LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 50, No.2 - Summer 2004
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2004 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
SIGITAS PARULSKIS'S THREE SECONDS OF SKY
FOR A LOVER AND WARRIOR BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
Ohio State University
According to the Soviet propaganda of the time, the occupation, colonization and cultural domination of the Baltic states was not enslavement, but a liberation from bourgeois-nationalist oppression. The Soviets spoke of Lithuania's, Latvia's and Estonia's acceptance into the family of happy Soviet peoples as equal and sovereign member republics.
This rhetoric is really not much different from that of classic nineteenth-century imperialism, which spoke of the "white man's burden" as an obligation to enlighten the "savages," bring them to the grace of Christianity and make them happy, obedient servants of the colonizers. The Soviets also carried their own "white (or red) man's burden"—the necessity to reeducate, if need be by force, the newly acquired populations to make then commit themselves to the Communist creed and accept Russian dominance.
On the other hand, while the West Europeans did not really
attempt to turn their colonized peoples into Frenchmen, Englishmen, etc., the
Soviets carried a Russian bias requiring the eventual russification of the
Baltic states, as part of their Sovietization. That aim coincided with those of
the earlier Tsarist imperialism.
The older generations of the Baltic peoples held on to their beliefs and mode of living, so that they clearly understood the need to resist this alien force. The younger generations, on the other hand, at times became confused and vulnerable to Soviet ideological and cultural influences.
The novel Three Seconds of Sky (2002) presents the traumatic experiences of one young man torn between two different worlds. The author, Sigitas Parulskis, a poet, playwright, novelist and literary commentator, now in his late thirties, has built a reputation as one of the main figures of Lithuanian literary life. His quasi-autobiographical novel deals in part with the tribulations of a young Lithuanian caught in the web of paradoxes inherent in the time between the last years of Soviet rule and the first decade or so of newly independent Lithuania. It shows the dramatic encounters between the forces demanding submission and acceptance of the prevailing order and the stubborn resolution of an individual to be himself and retain his own integrity. The unnamed young hero is drafted into the feared and infamous special Soviet paratrooper forces. There he undergoes a series of harsh experiences that, in his memory, form a kaleidoscopic vision of intertwined personal and ethnic suffering. His situation is inherently paradoxical in that he, a member of an oppressed nation, is at the same time a member of the elite forces of the oppressor. In this way, he is symbolic of the many Baits who became both victims and representatives of the Soviet regime. As the novel proceeds, we witness how this man begins to acquire the traits of a bully and a tyrant toward the new recruits and is on his way to becoming a "worthy brother" in the paratroops as he "upholds the proud military tradition." Thus the education of a paratrooper is a process of fighting the enemy until you become him.
We see this budding of the "new Soviet man" in a number of episodes, two of which might serve as examples. In one instance, our paratrooper upperclassman protagonist spends a relaxing evening punishing new recruits for having marched poorly during the day and for having sung out of tune. They are all on the floor next to their beds, and they are doing pushups. Their faces are red and sweaty, their arms cramped and trembling from the impossible effort, as our hero calmly calls out the rhythm: one-two, one-two. He feels happy, superior, and at peace with himself. Much of his satisfaction comes from the memory of a similar torture he had to undergo when he was a freshman himself.
Another time, he is sent out into the woods to help find a young deserter who ran away, unable to endure the constant pain and humiliation. Walking through some brush, he sees a thin thread of smoke rising from one spot. He comes closer and finds the deserter shaking with fear and trying to warm his frozen hands on the little campfire he had built. Our protagonist greets him with a succulent, thoroughly rotten Russian curse (of which, by the way, the novel has plenty—as Parulskis explains, these are a form of despair) and looks down on him with abysmal contempt:
...there is nothing more pleasant than yelling at a trembling elephant las the new recruits were called]. Only I could not .look into his eyes for long—, they, flooded with fear and horror, were no longer human eyes, they could no longer see anything; they could only reflect me and my glance full of revulsion and of a superior's contempt. (112)
So the system has made him, a member of an oppressed and abused nation, feel superior when looking down on other victims of the system who, incidentally, were all Russians. Like all absurdities, the paratrooper's education contains its own paradoxes and nightmares. In one of these, the hero, lying in high fever in a hospital, is confronted by, of all things, the vision of his sergeant, a Soviet army chaplain. This follows an "educational" session during which he is severely physically abused and humiliated while being instructed in something like the philosophy of life suitable to a paratrooper. Life is in essence a crucible. We are soldiers of Christ, says the chaplain, sitting comfortably on a bed while the hero bends over him on trembling hands and feet like an arch of sorts. As soldiers of Christ, we must endure all humiliation and suffering for His sake, even unto death. Thus the monstrous idol of the Soviet state transforms itself into a hideous parody of Redemption. The paradox is complete: the young recruit endures the system until he becomes a part of it; and the system speaks of Christ until it becomes a parody of Him. To complete the farce, the chaplain orders our hero to hit him in the face to show an example of enduring suffering, and "turning the other cheek." Then the chaplain calmly wipes the blood from his face and proceeds to expound on the sacrificial life of a paratrooper. Fear, he says, is the basic law of both army and church. So, the first half-year in the training of a paratrooper consists of acquiring familiarity with pain, a lot of it, so one would understand that everything in this world is suffering. In the second phase, one learns that pain has reasons, so it is not quite so meaningless. In the third period, one achieves an accommodation with pain and learns to avoid it in various ways. Finally, one so assimilates pain that it becomes like a blessing. It does not take much to understand that all this "education sentimentale" actually describes the formation of the new Soviet man in general, selfless, dedicated, oblivious to suffering.
It is part of Parulskis's intention to show a world where text and nightmare become indistinguishable. This stands against the defeated civilization, where there was reason, faith and an inherited cultural tradition.
The nightmares of the moment are joined by those arising from memory. A particularly gruesome one is about a young Ukrainian recruit being kicked to death by paratroopers of, the author suggests, Middle Eastern origin. The recruit refused to sew a button on one of the men's uniforms. According to the "proud traditions" of the unit, they kicked and kept kicking him and would not stop. And this Ukrainian, Viktor by name, had been a good friend of the narrator, and an entertaining storyteller. Viktor lay dying all night on his upper bunk, his blood trickling on our hero's face. All he could feel was fear, and all he could say was silence. Fear held him from protesting, from trying to help Viktor; fear eventually taught him to accept and then assimilate these monstrous cruelties as something of one's own as a paratrooper. In the clash of cultures, this is one more victory of the alien and evil force pressing down on what was left of the instincts of civilization.
After the Lithuanian freedom movement had begun, the protagonist had been discharged from the Army and found himself wandering aimlessly around Vilnius. There he experienced his last confrontation with his former paratrooper self. Still in uniform, he went to the student dormitories at the university seeking contact with young Lithuanians, as if seeking for a new home for his soul while remaining his sovietized self. He tried to address some of the students, but did so in Russian. Because they saw him in his full paratrooper regalia, light blue beret, medals etc., they turned away from him. There was no home for what he had been and at the moment still was. Another encounter was more complex. As Soviet troops marched into Vilnius to quell the demonstrations, the protagonist found himself in a room with a young Russian paratrooper who was tense and ready to shoot. He greeted the man as a fellow soldier from the same branch of service, as a brother-in-arms. They sat down, had a drink, and our hero felt the warmth of comradeship, as if he had regained the place where he belonged. After all, the abuses and cruelties of paratrooper life did in the end create a bond between them. They become brothers, united by the knowledge that they had experienced and understood something together. Then comes a problem. The young Russian asked "in the voice of an insulted boy" why the Lithuanians hated them so much. The protagonist answered that, when he served in Germany, he was also hated by the people. Then the boy said a crucial thing: "There it was the Germans, but here you are us—our own people." At that moment the hero understood that he and the Russian were not, and never would be, one people. Now he had nothing.
The novel begins at this point of devastation. Having learned of our hero's experiences in the past, we can better understand the bleak emptiness of his mind. It is a desolate landscape. It is presented only as a personal condition, but also as the portrait of a generation:
I belong to a generation which has no particular distinguishing marks, no qualities of its own. A generation which came too late to become hippies, a generation for which the music of the Beatles is too sweet... The only philosophy of this generation is to have none or to avoid having any... I belong to a generation that was the most Russified, the most made a fool of, the most fed on atheism, the most naive generation which, at the same time, does not believe in anything, (pp. 8-9).
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this generation as described is the refusal of perceptive imagination:
I sat there and stared like an idiot at the sea. I don't know what other people see when they look at the sea, but I see nothing. It's all right if there is a ship sailing somewhere on the horizon. Then I see a ship, and nothing more. When the ship is gone, there's only water, a lot of pointlessly rocking salty, cold water, (p. 7)
At this stillpoint of being human there ought not to be any way out, as there wasn't for Beckett's two tramps waiting for Godot. But Parulskis tries to revive his hero by the oldest trick in the world of letters—a love affair. There is Marija, and, as our hero sits and nurses his stubbed toe on the beach, she comes and gently licks off the blood. That seems the most tender of beginnings, but it does not lead us to any conventional romance. Instead, the story intertwines with the protagonist's painful memories to create a double helix of love and hate, suffering and ecstasy. The deep yearning for love, the grinding pain of humiliation, the warm comradeship of mutual conflict—all this is reflected in the sporadic, not always very gentle encounters with Marija that mirror our man's paratrooper experiences on a different plane. One such encounter touches upon the central metaphor of the novel-three seconds of sky. On one level, the three seconds refer to the time a paratrooper must let go by, before he pulls the parachute cord to avoid getting caught in the helicopter blades. On another, there is an attempt at a profound insight arrived at with the help of a quote from Conrad Aiken: "The Lord is the space between the page and the text, between imagination and knowledge, between reality and nonbeing. You have invented Him. And He has invented you." The Lord, then, is the three seconds of free fall before the chute opens. In the love story, there is a nightmare, or perhaps a real event, where Marija causes our hero to fall from a creaky old belltower to be severely hurt. Afterwards he philosophizes: "there is nothing worse than a woman in the shape of a church." Her name being Marija, the image symbolizes at least the Catholic perception of the Holy Virgin Mary, also a handmaiden of salvation. We are back at the self-mocking theology of the Soviet army chaplain—two sides of the same equation. The saving grace, however, is that Marija does not remain a virgin. She speaks of her desire, and in their union the great questions of being and history, while not resolved, are sunk deep into an embrace or personal communion.
The novel portrays a confusing landscape of postcolonial Lithuania, and it is only right that the hero of the story should be confused and ambivalent himself, not knowing if he hates the Soviet order or is a proud part of it, not understanding where his loyalties lie, mostly because the very notion of loyalty has been reduced to personal encounters— Viktor kicked to death, Marija who inflicts pain and also loves him. What does one generalize from that in the perspective of history? "Generalizations," says the hero of the novel, are repulsive things."