BEF 2011/18 – Just Things [Lithuania]

06/05/2011

There is an episode in Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King where protagonist Eugene Henderson enters his maid’s cottage after her death.  He is astonished to find a mass of objects, piles of string and cord, china doorknobs, buttons, baby buggies, all sorted into mounds as though in their very physical tangibility Henderson’s maid, Miss Lennox, might fool death and dissolution into passing her by.  But it is all vanity and the mounds are no more than bric-a-brac pyramids.  Sensing her own moribund corporeality the old woman gathers to herself the detritus of her own sepulchre.  Her choice of things to collect, unlike a magpie’s, is not based on their glittering splendour, and the bowerbird is no model to follow.  Rather, they are all objects without function, superannuated, as she knows she herself soon will be.  And so they are simply objects whose mundanity, ubiquity and sameness mean they can be nothing more than “things”: the doorknobs open no more doors, the spools of string bind nothing.  Lithuanian writer Danutė Kalinauskaitė has written a short piece – less a narrative than a discursive meditation – on the effects things have on our lives while we are living and after we have died that shares with Bellow’s novel a delightful fertility of detail written in resplendent prose.

The narrator of Kalinauskaitė’s ‘Just Things‘ is a teacher of Lithuanian language and literature who has set her senior class the task of writing an essay on “things”.  If there is a more vague essay topic it has never been assigned.  Her students, she reports, write mostly about having things, ownership, possession.  It is an unrestrictive conceit that allows Kalinauskaitė to discourse at length on “things,” particularly on the porous boundary that lies between one and the things one uses.  What follows her disappointed reaction to her students’ essays is, in effect, her own, and it is wonderful.

While the students’ essays may possess a slight comedy,

…And her other son has a house with a pool, a sauna, a bar, three dogs, a cat, a chinchilla, an iguana, and the devil knows what else.  But all we have is a kitten named Raisin that we found under a bridge,

the teacher’s essay is more about the “quiet essence of…things”:

In the oppressive heat of the afternoon, as I look at the pumpkins, squash, and zucchini, all scattered in the matt-gold dust, I realize that the very soul of summer is locked in those seeds.  The poplar bonsai is dropping its yellow leaves: on its miniature shoulders, it balances time’s cosmic turn from autumn to winter.  From my ninth-floor apartment window, the silver Mazda looks like a wrinkled piece of aluminum foil after the accident.  The wasps’ nest under the ceiling of the woodshed, like a water-soaked Japanese paper lantern…

Elsewhere, a lock of hair from the head of a terminally ill woman is tied to a table lamp, looking like the “sad, drooping mustache of a Jew sentenced to death.”  This is fine writing.  To that single image Kalinauskaitė marries her theme with a poetic eye.  Shining from above the lock the light is like a light from a Nazi interrogation room, perhaps; the string it dangles from needs not much stretching to form a noose.  And that it comes from someone who knew death was close, as did the Jews of the death camps, makes the metaphor sad, pithy and perfect.

But what of the theme?  Kalinauskaitė writes of “things” – who else in modern history were treated as objects, as things devoid of any measure of sympathetic humanity, as the Jews?  The ghettoes were just the beginning of a long process of dehumanization, registering, stripping, rendering of all superfluities of heart and soul that, quite without the death camps, would surely have detroyed most.

She writes of people who become things during their lifetime, as above, and people who become things after their death, as below:

The dearly departed had been thrown into the coffins like logs, “uncomfortably,” with their arms broken and legs twisted, already disintegrating, faces rotting… Their relatives immediately tried to take the German authorities to court – to protect the right of the dead to their dignity.  But the pragmatic German burial laws dismissed their claims: a body being transported has the same status as an object…You got back what you sent out: things.  We apologize for the poor quality of the objects on their return.  For their depreciated value.

The narrator starts her essay with the refutation of the communist doctrine against private property, denying that “things are impervious to human warmth.”

As the years go by, one even manages to convince oneself that they are in fact permeable…to human warmth and coldness, to crime and punishment, to this world and the next, to everything.”

“It’s quite true,” she writes, “that after death, people take up residence in things.”  In a list of items heterogeneous and mundane – a chipped mirror, a chess piece, a jackknife, etc. – her father resides; in roasry beads and a note from a neighbour, her aunt.  A dead friend survives in several locks of hair.

‘Just Things’ abounds in lists.  Indeed, their specificity seems to mock the vaguely sketched characters of the essay.  Few are named including the narrator and one who is referred to as a friend from “that other city” whose only distinguishing feature is his orange hair.  The narrator’s father disappears into his chess piece and knife and nothing of his physical appearance is offered.  While some might see this as a weakness of the piece, the way the two contrast – the concretely detailed lists with the ghostly characters – can only be in service to Kalinauskaitė’s theme.

Kalinauskaitė has written a strong reflection on the things in our lives from the large to the small, from the tangible to the ephemeral.  Her beautfiully poetic prose warns of the ways we might get lost in things, of the way they suck up the “oxygen of life” and leave us withered and gasping beneath the weight of their proliferation.  But she also recounts the comfort they can bring, the humanity they can retain, like ancient remains in a burial urn, long after we are gone.

‘Just Things’ is translated from Lithuanian by Jūra Avižienis.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website

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