Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė’s novel Breathing into Marble, published by Noir Press, December 2016 is a dark, compelling tale of a family torn apart and a woman driven to the edge of madness.
Isabel, the protagonist of Černiauskaitė’s novel, is an artist married to a teacher. They have a son, Gailius, who suffers from epilepsy. Isabel is driven to adopt a young orphan, Ilya, and it is his malevolent, troubled spirit which sets off the series of events that leads to murder.
The novel tackles many issues including childhood sexual abuse, suicide, and the problems with the adoption process in Lithuania.
At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Isabel and the young child Ilya. It is a moving, dark and sometimes twisted relationship.
When did you first decide that you wanted to be a writer?
I think I have always been a writer. I don’t remember deciding to become a writer at any particular moment; I simply discovered I had the potential to be one. I started writing when I was young because I enjoyed it.
I was 17 when I first stepped into the Writer’s Union, in the wonderful palace of Duke Oginskis, carrying the first copy of my book to the publishers. Those four short stories were written in school during math and science lessons; I wasn’t a particularly zealous student. I remember that as I put my hand of the banister rail of the stairs, such a strong feeling washed over me that I would be a part of that building for rest of my life.
I felt that moment was a defining moment in my life. And, in fact, it was; the book won the First Book competition organised by the Writers Union and was published. That was how I became a writer.
How would you summarise the novel Breathing into Marble?
It is the tragic, poetic story of a family, in which there is everything: love, betrayal, childhood illness, unsuccessful attempts at adoption, alcoholism, abuse, murder, the inner conflict of a female artist.
It was my first novel; I was very young when I wrote it. I think that I would have been more careful now, as a writer, and wouldn’t dare to put such a bucket-load of problems into my novel. But while writing it I was driven by a wish to raise these terrible problems to the level of poetry, to look at them with a purity of vision, as if through clean glass. I think that’s why they call me an optimistic writer.
The character of Isabel is interesting; are there aspects of her that are autobiographical, or is she a complete creation?
I didn’t put any conscious autobiographic aspects of myself into Isabel’s character, but I am sure that something seeped through unconsciously. That usually happens. Isabel and I are alike as artists and mothers. But all my three children, thank God, are healthy and I have not adopted. And my husband, as far as I know, is not thinking of leaving me.
The relationship between Isabel and Ilya is a complicated one, and quite twisted. What do you think you were saying about mother-son relationships in this novel?
I wouldn’t agree that the relationship between Isabel and Ilya is twisted. Complicated – yes. Isabel is not ready to break through the obstacles to love – she realises that when she is not able to get Ilya out of his shell and train him when he is living in their home.
Her lack of success with Ilya only emphasises her own problems, the most important of which is that she has been crippled by her parents and doesn’t know how to love. She needs to be loved.
After the murder, she lets Ilya go and covers for him because she feels she is responsible for that he has done. She feels that she provoked him to this action because she abandoned him. I tried to write a story of a woman growing into maturity when one tragic loss after another devastate her and break her down. From the ruins of her soul emerges a new, more mature person.
You deal with some very dark issues in the novel, including murder and abuse as well as marital breakdown and suicide. Is this reflective of Lithuania today – are these issues that contemporary Lithuanians are struggling with?
I don’t think these problems are specific to Lithuania. In recent years a lot of attention has been given to the issue of adoption; people have been encouraged to adopt or foster the children left in orphanages. Only the positive experiences get media coverage but I know that there are sad experiences, when parents change their minds and return the children.
When I was writing an article about this topic, I happened to talk to a social worker who dealt with preparing parents for adoption. I was shocked by her stories of the irresponsibility of some people. The specialists now prepare parents for the ‘shock’ of adoption in order to reduce the number of cases of children being returned.
The closest issue to contemporary Lithuania is the problem of suicide; here, as a country, we have unfortunately the highest rates in Europe. Also, in terms of statistics, it’s evident that half of marriages end in divorce.
Though Breathing into Marble can often feel spiritual, particularly in those scenes focused on Isabel, another of your novels, Honeymoon (Medaus mėnuo), has a more overt religious theme. Do you think that Lithuanian writers are comfortable with their spirituality? To what extent is Catholicism a shaping force in Lithuanian writing?
Whether we think we are believers or not, we grew up in a Christian culture and received its moral values in our mother’s milk. Speaking about a more conscious relationship with religion – at 30, after long wanderings through Buddhism and Hinduism, I experienced a powerful conversion to Catholicism; it was important for me to write about those experiences in the novel Honeymoon.
Are our writers comfortable writing about spirituality? Who is comfortable writing about intimate things? It’s similar to writing about sex. But literature shouldn’t be ‘comfortable’. Comfortableness is what ‘pop’ is and it doesn’t interest me. Good literature is like lightning; it has to shock, to pierce the heart to the bottom. That is not very comfortable. But that is exactly what I would like my English speaking readers to experience.
Interview conducted by Stephan Collishaw
From Breathing into Marble
Translated into English by Marija Marcinkute
May was stuffy. The air blossomed and the clouds were like translucent petals scorched by the sun which was as ruthlessly hot as a stone hissing in hell. Isabel would get up in the morning already heavy and slide towards evening like a shadow cast by her own swollen body.
Having taken Gailius to school, she stopped by the side of the road above which the dust swirls kicked up by Liudas’ car still hung. And the stones inside her grew red with the heat.
Liudas would leave and she would stay, searching the whole day long for somewhere to hide from the monstrous heat.
She would be alone with the drowsy boy sipping milk in the kitchen. He wouldn’t wipe the white drips from the oilcloth patterned with pears, nor would he put his cup back into its place when he had rinsed it in the bowl. Later he would slip into the yard or would disappear into the pine woods near the river across the bridge. And moments later she would hear the splash of the stones being thrown into the water.
Isabel preferred to go to the river bank that was at the bottom of the garden, closer to the house. She would descend the slope through the lilac bushes and stop in the shade. In the sun over on the other bank the air would roil slowly and heavily like hot oil. The blossom of the lilac gave off a strong fragrance under the blistering sun. Isabel would pull her old cotton dress off over her head and, keeping to the shade of the bushes, slide into the water. The river would hug her waist tightly at first, then push and pull at her with its mischievous current. The stones within Isabel would hiss and blacken.
The river lashed her skin like a cold wind; it washed away the ashes and rinsed away the names. Isabel would stretch in the water like she was in bed, while the current washed her clean.
On the 22nd of May a fresh wind blew; the grass whispered and the pine forest hummed like a bee hive. Isabel, having gone to put the washing out shuddered and folded her arms across her chest – as if to protect herself from the raging of the trees. But the wind was quicker – it sliced open the old wound and the ache of her heart poured out from her like blood.
She took the boys into the woods.
But with each step her despair grew, sending out branches, an increasingly intricate polyphony of emotions. She would have wept were it not for the boys who pushed each other and ran around. In the clearing Isabel said she needed a rest; she sat on a tree stump and closed her eyes. Through her closed eye lids she watched the wind driven shadows that scuttled around like ghosts. She thought that she would burst into tears but the tough bark around her heart resisted. She dug her nails into her heart as if trying to scratch it out.
She felt no pain – she listened to the crackle of the thawing ice and to the bubble of the coming storm.
It was then that she heard Gailius greet someone. Opening her eyes it took some moments for her to notice a tall, shapely woman – from a distance she looked lighter and softer than the pine trunks. The woman’s face was thin and suntanned and her gaze was sharp and pierced Isabel. As Gailius greeted her, she plunged the birch stick she was leaning on into the moss, tossed her knotted grey hair and suddenly a smile lit the dense, quivering network of wrinkles on her face.
‘It’s my birthday today,’ Gailius boasted.
‘Oh, I can’t ignore such an occasion… Give me your palm, I’ll tell you your fortune.’
The woman stepped towards Gailius, knelt down and stretched out her hand. Gailius instinctively mirrored her movement. They knelt opposite each other, forehead to forehead, intuitively shielding the fate which rose like steam from the lines on the palms of his hands.
Isabel rose from the tree stump and approached them.
‘Gailius, don’t do it.’ Her whisper was addressed to the woman. The grey-haired crone lifted her eyes, scorching Isabel with a dark gaze.
‘Your mother doesn’t want us to,’ she relented. ‘How old are you?’
The woman was silent. Standing up she smiled at Isabel with the same penetrating smile and strolled across the moss to collect her stick – there was no need for it though; her steps were as firm as her smile.
‘I gather herbs,’ she explained, turning back suddenly, tapping her canvas bag. She headed back into the depths of the woods and disappeared among the tree trunks as if she had turned into one of them.
‘Mama, who was she?’ Gailius asked.
‘We’re going home,’ Isabel whispered. Her tone stopped any argument from the boys.
In the evening Liudas brought a cake from town and they all gathered in the garden for a cup of coffee. Gailius had made a card on which he had written his wishes for everybody on the occasion of his birthday. ‘Father – I wish that you never run out of petrol half way’, or ‘Mama – I wish for lots of silk ribbons for your hair’. For Ilya, having drawn a watercolour black bird, he wished, ’Don’t be afraid of the light, it only bites at first’.
‘What do you mean by that?’ Liudas asked.
They laughed a lot that night; it even seemed to Isabel that she could put up with almost anything – that she could live each day without any expectations and laugh each night without disrupting the daily rhythms of their life, listening to the stories Liudas brought home from town. And she could even believe them. She could stay away from it all, keeping a careless distance.
The moon arose above the woods, a narrow, elegant comma, an eye lash, a tiara. Liudas followed Isabel’s look and flashed her a bored smile. And that was it. Immediately everything returned to the way it had been. An owl called in the woods, its dark, velvet sound spread a mournful cape across the heavy, damp soil and the grass which was wet with dew.
On the kitchen table there was a box wrapped with orange paper awaiting Gailius – Isabel stopped short, not knowing what Liudas had chosen and having forgotten, herself, that you were supposed to give presents on birthdays. Gailius blinked and paused. Only once he had run his finger over its shiny surface and it had not turned into anything else did Gailius finally believe that the box was real and belonged to him. He wrapped both arms around it and lifted it carefully from the table – the present wasn’t heavy and that disappointed him slightly.
‘I want to be on my own when I open it,’ Gailius whispered. ‘Ilyusha, only you can come with me.’
Ilya loped after him. He opened their bedroom door and let his stepbrother in; Gailius could barely control his excitement. The door slammed and from behind it, moments later, came the sound of paper being ripped. Liudas smiled absent-mindedly. Isabel turned her eyes away.
At that moment there was a scream.
The door opened with a crash and Ilya shot like a bullet into the kitchen. For a moment he hung in the air, his feet barely touching the floor, as if thrown out by an angry gust of wind, then he dashed into the porch and out into the yard, so that only the black back of his head was visible through the kitchen window. The opened box lay on the floor, its glittery glamour gone and though the present was still in it, Gailius seemed to have lost all interest in it. He turned towards the door and hid something behind his back.
‘What happened?’ Liudas asked.
‘What have you got there?’
Liudas jumped over to Gailius and prised open his fist.
‘Something happened to him,’ Gailius whispered, holding back the tears.
A wound swelled on his wrist and blood seeped through the bitten skin.
‘Ilya!’ Liudas howled. ‘Ilya!’
Feverishly he turned to Isabel who was frozen in the doorway. She was so pale it looked as if it were her blood that had gathered in the wound on Gailius’ wrist.
‘Please forgive me,’ Isabel whispered and stuffed her fist into her mouth in an attempt to staunch her tears.
‘He doesn’t get enough attention,’ she said, switching off the light.
‘I don’t give a damn what he doesn’t get enough of,’ Liudas snapped. ‘The child is dangerous.’
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