4 out of 5: Vilnius Poker is the story of a tragic love affair that unfolds during the 1970s in the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius, then suffering under the oppression of Soviet rule. The novel is presented from four different points of view. The first 300 pages of this 500-page novel are told from the perspective of Vytautas Vargalys, a brilliant but unstable 53-year-old library clerk in love with a co-worker in her 20's, aptly named Lolita. As a survivor of the Soviet labor camps, Vytautas is troubled by a pervading sense of paranoia that gradually leads to madness and tragedy.
After Vytautas's tragic tale ends, the point of view switches to that of Martynas Poška, Vytautas's co-worker from the library who narrates his story via an “mlog”—a kind of stream-of-consciousness electronic diary. Martynas describes many of the same people and events that appeared in Vytautas's narrative but without the filter of Vytautas's lunacy. This new perspective reveals many of the novel's truths to be relative, and the tragic end to Vytautas's and Lolita's love becomes murkier. The final two narratives, one of which is told in a voice from the afterlife, continue the obfuscation and suggest that life in Vilnius is nothing more than "a giant poker game, played by madmen."
Vilnius Poker is dense with ideas, literary allusions, historic events, mythological references, symbolism, and linguistic and philosophical theories. It invites and rewards careful study. Elizabeth Novickas's nimble translation delivers the stylistic diversity that must have been intended by Gavelis. Just as beautiful and brutal elements coexist in the narrative, the prose is alternately poetic and crude.
The novel's highly constrained physical and temporal scope provides a dramatic contrast to its sweeping intellectual scope. The action involves just a few primary characters acting within a single city over the course of only a month. Despite these limitations, the novel's unique approach to time expands its reach. In Vilnius Poker, time does not progress linearly but instead loops through and over itself, creating worlds within worlds in a space that initially seems small.
Reading Vilnius Poker is a serious undertaking that will not appeal to casual readers. Certain parts of the book, particularly the first 300 pages, are repetitive and sometimes tedious. The resulting effect is a highly believable portrayal of deteriorating rationality, an effect that might drive some readers towards their own kind of madness. Those willing to devote the required mental energy, however, will be rewarded with a supremely interesting literary experience. In the words of Martynas: "Never forget that we are all, in a certain sense a bit Albanian. All of us are just a tad Lithuanian. And worst of all--every one of us, in the depths of our hearts, is a Vytautas Vargalys."