A Canadian Falls for Lithuania Again

Interesting Reading from Canada

Canadian author Gordon Mott has published two novels inspired by his time in Lithuania in the lean years of the early 1990s. Lithuanian Lullaby, published in February 2021, follows the lives of six people as they experience the unprecedented world events in the decade between 1987 and 1997. The Angels of Klaipėda appeared half a year later and follows up on two of the characters from the first book.

The true story began when Gordon Mott met Darius, an exchange student from Lithuania at a  university in Canada in the early 1990s. Amid rapid changes occurring in Europe at the time, Darius became devoted to the liberation and well-being of his newly independent country. He suggested that after university Gordon should teach English in Lithuania. Gordon, fascinated by developments in Eastern Europe, thought it a very interesting idea.

Gordon Mott (Photo courtesy of Gordon Mott)

Darius made all the arrangements and the Ministry of Education offered Gordon a position at Donelaičio mokykla (now Vytauto Didžiojo gimnazija) in Klaipėda. He taught eighth and tenth form and some gym classes, and is still in touch with some of those students today.

Gordon lived in Klaipėda for a year starting in the summer of 1993, when he learned basic Lithuanian “to survive”. He admits he struggled with it and has lost much over the past three decades. Just before leaving Lithuania, he was offered an opportunity to teach at Klaipėda University. However, he passed it up due to the hardships he encountered at the time. There was no hot water, little heat, crowded buses, the food was repetitive, and the winter seemed very long and dark.

Shortly before his departure, his university friend Darius held a farewell party for him at his parent’s flat in Vilnius. There Gordon met Asta from Kėdainiai. She had a scholarship and was soon leaving for Oxford. He invited her to call if she ever wanted to visit London. Their first meeting there ended quite differently than he expected. Early in the day, he thought he would just fulfill his obligation to show her the sights. “By the end of the day, I couldn’t imagine spending another one without her,” he said.

In his novels, he explores similar unorthodox love affairs. In Lithuanian Lullaby, one couple doesn’t share a common language, another couple marries for convenience, then falls in love. He also writes about “peculiar Lithuanian spiritual beliefs” in The Angels of Klaipėda. He says, most people were Catholic, but many also held Pagan beliefs (perhaps without even knowing it). People talked about Perkūnas, dream interpretations, cloud formations – storks were welcome to nest on village house roofs as they brought harmony, fertility and luck.

Gordon married Asta, and visits Lithuania every few years, and notes that it is hard to compare the Lithuania of the early 1990s to the current country. It has emerged from a Soviet backwater to a place of beauty.

Ironically, Lithuanian Lullaby didn’t start as a book about Lithuania. The story focuses on three characters from Eastern Europe and three from the West, as their stories become intertwined – Darius (Lithuania), Vana (Hungary), Tanja (an ethnic Russian-Lithuanian), George (USA), Sandra (Britain) and Steve (Britain). It’s a time when the struggling East is rising and all the eastern characters symbolize that rise as their lives improve through the novel. Some of the western characters’ lives decline. Those six characters are fiction, Gordon explains, but the backdrop is very real and based on real people.

The initial success of the book seemed related to the depiction of living conditions just after independence. The book’s first wave of readers often lived through those times. When he lived in Lithuania, Lithuania was looking West and there was a sense in the country that their current predicament was just bad. At the time, Lithuanians relied on networks of close friends and relatives – to distribute goods, for socialization and emotional support. It was a sense of solidarity that didn’t exist in the West. Despite its shortcomings, there also existed a unanimous sense of pride in the re-emerging country.

Gordon wanted to tell the story of Lithuania. There was a time when people asked “what is Lithuania?” not “where?”. He took the opportunity to tell the story of its brave people in hopes of “humanizing the place” and helping to ensure that if the time comes, there would be sympathy for provocations against its freedom.

He never suspected that his first novel wold be so successful. The book was number one in its Amazon category for over two months in Canada, hit number one in the USA, and was widely read in the UK. It also had  readers in places like India, Australia, Spain, Germany, Denmark, and France.

His new book, The Angels of Klaipėda, was written as a new novel, not a sequel, and is quite different, focusing on two characters, George and Tanja. George disappears on a business trip to Beirut and is presumed dead. Distraught, his wife Tanja returns to her beloved Klaipėda with her children and brother to begin a new life. It’s difficult to establish a new life and things don’t go according to plan, but it’s even more difficult when George re-emerges.

Although he wanted to leave the topic of Lithuania aside for a while, Gordon said the pressure from readers is intense. He may give it one more book. To him, the country has peculiar and heroic characters, a fascinating culture and an unusual history. “So something is compelling me to write about Lithuania.”

Abridged and adapted from LRT.lt

3 photos -2 books, 1 author