Books replace travel: not my Vilnius in Vaiva Rykštaitė’s novel

I have never been so ‘grounded’ for 12 years or so – although travel options briefly reopened in summer, going to see my family and friends in Lithuania became overly complicated, and going on a holiday abroad felt irresponsible. So since March the furthest I’ve been from this rock is a smaller nearby rock that is Gozo. This left me jealously watching my friends’ Instagram feeds, full of mushrooms, trees, camping, greenery, trees, hiking, and did I mention trees? I am exploring a fuller palette of feelings, by extension. Longing is not something I normally feel, but the intense longing to see trees enjoying themselves in a natural environment, with birds, bees and maybe even small mammals, resulted in a personal essay published in this lovely book. For the first time, I’m a published writer.

Yet it is other people’s writing rather than my own that kept me company throughout these dull and challenging months. And I am still trying to make a point to read literature from countries I couldn’t visit. Unexpectedly, I found myself looking for Lithuanian literature to replace a missing visit to familiar cities.

Vaiva Rykštaitė has been a relatively well-known writer for over a decade. Currently based in Hawaii, she writes columns in the press and is a frequent guest in various lifestyle magazines. In Plaštakių sindromas (‘butterfly syndrome’ – we use this word when the butterflies are nocturnal, and especially in poetic language and rhetoric, to speak of moths flying into a source of light, to their own demise), published in 2009, the writer situates her own young namesake in a decade when people were intoxicated with the idea that everything is possible, oblivious to both their constraints and the audacity of their privilege. So young Vaiva finds herself confronted with an unpleasant situation: her ex is threatening her with violence, probably intoxicated, and probably means it. But let me explain it first, she offers, and takes the reader along, meandering through time, to explain how her quest for the intensity of life led her to an outrageously comfortable life where she is desperate to create problems for herself, just to feel alive, young and free.

Vaiva doesn’t consider herself very bright, but it is clear that she is resourceful and resilient. Along the way, she falls for and shakes off love interests, eating disorders, and drug abuse. The ease with which she slips in and out of new roles looks enviable, but it stands in the way of her plan to create drama for herself, and she cannot imagine experiencing her youth without drama. She wants parties, sex, drugs and words to stand for something more, the pulse of life itself, but her self is unperturbed as these things come and go.

Extremely privileged (her father gives her an easy part-time job in his business and buys her an apartment – something very few young people at the time had the luxury of owning without loans), Vaiva experiences her city as a chess board of possibilities. There are friends to invite over, potential lovers, changing seasons, and nightlife. As a teenager, she unexpectedly starts to dabble in modelling, and, despite developing an eating disorder that she later shakes off with remarkable ease, she adds the privilege of her tall body to the list of things she can use to her advantage. This takes her straight to Milan. Throughout all this, she wants to see herself as a person with values, and despite her readiness to jump at any adventure, she manages to set clear boundaries. This leads to some losses, but not in the long term.

This kind of imagination, the almost deliberately naive belief that everything is possible, is typical of Lithuanian women’s writing in the early noughties. On my Lithuanian blog, I reviewed two books by Gabija Grušaitė, where her characters effortlessly become music superstars, roving video journalists despite their lack of experience or ethics, and rich international influencers. Just go abroad, and you will fulfill your wildest dreams, her writing screams. For Rykštaitė’s character though Milan is open and accessible and begging for her body, but not essential. Her home city is enough as a realm of possibilities, because things, people and trends flow across borders anyway.

I was a young student around the same time as Vaiva the character would have been, but, despite also believing that the world is open and everything is possible in my own different way, I lived in a completely separate bubble. My friends and I used to talk about those people, known at the time as ‘golden youth’, their flings and their cocaine parties, as a separate tribe. Their adventures and dramas did not seem particularly exciting, and although I vaguely knew who of my acquaintances might be a part of this subculture, privileged, overwhelmed with hormones and lack of restrictions, and bored out of their wits, I never showed any curiosity in their lifestyle. So it was exciting to experience this subculture with Vaiva, meet the ambitious models and DJs and pushers in her life. It was interesting to get to know her and see that, while she was tasting more of ‘forbidden fruits’, in her heart she was chasing very conservative ideals of finding ‘the One’, submerging herself into passionate romantic love, and discharging her youthful energy, draining her young body in various ways and throwing herself all over the place merely to prepare for settling down.

The book is written in a conversational tone, frequently addressing the reader. I wouldn’t say it’s the most exciting or enriching story in the world, but the strong belief the narrator has in the authenticity of her oversized drama and my own newly found curiosity in the subculture I didn’t like much in my city made it a page-turner for me in this pandemic situation.

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