated much more openly and with honesty in Lithuanian literature at home. Many taboos have fallen and forbidden zones have shrunk. Lithuanian readers are looking for more and more truth and directness.
Pocius (whose story was published in 1966) and other writers in Lithuania, who in the sixties and seventies took a look at the harsh post-war period, exposed inner conflicts, problems of conscience and personal responsibility. They depended extensively on indirect suggestion, connotation, metaphor. These artistic devices forced the reader to be quite active in decoding the meaning of their texts. He had to look for textual indices which point to indirect meaning. This activity could be dangerous, at times, for the reader and the author as well.
As late as 1985, Petras Bražėnas, then Secretary of the Lithuanian Writers' Association in Vilnius, devoted a page of Literatūra ir menas (Literature and Art), (4-20-85) to defend Pocius from a metaphorical reading of his work.5 Today, in this era of openness, most likely, he would not have to do it.
Actually, there is no such thing as "literal meaning" in prose. As Tzvetan Todorov has pointed out, in all discourse, "indirect discursive meaning is grafted onto direct meaning". But we must look for two kinds of textual indices: syntagmatic indices, which link segments of the text to other utterances in the same context and paradigmatic indices, which "establish a relation with the shared knowledge of a community".6 Roland Barthes has called them the "semic" and the "symbolic" code.7
We find such indices (both syntagmatic and paradigmatic) in the very first scene of "Only Two Sons". The mother and the older son, Kostas, are looking at the "blood-red glow" of the sunset through the small window of the old farmhouse. In the next segment of the text, the sunset becomes "a dying-out conflagration". This double evocation of blood and fire is an indirect suggestion of war (lexical symbolism). Association with the collective memory of the community links this transparent metaphor with the most tragic conflagration in Lithuanian history: the final stages of the guerrilla war (1945-1952).
The atmosphere of anxiety and fearful waiting in the room evokes the prevailing mood in the country during this harsh period. The mother just sits motionless on a small stool by the stove, waiting for her younger son Vidmantas to come home from the woods. She wants to convince him to leave the woods for good.
Her white scarf, tied under her chin, stands out in the semi-darkness of the room. Her idle hands are resting in her lap. As these images reappear in other segments of the text, the repetitive pattern itself becomes a textual index to look for metaphoric meaning.
An unusual predicate verb "boluoja" (used with the subject noun "skarelė" "scarf") expresses the state of whiteness as activity: the scarf "shows white" in the darkness. Thus, the white scarf draws attention to itself through grammatical structure and color symbolism and becomes an evocation of the innocent suffering of all Lithuanian mothers, or of "Mother Lithuania" herself.
Meanwhile, the older son Kostas, a communist activist, is pacing nervously from corner to corner. This restless motion is in sharp contrast with his mother's quiet immobility. At one point, the son's big shadow covers up the small window. "He has outgrown this house", thinks the mother. This symbolic image is associatively linked to the dialogue between mother and son in the next segment of the text.
Kostas bitterly complains that he has been demoted, because his brother "is in the wood", and the mother says: "It's no big deal that you're not the chairman any more. You can be a smaller man". Associated with the image of the shadow, this reprimand means more than' "You don't have to be a "climber". This indirect proposition relates to the value system of the whole community and acquires polyvalent meaning. It is not right to think of status in times like these.
* * *
At this point, we see the germination of an inner conflict in the protagonist's mind, between adherence to his narrow ideological principles, which make him an enemy of his brother, and loyalty to traditional spiritual values, safeguarded by his mother and still alive in the old home.
They are evoked by certain familiar objects, which played an important role in traditional Lithuanian farm-life. One of these is the always warm old-fashioned stove. Like the ancestral hearth, from which it originated, this stove is a symbol of strong family ties.
Leading into the house, there is the ancient stone threshold. Once it had a special place in old Lithuanian beliefs, as an area where the good spirits lived. There, souls of the ancestors guarded the home from evil spirits, which were rampant outside.8 Kostas stops on this threshold before he leaves the house and repeats the action when he comes in again, later in the story, trying to collect his hesitant thoughts and to get some inner strength. (Some other actions are also repeated on the way in).
Outside, by the gate, there is a huge maple tree, which stands guard "like a sentinel". Antanas Vaičiulaitis, in his novel Valentina, published in Lithuania in 1936 (about half a century ago), had also referred to this honored large tree as a sentinel. It is known that Lithuanians, almost until the end of the 14th century "revered oaks and other large trees" and "received oracular responses from them".9 Under the maple tree there is an old well with a cross-like lever, which looks crooked now.
We will not go any further into mythology here, but it is interesting to note that these same objects (which have ties with ancient symbolism) also appear in the short story by Liudas Dovydėnas, published on this side of the Atlantic. The well-established American Lithuanian immigrants in this story also have old-fashioned doorsteps in the house (though not a stone threshold) and a maple tree growing outside, too . . . There is no well, but there is a brook under the maple tree. The very first scene takes place by the brook, under the maple tree, where the father and his guest (the narrator) are having a brief conversation about an injured bird.
Are you saying the cardinal's mate is dying? asks the father.
So it seems, answers the guest.
Well, these things do happen.
Repeated several times (with slight changes and additions) throughout the narrative, this exchange evokes the central motif of the story, which is that of fate. The last sentence: "Well, these things do happen" suggests to the reader that the father whose son is coming home in a wheel-chair stoically accepts the verdict of fate.
We later find out that the cardinal's mate is dying "with broken wing", and the motif becomes associatively linked with the broken wing of the airplane, which the fighter pilot crash-landed in Vietnam, and also with the death, a long time ago, of two young daughters in the family.
We later find out that the cardinal's mate is dying "with broken wing", and the motif becomes associatively linked with the broken wing of the airplane, which the fighter pilot crash-landed in Vietnam, and also with the death, a long time ago of two young daughters in the family.
In this story also, the mother just sits in a dark room, waiting for her son to come home. But she is not idle. She knits and knits all the time always the same green and blue socks. This absurd activity (knitting socks for her son's non-existing feet) can be seen as madness, or it can be interpreted as a refusal to accept fate.
While the father makes plans to level the old-fashioned doorsteps and make it easier for the son to get around the house in his wheel-chair, the mother refuses to acknowledge the fact that her son is coming home handicapped. She also rejects her husband's plan to level the old doorsteps.
This feud between them is also linked to the old stereotype of opposing male/female psychological characteristics: activity/passivity, rationality/emotionality, etc. The mother is passive and irrational, the father active and practical.
In both stories, there is also the polarity of inwardness-outwardness, which is part of the inside/outside opposition.
"Inside" means more than a spatial orientation, it means a home which safeguards true feelings and timeless values. "Outside" everything is in flux, and one is exposed to scary sounds, danger, death.
* * *
In Pocius' story "Only Two Sons", the death motif is introduced abruptly, when, in the central episode, the silence indoors is pierced by two shots which go off outdoors and then there are two more. Kostas goes outside to investigate. He finds his younger brother Vidmantas mortally wounded at the foot of a hill, not far from home. Stepping out of the familiar shadows into the open moonlit meadow, he runs towards him, with only one strong emotion in his heart:
"Let the trees, grasses and rocks see, how he runs towards his brother."
To a Lithuanian reader, this sentence raises strong extra textual associations. It indicates, that Kostas is not afraid of being seen, in bright moonlight, helping a wounded guerrilla fighter. But other meanings are also grafted onto this sentence. It can be interpreted as an expression of defiance or as a capitulation of brotherly love and also a sudden insight that brothers cannot and should hot be enemies. Indirectly it also suggest that Lithuanians are all brothers and should not fight each other and, on a higher level of abstraction, that brotherhood is the highest of all values, or that humanistic values are above others.
We have to remember that, at that time, post-war guerrilla warfare was officially represented as civil war, where brother fought against brother. Guerrillas were no longer called "bandits" who terrorized innocent people, but they were not called "freedom fighters" either. (Recently, at a symposium, writer L. Jacinevičius came close to it, when he stressed the fact that the fight for freedom was the chief aim of the guerrilla war.)10
The sentence "Let the trees, grasses and rocks see, how he runs towards his brother", like the sentence "You can be a smaller man" exemplify the symbolic functioning of language. They are examples of what Tzvetan Todorov calls "prepositional symbolism".11
The dying man's last wish is to be secretly buried right there, close to home, and he asks his brother not to tell anyone. "Let them still fear me," he says.
As the reader knows, secretly to bury a fallen guerrilla was an anti-state act. The bodies of those young men were publicly displayed on the village square and no one was allowed to bury them. Their own mothers didn't dare to grieve over them or even to recognize them, for fear of reprisals against the rest of the family.
Pocius does not tell us this (he could not in 1966). The first author to write about such things was Jonas Avyžius in his novel Degimai, when it was published in four issues of Pergalė (Victory) in 1981.
However, that particular short episode did not pass censorship when the novel appeared in book form and is missing from the book.12
* * *
Pocius describes the death scene in realistic detail and with subtle introspection into the feelings of his protagonist, who experiences the moment of his brother's death as a mysterious occurrence.
A moment later, however, a selfish thought crosses his mind: how he will be free of the problem of having a brother in the woods. But what about his brother's last wish to keep his death a secret?
As Kostas walks back to the house, he ponders what to do. The same familiar sights greet him in the yard: the well with its cross-like lever and the maple tree. He stops on the stone threshold before he goes in, undecided what to tell his mother. Inside, everything is also still the same: the darkness in the room, the warm stove with its familiar smells, the mother's scarf still "showing white" at the same spot, (the verb now has a prefix tebeboluoja, "tebe" means "still".)
She jumps up from her stool, but he does not tell her what has happened. After she goes to sleep, he secretly takes a shovel and walks out again into the moonlit meadow, swinging it over his shoulder. It seems as if the house itself made up his mind for him. The connotation of defiance raises an intertextual association: it brings to mind Antigonė, who defied Creon to bury her "brother. Kostas is also defying authority to bury his brother.
He carries his brother's body to a freshly plowed field and buries him under one of the three pine trees growing there. Some tree symbolism is hidden here too. Firs and pines in ancient mythologies of many countries meant eternal life, because their branches always stay green. The dead person's soul supposedly goes into the tree and is thus resurrected to new life.13
* * *
In an earlier episode, Kostas was very angry at his brother for getting mixed up "with those murderers" in the woods. Now we see him raging against "something" or "somebody" against undefined sources of suffering and grief. While he is pouring out his anger and desperation, the face of the moon gazes at him, cold and indifferent.
Walking home, he carries the shovel the same way he had brought it, "swinging it like a rifle" (the world "rifle" is now added to the description of the repetitive action, which reinforces the connotation of defiance.)
Kostas thinks about the crops which will be planted there, over his brother's grave this spring and in future years, and how his brother will soon be forgotten. The reader remebers that thousands of young men lie in unmarked graves all over the land. Images which evoke cyclic time lead him on to measure human life and deeds by the "yardstick of eternity", and to ponder the question: Will all these young men be forgotten and become the seed that dies, so that future generations may live? (Intertextual association with The New Testament).
The critic has to answer another question: Will this short story survive? In this era of openness, people don't want to read any more half-truths, but want to find out the whole truth about the past. Pocius does not tell the whole truth, but his story tells us enough, without saying it, through symbolic evocation. So, it will survive.
* * *
Dovydėnas also uses symbolic evocation and suggestion, in his story, nature also seems indifferent to the suffering of its creatures, as suggested by the happy landscape outdoors. The rainfilled brook rushes by, reflecting upon its gleaming surface the playful shimmer of the stars. The narrator compares this shimmer to the superficial chatter of his friend, while in the depth of his heart "there is untold pain". The reader has already guessed that pain. He relates it to the suffering in all nature.
The mother, once in a while, questions human destiny. Why did her son have to crash over Vietnam? Why didn't he fly over the wood in Lithuania, where his father, once, during the days of independence, helped push a train? This wish suggests that her son's sacrifice (he had enlisted voluntarily) would have been more meaningful, if he had been shot down over a Lithuanian wood.
The word "wood" is full of indirect, extra-textual meanings. It brings to the readers' mind the woods where the post-war guerrilla fighting took place. This may be the reason why the word "wood" in this passage, was left out of the text in a recent publication of this short story in Pergalė14 There, the mother's question reads: why not "over the train in Lithuania". This switch to the word "train" abolishes the former connotation and completely changes the meaning.
In any case, the mother's seemingly illogical wish raises the problem of human sacrifice and of the high price of war. Her other illogical wish to preserve the old doorsteps, is probably related to ancient beliefs and reverence for the threshold, which survived on Lithuanians farms into the 19th century. It has survived in some other countries as well. A recent Korean Airlines commercial on the radio admonished travelers to remeber not to step on the doorsteps, when in Korea, because "you may be stepping upon the souls of the ancestors".
The Dovydėnas story ends just the way it started with the conversation about the cardinals. Yes, the cardinal's mate is dying, but the male bird is now feeding the young, and he is going to raise them. Having cheered up his host with this good news, the guest-narrator leaves him "standing in the moonlight, bareheaded ... by the silver gate".
For the reader, this story has an optimistic message despite the blows of destiny, life will go on.
* * *
Both Pocius and Dovydėnas wrote their short stories in realistic style, but they used symbolic evocation, which induced the reader to look beyond the primary meaning, to a figurative meaning.
According to Gerard Genette, "Narrative always says less than it knows, but it often makes known more than it says."15 That is why good realists use direct expression, indirect suggestion.
Most post-structuralist critics today, just like Paul de Man, "would not hesitate to equate the rhetorical, figūrai potentiality of language with literature itself".16
1 Quoted by Ronald Schleifer, A.]. Greimas and the Nature of Meaning: Linguistics, Semiotics and Discourse Theory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987) 150.
2 Algirdas Pocius, Išskridę iš lizdo, a collection of short stories, (Vilnius: Vaga, 1990).
3 Liudas Dovydėnas, Vasaros vidudienis (Chicago: AM & M Publications, 1979).
4 Roman Jakobson: Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy, eds. (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1985) 171.
5 Alina Staknienė, "Tautos likimo kronika", Akiračiai, May 1984, June 1984, July 1984. (Pocius' prose of the last three decades, seen as a chronicle of the destiny of a people.)
6 Tzvetan Todorov, Symbolism and Interpretations, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982) 30-31, and 66-67.
7 Roland Barthes, s/z (Paris:Seuil, 1970 ), trans. into English by Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).
8 "Slenkstis", Lietuvių Enciklopedija, Boston, 1959, vol. 28.
9 James George Frazer, The New Golden Bough, abr., ed. Theodor H. Gaster (New York: Criterion Books, 1959) 73.
10 Discussion about the treatment of the post-war period in Lithuanian prose, Literatūra ir means, 7 May 1987:4-5.
11 Todorov 39-40.
12 Degimai (Vilnius: Vaga, 1982).
13 Man, Myth and Magic, illus. encyclopedia of mythology, religion, and the unknown (New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1983), vol. 21-2875-2880.
14 Pergalė 4 (1988) 102-105.
15 Gerard Genette, Narrative Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980) 198.
16 Paul de Man, "Semiology and Rhetoric", in Textual Strategies, ed. Josue V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979) 130.