Danutė Kalinauskaitė – Just Things
Itis' quite true that after death, people take up residence in things.
While reading Lithuanian author Danutė Kalinauskaitė's short story, Just Things (trans. Jūra Avižienis), one is constantly reminded of Georges Perec's first work, Things, a novel written in 1965 which captured in cool, methodical prose the hold our possessions have over us. They are how we judge, value and estimate ourselves, they are how we compare, they are how we know whether we are doing well or poorly. Kalinauskaitė's view is perhaps less cynical, though she imbues possessions with the spirit of their owners, or how her relatives remind her of certain objects.
Kalinauskaitė's story describes the possessions a person owns and leaves the person themselves to the imagination of the reader. It's almost as though we have, in Just Things, a series of immaculately rendered paintings in which everything but the focal point of the picture has been captured in stunning detail, while the individual remains blank on the canvas, unsketched, seen only by their outline.
When people start dying around you – and once you turn forty, that's pretty much unavoidable – you start to notice what happens to the things the departed have left behind. These objects are valuable, after all: juicers, dishes, beddings, towels...
Consider two separate but connected concepts. The first is that there is a certain societal expectation that by a specific a level of material comfort will have been attained. “At twenty-five I will...”; “At thirty I will have bought a house...”; “At forty I will have a few children and two cars...”; “At fifty I will pay for my daughter's wedding and pay off my house...” and so forth. If you do not have these expectations yourself others will, and these pressures cause one to reassess their achievements in an effort to measure up. Am I doing okay? I haven't reached those goals! Or perhaps I have. Either way, I'm measuring – therein lies Kalinauskaitė's concern. The second point comes when we wonder what we are to do with the possessions of the recently deceased. I take a look around my study and see hundreds of books, notepads, cups, pens I hold dear because of what they have written but no-one else will care a whit for them, notes, letters, correspondence, a sculptured piece of wood that shows a muscular man holding his face in his hands while he curls up into a ball which I use as a bookend, a mostly complete bottle of scotch, a number of wooden boxes which once, but no longer, contained silk ties, an old iPod, a dried-out bottle of black Italian ink, a rose gold ring worn by a great-great grandmother, a number of bent wire coat hangers, a packet of photographs of me during my schools years, an invitation to a party long past. These items are junk. These items make up my life. What use are they to anyone once I am dead? And yet they are the things by which my identity can, in a certain and specific but no less meaningful way, be understood. Again, Kalinauskaitė understands that while such a list may not exactly capture a person's essence to them, they certainly go a ways in explaining an individual to another – we judge based on what we see, and what we see are things.
I won't pretend to be ambivalent about “material goods.” I like things. I find them interesting. They are the sowers of discord, but also act as peacemakers – like fungi that, with their long microscopic threads, have managed to interweave themselves into our human interactions. Things are like fragments, which nonetheless can unspool a sense of wholeness...Things: the signs of fate and all fate's prophets. Archives or depositories, hiding places or artifacts. Things in the attic unnecessary to anyone, living out their final incarnations: nobody will ever take them anywhere again. Life after life.
There's a plot of sort in Just Things, but by and large Kalinauskaitė's story is concerned with the impact things have on our lives and perceptions, and how we are changed by what we possess, and what others possess. These things suck the life out of us if we will let them, but at the same time they help to define us to ourselves and to others. It's a complicated dance, made worse by the ravishing levels of consumption required to truly possess 'enough'.
I like things. I guess I'm a slave to things. I like the very physical essence of things. Their texture. Their roughness, their coarseness...
Kalinauskaitė's narrator becomes known through their description of objects and items. Where their eye roves helps to illuminate their personality, and what's noticed is important in defining the person noticing it. An obvious example – a painter will notice paintings in a house, a writer books, a musician CDs and instruments, a chef cooking implements. A person who sees others as the accumulation of their possessions will see the things that one owns and know them accordingly.
Cardinal Richelieu once wrote “Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.” Similarly, consider your own opinion upon entering the house of a friend for the first time. Immediately, your opinion changes, be it enhanced because their possessions “fit” their personality, or altered because they (to you) don't. Kalinauskaitė shows us people purely through their things and not through their words, actions, deeds, beliefs or otherwise. Things are important, and the owner of these things purely because they are connected to them, but that is all.
Just Things is a difficult piece to critique as a narrative because there virtually isn't one. Oh, there's a story concerning dying friends and family and so on, but these are coat hangers upon which to hang the clothing that makes up the piece. It's a dressed up essay, told exceedingly well, using metaphor to great effect to create a more coherent argument both against and for the tyranny of objects. Kalinauskaitė is a terrific writer, able to cut through to the essence of her subject without specifically aligning herself with one particular aspect of the argument over another. Early on we come to understand her stance, but she never underrepresents or misrepresents the opposing viewpoints, which raises the quality of her story/essay quit significantly. In the end, it's a sad thing to realise that, once we are dead, our shoes will outlive us. And our underwear. And our toothbrush. And our belts. And our forks. And our spoons. Because surely we are more than the sum of these little items. Surely?
Just Things by Danutė Kalinauskaitė is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga - The Ugliest Woman in the World
---Norwegian: Grytten, Frode - Hotel by a Railroad
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen - Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
---Macedonian: Minevski, Blaže - Academician Sisoye's Inaugural Speech
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review
David J Single