Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 1, 2010

Vilnius Poker

vilnius pokerby Ricardas Gavelis
translated by Elizabeth Novickas

I’ve been struggling for over a week to come up with some concrete thoughts about this book, with very limited results. While reading it I wavered between genuine, if somewhat abstract, enjoyment, and near-physical illness. More than once I fought off the desire to fling the book across the room in utter horror and frustration, and then moments later I found myself underlining an especially lyrical phrase. Gavelis and his character Vytautas Vargalys drove me crazy!

Who is the heroic and tragic and deeply disturbed (and disturbing) Vargalys? Emotionally stunted by coming of age in a labor-camp, Vargalys writhes through life tormented by visions of his lost family, and locked in an epic battle with Them, the creators of the dead-eyed humanity who haunt the streets of Vilnius and the countryside of Lithuania, and to some degree or other the rest of the world.

The events of a single day and of Vargalys’ entire life are conveyed by him in a looping, seeming chaos – individual pixels, colors repeating without apparent relation to each other until you step away. The further away you step the more the picture comes together, and Vargalys zooms in and out repeatedly while maintaining a dizzying clarity. For the first 300 pages of the book you are trapped in his mind as his consciousness roams back and forth through this horrible landscape, past and present and future colliding. This style of narration appealed to me, and I was swept along by it even while I was completely appalled by the grotesque details of his life, by himself and his relationships to the people around him. There is a lot of imagery, and certain details surged out of the muck for air repeatedly – birds, or the lack of them; cockroaches; fog; excrement; sexual organs; stray dogs; and eyes, dead eyes, staring eyes, the glazed and deadly gaze of the Vilnius Basilisk. While the narrative style was compelling, the content was often almost more than I could stand. “If I come across one more wretched reference to genitalia of any type I’m going to scream!” I remember thinking. I almost gave it up entirely on four occasions.

There were hauntingly beautiful, evocative descriptions of the city of Vilnius though, and there was a bit of a storyline that out of pure curiosity I just couldn’t abandon. From the beginning there was a sense of dreadful fate and I lurched through those 300 pages in stubborn pursuit of what was going to happen. Vargalys works in a library, has coffee breaks with his co-workers, sleeps with some of them, watches TV with others, is seduced by a lovely woman named Lolita, and then… shrouded in vines and dusk and seen through grimy windows a murder happens. The narrative is then given into the hands of three other citizens of Vilnius, three other players in the great poker game, and what their cards reveal brings the whole book together in an entirely unsatisfactory and yet inevitable way.

Did I like this book? No not really – not at all to be perfectly honest. But the reading experience was fascinating and much as I would have liked to set the book aside, I was captivated by it. Vargalys was so unlikeable in so many ways – delusional, occasionally violent, with a really revolting view of women and sexuality that I can only be marginally grateful proved to be part of his characterization and not Gavelis’ real opinion…! Somehow though, there was a weird nobleness to Vargalys. Tall, powerful, and handsome to all reports, his bizarre ravings in the context of his own inner landscape had a semblance of the epic and heroic, and at times I could almost believe in him as the tragic champion, the knight in shinning armor, fighting to save Vilnius and humanity from Them:

‘…my meaning is to follow Their footsteps to the very end, wherever that should lead. Even if the world itself hungered for destruction, I was obliged to prevent it…I know this for sure: as long as at least one person thinks this way, everything is not lost.’

Makes me think of Sam and Frodo and their desperate journey to save Middle Earth from darkness. This is not a book about heroes, or the triumph of good though. It is about one mans attempt to escape the ‘unbroken sugary fog‘ that is left in the wake of human atrocities. Whether or not he succeeds is also wrapped in fog.

Conceptually interesting, provocative, and vividly realized…the most agonizing book I’ve read all year. I still feel a bit shaky when I think about it, so for now and probably forever I will let it rest.

This was The Wolves‘ November read. Join us in December for Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.


  1. Sounds like quite an experience. Maybe it was the writer in you that made you hang on? Or a tiny little bit of masochism? I am not entirely sure I would like to embark on a journey through a mental landsacpe adorned with such a lot of genitalia allusions. Oddly enough this sounds rather sterile, not a sensual or erotic read I gather? Your next wolfish books sounds more tempting to me but at present I am reading Sebald. Those who read him in English don’t know what they miss… I am being ironic. I compared the English with the German which I am reading and you will not belive it: it is more readable, smoother, nicer in English.

    • Several people have called the sexual references “sophomoric” but to me that made sense for the character, since he’s kind of stranded in an adolescent idea of relationships… “Ack!!” was still a frequent reaction of mine though. Lots more going on in the book aside from that, but it was definitely a main theme…

      What Sebald are you reading? He’s near the top of my TBR list for sure. Do you recommend Bell or Hulse as translators, or does it matter?

  2. I relate with so much of what you say here, Sarah – I think it’s safe to say that as divided as all the readers were on this book, none of us were hankering after more genitalia references by the end of it! I did find it gripping and almost hypnotic, though, in an ugly, disturbing way. And was so fascinated by the method of Vargalys’s narration that it got me through the more disgusting/challenging moments, though not without . Anyway, glad to read your thoughts and that you at least got something out of the experience…!

    • Hypnotic is an exactly the word I was searching for. I was reading a certain amount a day so that I could deal with the length and get through it in time, but after awhile I was reading with a kind of crazy hunger, ripping through huge chunks at a time and definitely compelled to keep on reading in spite of my sometimes horrified reaction. Very interesting experience.

  3. Hypnotic! I am interested now.
    I am reading Austerlitz. The translation seemed ok but he evened out the German, if you know what I mean. The structure of the sentences is a nightmare in German. It took me 50 pages to get into the rhythm but then it is great. I don’t think he is overrated as someone stated on another blog. No, he is very special. A word-weaver, not a linear story-teller. The whole novel is a web, tiny, tiny little threads. You need to step back a little to see the patter. Maybe not hypnotic but fascinating.

    • Non-linear storytelling is something I really enjoy so that’s even more incentive to try Sebald. Looking forward to it!

  4. fantastic post!

    i know what you mean about those repulsive reads that still compel you turn the page.–the writer can be gifted that way?–like it was challenge between morbid writing group fellows: make a character incredibly hideous and make the reader finish the book.

    sounds like my kind of read, oddly enough, but I may have to pass and just give your post another read instead.

    • Glad you got something out of my garbled post! I would be curious to see what you thought of this book, but I can’t in all honesty recommend it exactly… Just know what you’re getting into, and if you take the plunge – awesome. 🙂

  5. You know, I wonder why exactly VV is supposed to be the hero. Because he hates the dictatorship he lives under? Well, considering he survived one of its labor camps, that’s kind of a logical outcome.

    Call me a kill-joy, but as far as I’m concerned, extreme misogyny and heroism don’t mix.

    • I heartily agree. And it is strange indeed that everyone around VV seemed to respect him in such an out of proportion way. Especially Stefa. There’s a weird awe there… It’s not like he’s the only person who has suffered.

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