LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 54, No 3 - Fall 2008
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
The Postcolonial Subject in
Vytautas Martinkus’ Novel
Negęsta žvaigždė paukščio pėdoje
(A star in a bird ’s footprint does not fade away)
Daivava Litvinskaitė is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago researching the body as a rhetorical expression in Lithuanian women’s writing. Her current research focuses on postcolonial identity in Lithuanian prose fiction.
In the novel under discussion, Martinkus focuses on Lithuanian history, memory, and the subject’s anxiety for self-expression and agency. To demonstrate the split-minded situation of a colonial subject, the author works with two narratives that represent two different models of history. The first is the current time of the Soviet occupation (the time of the novel), the other narrative is located in the past, going back to the nineteenth century when the National Awakening movement in Lithuania began. The two discourses play a double function in the text: this method not only helps to avoid censorship, but also creates space for the subject’s freedom to speak out. Since the conscious colonial subject is left without agency, he transforms his lived experience and his dreams of the future onto another, safer plane.
In literature, postcolonial theory works as a critical perspective that allows reading and interpreting postcolonial literature in a new way. It approaches literary texts as a particular form of expression that makes reference to collective memory, national identity, an autonomous state, and self-expression. With the theories of Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak, the idea was formed that the texts of colonies are, first of all, an answer to the dominating discourse of the colonizing center. By competing with the center’s language, its oppressive regime, and creating new ways of agency, colonized countries try to decolonize their subjects’ minds. Language becomes the main weapon to contest the colonizer’s ideology. Therefore, an analysis of literary texts written by colonized or oppressed peoples always reveals an overarching metaphor – this is an inherent feature of colonial texts. Such texts can be compared to mirrors: they reflect the colonizer’s system, but like a mirror, the colonizer is portrayed not accurately, but in reverse. Leaving gaps, fissures, and fragmentations for the reader to fill in, postcolonial literature constantly refers to national identity and memory and serves as an artistic and political manifestation. In this article I hope to use these tools to examine a novel by a Lithuanian writer, Vytautas Martinkus, for aspects that speak to national identity and memory and deny the dominating discourse of the Soviet empire through the use of allegory.
In his book Nation and Narration Homi Bhabha claims that every culture, and every nation creates a distinctive symbolical discourse; that is, every culture continuously creates historical consciousness by preserving memory in text in a broad sense. Therefore, he approaches narration as an image of the nation. Colonial culture destroys the ability to retain autonomy and to continue independent discourse, which is changed under the influence of the colonizer’s ideology. The colonizer generates complex dominating and administrative strategies to maintain his status quo vis-à-vis the colonized. In order to resist, the colonized returns to his own cultural sources. This becomes a “practice of survival and supplementarity – between arts and politics, past and present, the public and the private – as its resplendent being is a moment of pleasure, enlightenment or liberation.” 1
Returning to his own history and cultural beginning, the postcolonial subject denies and resists the colonizer’s system. Because he has only a narrow space for agency, he uses various ways to question the ideology enforced by the center, its symbolical systems, and its cultural forms: literary devices such as irony, aporia, ambivalence, indetermination are inherent in these texts, which assume postmodern features. However, the discourse created by the postcolonial subject, as Gayatri Spivak observes, is always in a dialogue with the center’s discourse. Postcolonial literature is necessarily ideologically motivated which, writing about third world literature, Frederic Jameson called “national allegory.”
Jameson claims that in contrast to First world literature, Aesopian language is inherent to national allegory, which codes the political and historical situation of an individual or a nation in allegorical form. He argues that one of the determinants of capitalist culture is a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political. In third-world literature the private individual gains a different nature – a necessarily political one: “The story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.” 2
A national allegory that questions the legality of history doesn’t strive to recreate it; instead, it brings new interpretations to history, which deconstruct the myth of history as an unquestionable discourse. In postcolonial literature, allegory challenges the objectivity of history and approaches it as a bank of possibilities that help to distinguish and rethink the relation and dominance of the colonizer: “By foregrounding the fact that history is not a set of immovable past achievements but a discourse, open, as are all discursive practices, to reinterpretation, post-colonial allegorical narratives show that allegorical transformation can also be an effective means of subverting imperial myths.” 3
Vytautas Martinkus’s novel A Star in a Bird’s Footprint does not Fade Away was published in 1988, at a time when Lithuania was still under Soviet occupation. The novel could be described as a postmodern, postcolonial text, where various genres merge, the border between historical facts, documents and fiction disappears, and the discourses of History, Truth, God and Freedom are questioned. Even though the narrator puts on the mask of a neutral philosopher or detective, it is obvious that the narrative is political and contains features of a national allegory.
Writers in Lithuania, looking for means to express themselves and to pass censorship more easily, constructed various writing models. Among the most popular ones are portraying a family as a microcosm of relations between a colonizer and the colonized and presenting nationalistic ideas through an unreliable medium – dreams or madman’s talk.4 In his book, Martinkus uses national allegory to transfer the national discourse of a colonized individual into a safer time period.
At first glance, the novel consists of two independent discourses: one is narrated by the communist party member Vytautas, who finds a bundle of letters in an old house on the verge of demolition. Through these old documents the story of another protagonist – Aleksandras – is told. The documents are presented in a manner that recreates a court trial: it consists of various letters, protocols, notes from diaries, etc., which interweave with Vytautas’s narrative. The two discourses are separated not only by different functional styles and literary forms, but also by their different historical time. In the novel, dates are implicit: the first protagonist Vytautas reflects upon his existence and constantly returns to the time of his childhood, a period of painful and traumatizing experiences that haunt him for the rest of his life. Vytautas remembers he had just started school when he and his parents had to run and hide to avoid deportation to Siberia. His narrative time implies the experience after the Thaw, but nevertheless when Lithuania is still under Soviet control. Therefore, Vytautas’s narrative encompasses the period of Lithuania’s occupation from 1940 until the time when the book was written; that is, 1988. The second narrative begins in the year 1860, when a lawsuit was brought against Aleksandras Griškevičius, the first Lithuanian aeronaut, and it ends with the 1860s. During this period Lithuania was also a part of the Russian empire. However, in contrast to the first narrative, this historical model implies the Lithuanian national awakening at the end of the nineteenth century. When serfdom was abolished, the peasants were fighting for their rights, Lithuanian national culture started to appear, and the national intellectual movement in the Lowland of Lithuania, known as Samogitia, was very active. Aleksandras himself embodies the metaphoric awakening of that time in Lithuania: he is an intellectual who lived in Samogitia, a real historical figure who was the first Lithuanian who constructed steam engine planes, kites, and wings. Recalling the myth of Daedalus, this image of incipient flight symbolizes a desire for freedom.
Vytautas is a complex and abstruse character; according to Spivak, he is the product of two clashing cultures. He uses at least two masks: as a communist party member, he is treated as a subaltern of the Soviet system. However, his profession – archaeology – is allegorical, suggesting the idea of looking more deeply. Vytautas constantly digs under the foundations of new constructions, buildings associated with the Soviet ideology of building a new and brighter future, where he looks for the historical cultural heritage of Lithuania. His excavation disrupts the intensive construction efforts and, therefore, Vytautas, even though he is a part of the system, becomes suspect and is under close surveillance. When he doesn’t stop, his son mysteriously perishes. This event encourages Vytautas to act: he expresses a wish to reveal something, but the reader has to find out exactly what this is.
Vytautas not only looks for the historical cultural heritage, but starts to “dig” and look for spiritual manifestations inside himself and other individuals, hoping to find the inhibited core of beauty, truth, and freedom, which was implanted in him by his parents during independent Lithuania. Vytautas’s anxiety about how to address his best childhood friend, now a captain of the militia (or police), reveals a painful duality between the public and the private person and becomes one of the main leitmotifs in the novel. Because Vytautas can trust neither his best friend, nor his wife – because he wants to protect her from his son’s fate – Vytautas is forced to transform his personal trauma, oppression, and helplessness into another discourse, one that distances his responsibility to internalizing colonizer’s values. The best source for the transition becomes the historical documents found in the old house.5 Here, using an allegory, Vytautas conveys the colonized person’s unwillingness to submit to the colonizer’s authority. Vytautas resists and struggles for his own beliefs and his hopes of regaining freedom, represented figuratively by the motif of flying. Vytautas’s discourse interweaving with Aleksandras’s discourse in fragments reveals the trauma of the colonized person, whose agency, not only to act but also to think, had been taken away. In postcolonial discourse this is described as colonization of the mind. Vytautas uses these old documents to decolonize his mind and to tell his own story. Despite the fact that Aleksandras lived in the past, he becomes Vytautas’ projection, his alter ego.
The second narrative takes the form of a documentary genre: it consists of various letters, transcripts, complaints, judicial records, etc. It is a written discourse, whereas Vytautas’ narrative is verbal. There are different ways of interpreting the discontinuity of the narratives; nevertheless, in postcolonial literature oral and written history is very important. According to Bill Ashcroft, “Literacy leads to the development of historic consciousness.”6 In Martinkus’ novel the written discourse about freedom becomes a significant part of the national awakening, a turning back to the autonomous historical discourse documented for all time in the text. Recorded, written history is preserved for future generations. Vytautas’ verbal discourse suggests the protagonist’s resistance to his historical presence: according to Bhabha, if he doesn’t transform cultural discourse into a symbolical system, he allows it to disappear in the flow of time. It seems Vytautas consciously focuses on written sources that reflect the beginning of the Lithuanian national awakening, but neglects his own present time. Ironically, in neglecting historical progress, which was very important to communist ideology, he transfers his future vision of the nation to the other historical model, placing his hope in the upcoming generation – the children: “This is already the second week when the children do everything Aleksandras tells them to, the barn is full of their voices. The broken kite looks like new again, only the flight is still delayed.”7
Returning to the past is a central motif in the novel, one that exposes hidden trauma. Traumatic moments haunt Vytautas together with his childhood reminiscences. The recollections are inseparable from his father, who represents the cultural values of independent Lithuania before the occupation and is an authority figure for the child. Vytautas’s father, who was an honest, sensitive but stubborn Samogitian, refuses to joint the collective farm, doesn’t cut down the orchards of neighbors deported to Siberia, and forbids Vytautas to take any trifles from the empty homesteads. The father remains faithful to his own values and beliefs, but the child notices that this strategy is irreconcilable with the new Soviet ideology. Vytautas’ childish resistance echoes throughout his life: when he and his father go to elect a new government, Vytautas decides not to vote, but keeps the ballots to himself. During class they accidentally slip out of his book and the teacher informs on the child to the authorities. This moral injustice teaches Vytautas to approach the governing system differently – like his father, Vytautas lives his life following the values taken from his family, but in order to survive under the colonizer’s system, he is forced to readjust to the “cruelty of a cold, deceitful system”.8 Vytautas learns that his unyielding father was taught a lesson by the secret agents (NKVD) burning his house, even though the official version pronounced lightning was the cause of the fire. In this system Vytautas cannot have any agency without betraying himself. Therefore, he constantly returns not to the “progressive” future of the colonizer, but to the stable world of childhood in order to resist the moral decay of the present. Implicit hope and a critique of Soviet ideology, which sacrificed the individual’s rights and freedom to the welfare of the empire, is conveyed through Aleksandras’ words: “I would like to believe that the features of things change with a change of conditions. A steam engine plane – is the same thing as those we are used to thinking of as heavy. Nevertheless, under other conditions they regenerate, it is as if they become weightless. We need different conditions, different, I say!” 9
The only optimistic feature that gives Vytautas hope is his childhood friend Kajetonas Maura. But he, like Vytautas, is wearing an official civil mask, and, therefore, both friends are forced to suspect one another. At the beginning of the novel, Vytautas, nevertheless, resolves to throw away the veil of estrangement and become himself again; that is, to recreate the value system that existed before colonization and at the same time to return to an autonomous state of independent Lithuania. This courageous act is intensified by the symbolical space where the two friends meet: it is a former church that was transformed into a stable during the Soviet regime, and later into a cinema theater. Vytautas compares his intention with the history of the building: “the fresco was nailed over. Now those boards have fallen. Maybe they have rotted away, or maybe someone tore them off on purpose. Christ looks at you. I hope that I won’t outrage you with my reasoning. If I unveil something.”10 But Vytautas doesn’t reveal anything explicitly; instead, he starts to read Aleksandras’ documents, seeing in them a projection of his own situation, as a critique of the system, and as his hope for the future.
Aleksandas, like Vytautas, was a rebellious and active fighter for rights for freedom while at school. Unlike Vytautas, when he was forced to suspend his studies, Aleksandras remained faithful to his beliefs and bravely declared his ideas and philosophy of life. Being a nobleman, Aleksandras acquired his education in Europe, but returned to Samogitia, where he neglected the comforts of life and invested all of his finances and ideas into the design of flying objects. His freedom of thought, his quest for truth and beauty is an inseparable part of the idea of flying. Because of the national symbols painted on them, the wings he created suggest a metaphor for Lithuanian freedom: “Besides, it has been reported that there are strange signs on all of the flying devices you have made so far: the sun, a serpent, a vytis.”11 Aleksandras is forbidden to draw Lithuanian national symbols, instead, he is ordered to paint imperial Russian ones:
“It was strictly ordered to draw only the Divine, that is, the all-seeing eye of god or the imperial two-headed eagle with signs of power on kites and steam engine planes.”12 Religious and imperial government symbols in this quote are not accidentally juxtaposed: during the time of the Russian empire, the idea that the tsar was God’s trustee or even the image of God was still alive. On the other hand, writers were encouraged to portray Christian traditions and institutions negatively, and this helped the work to pass censorship. Besides, the medieval church institution and its functioning was related to imperial administration and governing, which is why in the novel it becomes not only a contributor to, but a microcosm of imperial ideology. The church servants, through spying, persecuting, and denouncing Aleksandras to the officials, reveal the connection between action and ideology: a humble Hegelian slave, obedient to all conditions and requirements, is required. Aleksandas is particularly displeasing because of his liberal thinking, which is very attractive to the younger generation.
The narrative about Aleksandras is constructed as if it were a trial where the reader himself is invited to be the judge. Shifting through the various forms of information about Aleksandras’ personality and the historical record, the reader has to find his own truth, because the truth in the colonizer’s discourse is impossible to find. After Aleksandras’ death, his brother organizes a so-called trial of conscience, but with secret interference, it turns into a farce of imperial justice. The judge and witnesses perform a play because, being puppets of the Tsar, they already know the judgment of the court.
Even though Aleksandras’s narrative consists of documents dated in the nineteenth century that bear witness to the bureaucratic system of the Russian empire, it is easily recognized as an ironic mimicry of Soviet bureaucracy. It reveals the characteristics and practices of censorship and the secret services: the reading of letters and screening of parcels, the interception and recruitment of spies and agents while looking for insubordinate or liberal manifestations. Once found, those individuals are incriminated as madmen or secretly killed in an attempt to prevent them from entering the collective memory.
The pivotal events of Aleksandras’ life also remain mysterious: without any explanation he is fired from his job as chancellor, publicly accused of incestuous relations with his daughters, and finally, when his son dies in a mysterious accident, he is indicted for murder. All these ostensibly false accusations are the price Aleksandras pays to remain faithful to himself: his conscience, his relentless ambition for freedom and truth, and his neglect of everyday life was so severe a challenge to the system that Aleksandras has to be eliminated. His death resembles extrajudicial executions of NKVD victims: strange men appear in Aleksandras’s house, beat him half conscious, after that take him outside, and Aleksandras is never seen again.
In conclusion, it could be said that using two narratives within one framework, Vytautas Martinkus in the novel A Star in a Bird’s Footprint Does not Fade Away creates alternative worldviews that are encoded and can be read as national allegory. To demonstrate the split-minded situation of a colonial subject, the author works with two narratives that represent two different models of history. The first is the current time of the Soviet occupation (the time of the novel) whereas the other narrative is located in the past, going back to the end of the nineteenth century when the National Awakening movement in Lithuania began. The two discourses play a double function in the text: this method not only helps to avoid censorship but also creates space for the subject’s freedom to speak out. Since the conscious colonial subject is left without agency, he transposes his living experience and his dreams of the future onto another, safer plane.
Different forms of discourses found in the novel – the oral and the written – are quite significant in postcolonial studies. Homi Bhabha observes that if the nation doesn’t convert the cultural discourse into a symbolic system, the discourse is condemned to disappear in the flow of time. In the novel, the discourse that implies the Soviet occupation of Lithuania takes the form of a verbal performance and, therefore, is doomed to disappear, while the second discourse which represents the freedom of Lithuania takes the form of a documentary and is transferred to future generations.
The author would like to thank Elizabeth Novickas for helping with translation and with providing valuable comments.