Ričardas Gavelis: Sun–Tzu gyvenimas šventame Vilniaus mieste (Sun-Tzu’s Life in the Holy City of Vilnius)
Sun-Tzu was a Chinese general and strategist, best known for his book The Art of War. This book is not about him. Rather it is about character who calls himself the Sun-Tzu of Vilnius, who is every bit as scheming as the real Sun-Tzu. Indeed, I would say that he is more aggressive, colourful and dynamic than his namesake, rarely letting up for a minute in his sexual appetite, conniving in post-Soviet Lithuania and in open warfare with all and sundry.
His views on life are direct. We all live in interim coffins – (Everyone is deceased and lives in his interim coffin; it’s just that not everyone realises this); his enemies – there are many of them – are cockles. He hides out, in disguise, concealed from his enemies by make-up.
He had a difficult childhood. His mother, Gorgeous Rožė, in particular, was colourful. My mother was never just a murderess; she was the Angel of Death itself and She was never a mother to me; she remained an alien from an airless planet. He hated her, he tells us, but he was also sexually attracted to her, spying on her as she undressed (which she frequently did). He also stalked her, following her as she visited her friend Irena. The pair did a naked, erotic dance together, which gave him his first erection.
Worse still, his mother tried to make him something he did not want to be – the Vilnius Da Vinci. She sent him to various schools, to study art, music and other disciplines. He was hugely successful at all of them, though also hated all of them. I turned into the most Renaissance teenager in Vilnius, a sickly da Vinci with eyes watering from ceaseless effort.
His father or, rather, his first father, as he is called, was different. (We later learn that his name was Ričardas.) My first father was a deconstructionist—only he didn’t deconstruct someone’s despicable written texts, but rather all the Lord’s creation. It was his first father that really showed him Vilnius. We would simply quietly and meekly stand in the front hall or the corner of some room and watch how the family lived its life. They fought, cooked meals, and even made love in our sight, without ever seeing us.
But this was the time of the Soviet occupation and, one day, the KGB came, accused him of organising a nationalist group and killed him.
Besides his mother and Irena, Sun-Tzu had two loves. The first was Sara, a Jewish girl, whom he he met at school. The second was Laima whom he first met, as an adult, when he walked out of his flat completely naked, to deal with the noisy frogs. They ended up marrying and, indeed, when we first meet her, it is their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and she is complaining that she never sees him.
Two things change his life. The first is his second father, i.e. his stepfather, Aleksas, as his mother remarried. Our hero first met him at Sara’s funeral. Aleksas was very different from his first father. He was rich and cleverly bought up the property of those, primarily Jews, fleeing Lithuania in the late Communist period. He had squirmed deeply into the government’s security labyrinths, like a pale slimy worm. This enabled him to get exit permits for the Jews on the cheap, in return for their valuables. When Communism finally fell, he was able to get hold of state secrets which he and then, later, our hero, could use to blackmail those who had secretly cooperated with the Soviets. He was also bisexual and was happy to have sex not only with his new wife but with her son.
Once Communism fell it was Aleksas who encouraged our hero to take advantage of this. You could be the minister of souls, the supreme secret organiser of this country. You could rule the entire world network of Lithuanians—from Siberia to Chicago.
Much of the book shows just how our hero did this. In corrupt post-Soviet Lithuania, there were plenty of opportunities for crooks and our hero took full advantage of then, along with his cronies, particularly Jogaila Štombergas aka Patris and Apples Petriukas, the greatest theorist of the free market between the Urals and London. Bribery, corruption and outright theft are all part of the game. Evil is sweet. As sweet as honey. As sweet as an orgasm. As sweet as an orgasm spread with honey.
While our hero is a crook and a sex maniac – he has affairs and obsesses about both breasts and vaginas – he is also something of a philosopher and scientist. From studying Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, which gives him his pseudonym (I am called Sun-Tzu, I am a military leader, and my field of battle is the entire world, artificially compressed into the Holy City of Vilnius) to studying the second brain, a subtle knot of nerves in the common tangle of the digestive tract, he is not your ordinary gangster and it is this, to a great extent, that makes this novel so original and different. Some of it certainly is evil, such as turning cockles into works of art, but that is all part of Gavelis’ entirely tongue-in-cheek dissection of post-Soviet Lithuania. He wanted to understand the Lithuanian civilisation—unlike me, he believed such a thing existed, our hero comments.
This novel is a certainly a roller coaster ride, as Gavelis never lets up, right up to the inevitable apocalypse at the end and, of course, if there is going to be an apocalypse, it will start in the sewers of Vilnius. Before we get there, however, Gavelis has charged through Vilnius, all guns blazing, in a wonderful, degenerate romp, totally devoid of any redeeming features. It is thoroughly original, work, witty, clever, complex and determinedly negative about Lithuania and Lithuanians (that entire crowd was absolutely stupid, just like their rowdy little leaders. All together they were complete dolts). This was Gavelis’ final novel before his death and he certainly went out with a bang.
First published by Tyto alba in 2002
First published in English by Pica Pica Press in 2019
Translated by Elizabeth Novickas