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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sun-Tzu's Life

Ričardas Gavelis

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Title: Sun-Tzu's Life
Author: Ričardas Gavelis
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 271 pages
Original in: Lithuanian
Availability: Sun-Tzu's Life - US
Sun-Tzu's Life - UK
Sun-Tzu's Life - Canada
  • in the Holy City of Vilnius
  • Lithuanian title: Sun–Tzu gyvenimas šventame Vilniaus mieste
  • Translated by Elizabeth Novickas

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Our Assessment:

B : wild, unusual ride

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Sun-Tzu of the title is not the classical Chinese strategist and author (of The Art of War), but rather the narrator of the novel -- who does, however, embrace the original's guide-book (to him, it: "perfectly laid out the rules of war against the entire world") and eventually transforms into a self-styled (if less militarist) Lithuanian Sun-Tzu. This is a life-story of sorts, bridging Soviet times -- during which the narrator's father was active in the Lithuanian independence movement, drawing the ire of the Soviet authorities (and getting himself brutally killed when the narrator was fourteen) -- and then the new age in an independent yet also corrupted Lithuania, but the account is like the antithesis to the formerly prevalent social realism of the Soviet system. The narrative tends towards but doesn't fully embrace surrealism; rather, it drips with the metaphysical and metaphorical -- an unmoored realism the drifts into the fanciful, as the only means to capture and address these experiences and times.
       The narrator is a prodigy -- indeed, in some senses, a super-natural character. He is a very gifted child and, pushed by his mother, Gorgeous Rožė, he becomes: "the most Renaissance teenager in Vilnius, a sickly da Vinci with eyes watering from ceaseless effort". He excels at everything he does -- painting, music, mathematics -- and takes prize after prize in different disciplines. He doesn't get much out of it, however:

all of my triumphs and talents didn't bring me the least joy, not even ordinary satisfaction. The more and the prettier the vases I drew, the deeper and the blacker that wretched emptiness within me spread. I was essentially vacant; my interior was hopelessly short of me myself.
       His genius is a void:
I knew almost everything naturally -- it is the curse of my life, the mockery of sadistic nameless gods. The more I accomplished on the surface, the less remained of me inside.
       The narrator's father -- often referred to as his 'first father', his name (Ričardas) only revealed very near the end -- is: "an abstraction-minded mathematician and a mad deconstructor of the world", and the narrator takes after him in some ways. He's fascinated by the alter-world his father creates -- in his 'deconstruction room' -- and eventually, as Sun-Tzu, will also have a collection that he tends to, suited to the times, even if of a very different nature; both try, after a fashion, nothing less ambitious than to try to 'remake the world'.
       Mother and father would appear to be poorly matched, as: "Father didn't in the least want to become what Mother pushed and prodded him to be". Gorgeous Rožė, even in the old age when the narrator writes this, is concerned above all else with appearance and status. When she marries again, it is to the bisexual Aleksas, she being: "attracted to the point of pain by Aleksas's wealth" and what it might afford her. This 'second father' has his designs on the narrator, too -- thwarted, at pretty much the last second, by Gorgeous Rožė -- but also has genuine appeal to him beyond his confident and extravagant lifestyle, as Aleksas is also a collector, albeit of a different sort than the first father (or, indeed, the kind the narrator will become).
       There's tragedy in the narrator's teens, from the horrifying death of his first father to the sudden one of the girl that he first forms a close bond with, the mathematically gifted if not particularly attractive Sara, with whom he has an intense if controlled (by her) relationship. (Burned in his mind's eye is her vagina, which he was allowed to gawk at but never to touch.) He states at one point that: "Hieroglyphs insidiously flooded my brain in my tragic underground adolescence", and Sun-Tzu's Life, full of signs and symbols, treats the reader similarly -- both in the description of his coming of age as then also his later, more established life. Indeed, as he comes to realize:
     I'm probably not even a human, just a hieroglyph I've never, in all my life, managed to read and translate into a normal language. But I try hard, really, I try very hard.
       In post-Soviet Lithuania, the narrator's transformation into Sun-Tzu, and his rise in power, proceeds apace -- helped by his hitching his wagon to Patris, Jogaila Štombergas, who is introduced to him as a power-hungry realist, "an intellectual tyrant". The narrator goes along with him, and gathers more power; eventually he even runs for president -- falling short politically, but not otherwise: "I did not become the president of Lithuania, but I did become Lithuania's purifier, the great agitator of the world of humans". He finally finds himself, and his role, as Sun-Tzu:
I am the greatest unknown of this country; everyone seems to know me, but for the longest time now no one has any idea of what I'm actually doing.
     So it's about time I introduce myself: 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. In addition, I am a collector: I collect and spiritually burn the cockles of the world, all the miscreants and scoundrels -- all that is left of them is wailing and the gnashing of teeth.
       With fairly short chapters -- forty-nine of them -- with often strong descriptive headings ('The Ill-Fated Steeds of Socrates', 'People are Dolts', 'The Great Ritual of the Search', etc.) Sun-Tzu's Life on the one hand proceeds almost neatly forward, a Bildungsroman presenting the coming-into-being of the narrator as (this particular conception of) Sun-Tzu. But even this is not really straightforward, beyond in its semi-linear progression: from the tours of Vilnius the first father takes the narrator on to the cocoons of his final collection (a mere eleven worthies, but he's working on more), Gavelis often shifts the narrative to a more fantastical state (though one that still comes across as (somewhat) grounded). Much of Sun-Tzu's Life feels, in a good way, overheated, from the narrator's erotic passion -- there are several strong women characters in the novel, though many of the narrator's experiences are dominated by the visual-voyeuristic -- to his treatment of the 'cockles', the weeds he works on extirpating. Political, too -- a commentary on Lithuania and Lithuanian society, past and present -- Sun-Tzu's Life does quite easily transcend the merely local too.
       Sun-Tzu's Life is, in many respects, an unusual novel, making for a different kind of reading experience, but even beyond its metaphysical depths (and occasional murk), there's some very strong writing here, in truly striking scenes, as well as quite a bit of humor. If not always easily accessible, it does offer considerable enjoyment if one is willing to go with its unusual flow.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 October 2019

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About the Author:

       Lithuanian author Ričardas Gavelis lived 1950 to 2002.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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