LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 51, No.1 - Spring 2005
Editor of this issue: Stasys Goštautas
Copyright © 2005 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
AN UNFORGETTABLE VOICE
First President of the Lithuanian PEN Center
I always remember a trip I took from Vilnius to Marijampolė a few years ago. So that the trip wouldn't get boring, I drove with the radio on. That's when I unexpectedly heard a familiar voice. The voice was so distinct, I recognized it immediately. All it took was for me to hear a few comments in that characteristically ironic tone to recognize that unforgettably original voice. Speaking on the radio was none other than my dear friend, one of the most active initiators of our PEN Club, the New York writer Algirdas Landsbergis.
He was giving an interview on Lithuanian radio and was colorfully describing his personal literary path, which began in the prewar Jesuit Gymnasium in Kaunas, where he developed his early attempts at writing, before becoming a well-known fiction and playwriter. He was really very interesting to listen to. I heard many new things about my colleague's journey to literature, along with all its various phases and adventures: about his literary activities after he'd emigrated from Lithuania; his literary activities in the displaced persons camps in Germany. I'd heard that same original voice often on Radio Free Europe during the Soviet era. Then Algirdas was speaking to his enslaved countrymen, and his on-the-mark, always biting, ironic comments, touching on a variety of absurd aspects of our Soviet reality, very effectively unmasked the blatant lies of the occupier. Therefore, it is not surprising that the party ideologues delegated him to the status of 'reactionary émigré."
How could he not be reactionary if he spoke the truth? It also follows that it was reactionary and dangerous to belong to PEN International. I founded our Lithuanian PEN Club Center in 1989, while the occupier was still present, in Vilnius by inviting a group of writers to the editorial offices of the journal "Literature and Art". That was the beginning. Our goal was to be accepted into PEN International at its congress, which was scheduled to take place in the town of Maastricht in Holland. Before the congress I'd been visiting Paris as a tourist. When my tour ended, funded by the generous support of our diplomat Petras Klimas's son and his wife, I left by morning train for Holland.
In Maastricht, when I arrived at the hotel, I immediately met a tall, thin, elegant looking man. This man turned out to be the New York writer Algirdas Landsbergis, who'd just flown in. I was indebted to him for the translation of my short story into English, and its inclusion in an anthology of Lithuanian prose published in the United States. We connected immediately, and therefore we were able to discuss many important details regarding our PEN Club's acceptance into PEN International. This goal was very important to Algirdas. And its not surprising. After all, he was one of the predominant founders of the Lithuanian PEN Club, and he understood perfectly the importance of this hugely influential organization. We knew that after, during the congress, we would expect some serious unpleasantness and roadblocks form the Russian delegation, who were trying to interfere with our goals. And it happened. But Stasys Gostautas of Boston came to the rescue from Germany, where he'd been visiting his daughter. We felt stronger. No one could stop us any longer, although the Muscovites tried, with the help of an unfortunate man from the DDR. But we finally achieved what we'd come for - our PEN Club was accepted into PEN International.
We became full members, and this victory, without a doubt, was very significant, because it opened up opportunities for us to fight for freedom of speech in Lithuania, where censorship still existed at the time, and where we really needed the help of intellectuals from abroad as we began our bitter battle for independence.
Later we received that help at the congress in Madeira. The powerful impact of historical change was storming forwards. New opportunities became available, as well as opportunities for writers to emigrate.
The Kaunas Drama Theater produced Algirdas's play Five Posts in the Market Place. The public's interest in this production was huge. Unfortunately, the play didn't run for very long. Maybe it was in someone's interest for the play, which showed the heroism of the partisan fighters, to disappear from the stage? What can you know? It hasn't been produced in Lithuania again, although ten years have passed and even though, as Algirdas wrote to me, a director found the play in a library and produced it in New York in 2002. That was the second time this play was acted in English. Incidentally, it's worth a mention that Five Posts in the Market Place is the only play remaining in our literature that deals with the long struggle for freedom that took place in Lithuania and its tragic outcome.
Certain people, who were unwilling to go along with the status quo and who were interested in conforming to the activists of the new government (who are really just communists in new colors) were pushed aside. But, Algirdas had too much self-respect and pride to rudely propagate his work or force it on people, grasping for compliments. Therefore, the work of one of our most distinguished writers, Algirdas Landsbergis, should never be forgotten, and that's why the theaters should acknowledge it, so that at least part of the debt we own him can be paid back. His plays should see the light of the theater. That's especially important now, when our national theater has decayed to the point that it is rare to see anything worth producing on stage. In the same way, we should not forget the prose of Algirdas Landsbergis - the contemporary novels, short stories, and articles written directly after World War Two, in a gracefully ironic style.
Algirdas's unique, unforgettable voice, heard so many times over the radio, should never be silenced. His voice is as necessary to us now as it was then, when his native Lithuania was darkened by the storm clouds of those difficult days of occupation, when he spoke to us, hoping for those clouds to part as quickly as possible. That was probably his life's dream. I didn't have many more opportunities to spend time with Algirdas after we met in 1989 in New York, which I visited after the PEN International congress in Canada. But each time I met him is linked with pleasant memories, with the joy of having had the opportunity to know such an enlightened and honorable individual. After independence, he flew to Vilnius once. We enjoyed our time together. He was concerned about the fate of our PEN Club and our activities. He didn't want to see the club stagnate; he wanted to see it participate in significant events. He dreamed about stirring things up, so the club would be the way it was during those first few years of our existence. He always mentioned it in his letters. In his last letter, Algirdas was determined to overcome a mysterious illness, to get stronger, and to visit Vilnius again. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.
Vilnius, September 2004
Translated by Laima Simutis