On Bronwyn Mauldin’s ‘Love Songs of the Revolution’
Mauldin’s novel of the Lithuanian Singing Revolution is deep and ambitious, despite being disjointed.
5 ½” x 8 ½” perfect-bound trade paperback
Review Copy: Mobi ARC
Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Review by Al Kratz
Bronwyn Mauldin’s novel, Love Songs of the Revolution, is set in Lithuania during the summer of 1989 at the beginning of the revolution that eventually dissolved the Soviet Union. It’s framed as a memoir written by Martynas Kudirka, a loyal party member and official propaganda painter for the Lithuanian Communist government. He is thrown into a world of criminal and political mystery when he discovers his murdered wife’s body. In the chaos that ensues, he learns the secrets of his wife’s life and faces questions of his own life, as well.
Much of it is reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, with themes of totalitarianism and the impossible odds an individual faces trying to defeat it. The characters deal with the idea that the only true loss would be deciding not to fight. Martynas constantly struggles with this and relies on posthumous lessons from his wife. Because Mauldin’s 1989 isn’t an imagined futuristic what-if but an actual historical event, of a real totalitarian threat, it is more suspenseful and in many ways scarier than 1984.
The character Martynas Kudirka would have also been right at home in a John le Carré novel. He gets in the middle of operatives for communists and revolutionaries. He gets mixed up with an American CIA agent. In this world, new to Martynas, he can never be sure who is his ally or enemy.
I doubled back a few times, circling blocks I didn’t need to circle, just in case anyone might be following me, friend or foe. Then again, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to tell the difference, one from the other.
That story makes up the first 100 pages of the novel’s 200. Although the ending is as natural as any Orwell or le Carré ending, the book does, somewhat abruptly, change framework. The second part is an appendix of metafictional artifacts with a new mystery about the memoir including questions around its historical accuracy and even the existence of the writer, Martynas, almost Handmaid’s Tale-like. This is done with materials like press releases, blogs, and Twitter feeds. The result of this is that what we thought was the book, becomes a character in the larger story. It even serves up a little fun, including a snarky, negative, and unfair review of the book in the comments section of an article:
Seriously. Love Songs reads like a bad Le Carré knockoff. Anybody who knows Vilnius in the 1980s can punch holes in the story by page ten.
There is merit in the risk taken and a dedication to doing something different, but I didn’t feel it was quite as successful as the early part of the novel. The first part already was strong and multi-dimensional across so many subtexts. On top of being a suspenseful spy story about the fight against totalitarianism, it was also a compelling story of Martynas finding himself, coming of age even though he was a middle-aged adult.
I suppose some part of me had always justified the way Natalie and I had sneaked around behind each other’s backs as our own personal protest against the petty invasiveness of the state. Now I realized that I’d merely been cheating on my wife, while she had been doing the kind of espionage I could only dream about. It made me feel cheap.
The memoir format allowed the older Martynas, living in contemporary America, to give commentary about American lives while he reflected on Lithuanian history. He breaks the fourth wall and delivers a similar story above the story, a fictional review of its own work:
I warn you now, my fellow Americans — yes, I am a citizen by choice now in your country — you will be disappointed by this story. You measure the quality of literature by the complexity of its plot twists. Unpredictability and “originality” are valued above all else. You insist on a happy ending, or at least a glimpse of a silver lining behind every cloud. You want to know that no animals were harmed in the making of this story. I can promise you none of this.
This fictional negative review works in reverse and rather than scaring the reader, the tongue-in-cheek works more as a challenge, a promise to entertain, and one that the memoirist never lets off the gas:
You are fools to expect anything but heartache and disappointment. It is your expectations that make you weak.
This keeps the reader on guard, draws him in to understand what this means. What are the different ways it can be read? What type of story is it going to be? It is clearly self-aware that it’s all of these in one:
If you are Lithuanian, you will read my story one way. If you are not, you will read it very differently. Read this story as your passport demands: a love story, a murder mystery, a story of political intrigue. Perhaps by the final page, those stories will converge.
These components make it a very deep and rightfully ambitious novel. I’m not sure the metafictional components of part two served it enough in proportion to claim half of the work’s total space. Yet, like a movie that has the ‘What Happened to Them’ slides while the credits roll, I was glad I stayed for it, and it did succeed in turning the book into a viable character worth checking out.
Originally published on 6/22/16.