As a teenager, I was something of a mischief-maker. My friends and I egged houses, stole funny street signs, made prank phone calls, left flaming bags of poo on people’s front porches, and put porno magazines emblazoned with outrageously obscene titles in mailboxes with elaborate subscription renewal letters. When one of us finally turned eighteen, we would all pile into my father’s van with a BB gun and shoot drunkards in the ass as they stumbled out of the numerous shithole bars that dotted the streets of my hometown (I still snicker at some of those drunkard’s overly-cinematic swandives and calls for help. C’mon, it’s a BB in the butt, not Platoon.)
In college, I talked my way into getting hired at the campus bar, only to be fired three weeks later for serving minors. (In retrospect, the theme night ‘Any Age Thursday’ was probably a mistake.) Since I was already on Level 1 Social Probation for wandering into an Honors Mentorship meeting with an open container (I was under the impression that the Honors Mentorship program was a casual affair, like a cocktail party), this last misstep landed me in a disciplinary hearing. This hearing was conducted in the office of the university’s Chief Disciplinary Officer, which was an extremely drab room in the basement of some random campus building. The only decoration in this office was a gigantic framed map of Middle Earth. (And keep in mind: this was years before those Peter Jackson movies.) The thought of being lectured on misconduct by someone who daily scrutinized the contours of the Misty Mountains was humiliating.
My hearing didn’t last long. Having accepted my punishment of Level 2 Social Probation, I was preparing to leave when I was wrongfooted by an unexpected question:
– Navicky? the Chief Disciplinary Officer asked. Is that Lithuanian?
– Do you know what part of Lithuania your family is originally from?
I remember thinking: How the hell would I know THAT? I was just some kid from Cambridge, Ohio. To me, a map of Lithuania was as incomprehensible as a map of Middle Earth.
– Well, I hear that there are lots of good Lithuanian restaurants in Pittsburgh. Ever been?
Had I ever been to a Lithuanian restaurant… in Pittsburgh? The only restaurant that my family and I went to repeatedly was called Ted’s Tivoli Palace, and we only went there because it was across Southgate Parkway from the hotel where my grandparents stayed when they came to visit.
I left my disciplinary hearing burdened with a strange feeling of shame. I wasn’t ashamed about serving Killian’s Red to wealthy eighteen year olds. No, I felt ashamed because here I was carrying a Lithuanian last name around like a train pulling a caboose and I didn’t know a single thing about the country. I didn’t know the colors of the Lithuanian flag. I didn’t even know if there was a Lithuanian flag. I didn’t know what kind of food was served in a Lithuanian restaurant. (Goulash, right? Doesn’t every country east of Germany eat goulash for every meal?) I didn’t know if Lithuanian men wore big fuzzy hats and did that silly dance where they crossed their arms and bounce up and down while kicking their legs? (Why wouldn’t they? That sounds like a party!)
After college, I decided to start acquiring more knowledge about Lithuania. The first thing I did was buy an original 1992 Lithuania Olympic Tie Dye basketball T-shirt. I also kept a running list of Lithuanian players in the NBA. (Jonas Valančiūnas ain’t no joke!) I drank Lithuanian vodka on my one and only trip to the Russian Tea Room. I visited Brooklyn’s Lithuanian Square. I watched a news segment on the Lithuanian rugby team. (Hey, seventeen straight victories ain’t no joke either!) My goal of learning about Lithuanian was like my goal of learning to speak French: it had no set timetable or direction. I just picked up things here and there.
Just as my quest to learn about Lithuania was picking up steam, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated was published, and suddenly every writer on my block became fascinated with exploring their Eastern European heritage. Finding Foer’s narrative phony and cloying, I recoiled. To me, the book had more to do with the Ivy League than the Iron Curtain. Adding to my distrust of Foer’s story were the strange, scurrilous rumors that surrounded the book’s publication. According to these rumors, it had been Joyce Carol Oates, Foer’s thesis advisor at Princeton, who had handpicked, handheld, and handed Everything is Illuminated over to the publishing world. Foer’s career as a novelist had been given to him; he hadn’t had to work a single day for it at all!
(If anyone feels like I’m being unjust to Jonathan Safran Foer, check out what Malcolm Gladwell has to say about him, Oates, and the creation of Everything is Illuminated in his article Late Bloomers (The New Yorker, October 20, 2008). It’s pretty frickin’ amazing!)
To me, Everything is Illuminated felt fake; I wanted a narrative that felt alive, and this is exactly what I found in Bronwyn Mauldin’s novel Love Songs of the Revolution (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 2014). [For the sake of full disclosure: I’m part of CCLaP’s extended family. They published my novel Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking in February.]
In the book’s press release, Love Songs of the Revolution is described as a “downbeat spy thriller in the vein of Graham Greene or John Le Carré, set in the very last days of Communism in Lithuania, 1989, a morally murky and really gripping tale of murder, betrayal, and revolution.” This description is both true and not. Or to be more specific: this description is true for 70% of the novel. I’ll explain.
Seventy percent of Love Songs of the Revolution is narrated by Martynas Kudirka, who describes himself as “an artist. Not a particularly good one, but a successful one.” Before a forced relocation to Los Angeles, Kudirka lived in Vilnius, where he was a painter in the style of “Lithuanian Soviet realism” [cringe] for the Lithuanian Communist Party’s Section for Propaganda and Agitation [doublecringe].
As a narrator, Kudirka possesses all the charm of a bowl of cold beet soup. His tone reminded me of a quote from a recent David Remnick article in The New Yorker on the current state of Russian-American diplomatic relations: “There are people who encounter Russia and see nothing but the merciless weather, the frowns, the complicated language that, in casual encounters, they hear as rudeness, even menace.”
The bad weather, the frowning, the menacing rudeness: it’s all there in Kudirka’s narrative voice. In fact, squint slightly, and it’s easy to envision Kudirka proudly walking around shirtless in public, à la Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Kudirka’s rough, churlish tone begins immediately. Here’s a quote from the book’s fifth paragraph:
“The story I am going to tell is true; therefore it will not please you. It is direct and straightforward. The dead remain dead, and the guilty go unpunished. The sepia-tinted dream you might wish it to be, turns out to be a dull, faded reality. When you close this book, you will drown and use words like “unresolved.”
Kudirka’s story involves all of the normal spy thriller twists and turns: the murdered wife, the naïve husband, the appearance of the wife’s beautiful, mysterious female lover, a gang of sneering Russian toughs, incriminating documents hidden in a valise, a shadowy American (CIA?), a gunfight in a graveyard, sleepless nights, furtive glances, and clouds of cigarette smoke.
Upon finishing Kudirka’s story, I experienced an odd sensation. I enjoyed reading about Lithuania; I knew nothing about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, the Baltic Way movements, or the SUPER badass story about how the founding of Vilnius included an Iron Wolf sighting. I also appreciated Kudirka’s distinct unlikability; unsympathetic narrators are extremely difficult to write, and Mauldin sculpts hers with remarkable skill and aplomb. And yet, I felt disappointed in the actual events of the story. I was so disappointed, in fact, that I considered not reading the book’s thirty-six pages of “Extras.” And then I remembered how, in the book’s third paragraph, Kudirka warned me that I would be disappointed in the resolution of his story. This felt odd, so I kept reading. As it turned out, not reading the book’s “Extras” would have been a HUGE mistake, for it’s in the final thirty-six pages that Love Songs of the Revolution truly explodes.
Extra No. 1 is a fictional review of the novel from the Los Angeles Times Book Review. No surprise here, I thought. Mauldin is certainly not the first novelist to envision her own review. (C’mon David Remnick, you’d love my book!)
Extra No. 2 is a blog post by a doctoral candidate at UCLA named Delaney Cantor. In this blog post, Cantor points out that a number of the novel’s names are problematic; for example, “Martynas Kudirka shares the last name with Vincas Kudirka, who was a poet who wrote the country’s national anthem.” (Hmmm, interesting, I thought.) Underneath this blog post are comments, including one that points out that the “first book ever published in the Lithuanian language was The Simple Words of Catechism, 1547 by Martynas Mazvydas.” (That’s odd, I thought.)
The next comment was a real shocker:
A real Lithuanian said… “Seriously. Love Songs reads like a bad Le Carré knockoff. Anybody who knew Vilnius in the 1980s can punch holes in the story by page ten.”
WHOA! What the hell is going on here? Why would a novelist include a fictional slam of her novel at the end of the book? Now I was really confused and intrigued.
Extra No. 4 is Delaney Canton’s Twitter feed. (Who is this person, and why is she important to the story?)
Extra No. 5, supposedly from Variety.com, is a press release announcing that Doug Liman, the director of ‘The Bourne Identity,’ is set to produce and direct a movie adaptation of Love Songs of the Revolution. Imagining what director would film the movie version of your novel is a game that I suspect many novelists play daily. (C’mon Christopher Nolan, return my emails! After all, our mothers were in the same class at Rocky River High School!)
Extra No. 7 is a post from Gawker.com; Extra No. 8 is four and a half pages of “deleted scenes.” Neither did anything to clear up my confusion regarding what was going on.
Extra No. 9 was another shocker: a poster announcing a candlelight vigil in memory of Delaney Cantor, who had been murdered while conducting Fulbright research in Lithuania. (WHAT? Delaney Cantor is DEAD?!)
Before this information could be properly processed, the narrative flow returned to its ‘Just the Facts, Ma’am’ presentation. Extra No. 10 is a press release from the Association of Free Lithuanian Patriots in America announcing the unveiling of a Memorial to Lithuanian freedom fighters in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens within Rockefeller Park. Having visited the Lithuanian memorial in Rockefeller Park, I knew that this press release was not 100% fiction.
Extra No. 11 is a banal tax return from something called the Atwater Social Endowment Fund. (Huh?)
The novel’s final “Extra” is a transcript from NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. You’ll have to read it yourself; I’m not giving anything way for fear of being labeled a “Spoiler.” But I will say this: the resolution of both the novel and the “Extras” is nothing short of brilliant.
Strange documents, questionable characters, quasi-truths, clandestine organizations, an unsolved murder? These are the very lifeblood of a spy thriller. I was astounded at Mauldin’s ability to construct a narrative that allowed readers to actually experience what it felt like to stumble into the world of global espionage. And, for me, this experience was anything but comforting. Questions abounded, confusion reigned as my mind kept demanding: What is going on here? My bafflement reminded me of Martynas Kudirka’s blunt assessment of his own skills as a spy: “perhaps espionage comes naturally to some men. I would have expected it to come easily to me.” No, espionage doesn’t come naturally to most men, nor does writing about it come naturally to most authors. But it obviously does to Bronwyn Mauldin. Love Songs of the Revolution is a reminder that, at its best, a spy thriller is a story about real people and real events. This realization lifted both Lithuania and Martynas Kudirka, flaws and all, off the page and into a world of complexity, intrigue, questions, confusion, and mischief-makers. In other words, Love Songs of the Revolution navigates the wonderfully treacherous, mysterious world known as reality.