The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas

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Edition: Noir Press, 2018, 175 pages.

The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas, translated by Marija Marcinkute, is a short story collection published by Noir Press, a small UK publisher that focuses on bringing contemporary Lithuanian literature in translation to the English reading audience. I first came across their books when I was putting together my list of Baltic fiction in translation, and I was very excited to check out their latest release: a short story collection by Lithuanian-Ukrainian author Jaroslavas Melnikas.

I’m happy to report that this book did not disappoint. Based on my reading experience, most short story collections turn out to be a mixed bag, with some high and low points, but, in the case of this collection, I was pleasantly surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed all 8 of these stories that generally follow protagonists, who are preoccupied with some existential or philosophical dilemma. For example, the title story, The Last Day, presents a version of the world in which everyone can find out the exact date of their death, and the story explores how this knowledge might affect people’s lives and relationships.

My favourite story in the collection was definitely The Grand Piano Room. I don’t want to give too much away, but it read like a Soviet man’s daydream/nightmare, a surreal and clever allegory of communal living during the Soviet era. I don’t know if that was the author’s intention, but that was my interpretation of this bizarre story. It felt like I was witnessing the gradual disintegration of the protagonist’s dream life, and, consequently, his mental state, when confronted with reality. It’s a very effective and darkly humorous story that also serves as a great example of one of the aspects that I enjoyed the most in this collection; Melnikas does not spell things out for the reader but leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Many of these stories examine the theme of identity, and the layers of self-deception that people construct to deal with, or escape, the realities of everyday life.

Another major theme in this collection is the concept of fate. Some of the narrators in these stories are searching for some higher purpose in life, however, they seem to be more inclined to put their lives in the hands of someone else (be it God, or some other entity, or just another person) instead of taking responsibility for the course of their lives. The most notable example of this is the narrator in On The Road, who is willing to follow mysterious instructions that tell him to go to various places, without providing a clear reason why, because he feels that these “missions” give him an important purpose in life.

The last and longest story in the collection, It Never Ends, is a haunting story about a man, who starts to frequent an old cinema that is showing an avant-garde film about the life of a girl named Liz that, supposedly, never ends. Here again, we meet a narrator who is searching for some purpose in life in all the wrong places. At the cinema, he develops an unsettling relationship with another regular audience member, a very strange young woman, who is just called “the scarecrow”. I’m still not sure that I understood everything that happened in this story, but it will stay with me for quite some time.

Overall, The Last Day is a compelling, unsettling and insightful short story collection that definitely deserves much more attention. If you enjoy stories that inspire you to think about life from a philosophical perspective, I highly recommend you give this collection a try!

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