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Jurgis Kunčinas (1947-2002) is still one of the most popular Lithuanian writers. In life and in work, he was known for his ability to sense beauty in the mundane, and even in dirtiness, and for his humour, sometimes bitter-sweet, but often side-splitting, which is rare in Lithuanian literature. He is also known and admired for his penchant for describing well-known places and cityscapes (usually of Vilnius, but also of his native Alytus), and for transforming them into something intrinsically romantic and beautiful.  His often drunken vagabond characters invoke comparisons with Charles Bukowski and beatnik literature.

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 Edmundas Saladžius, Dogs suite (cycle of 9) 1985, lithography, 33 x 44 cm, From The Modern Art Center collection

by Elizabeth Novickas

Adrift in Uzupis 01Wikimedia CommonsYou may have heard of Užupis, that run-down artists’ pocket of Vilnius, Lithuania, cut off from the Old Town by a bend in the Vilnelė (Vilnia), a pleasant little river if ever there was one and not too deep to wade across, as happens several times in Jurgis Kunčinas’s novel Tūla. You may have read about the Republic of Užupis, declared in 1997, in a travel magazine, or on the internet; the Wikipedia article gives a nice summary of the wackiness. At that time, capitalism, seeing the potential in its location, was gaining a foothold, and whoever could grabbed a bit of real estate, cheap. The handwriting was on the wall, but the residents revolted, and to this day fight encroachments as best they can. When you visit it now, it’s a charming place, a mix of lovingly restored buildings and the remains of old wrecks (though fewer and fewer of those). And no McDonald’s.

Adrift in Uzupis 02Užupis courtyard, unrestored, in 2000.
Photograph by the author.
Earlier, though, in Soviet times, it was a considerably rougher place. It is this version of Užupis that figures in Tūla. Or at least, Kunčinas’s fiction of a place called Užupis. It’s not particularly pretty, and at times can feel quite threatening, although there is a love story, a beautiful one, at the very heart of it. It could also quite accurately be classified as a bohemian novel, albeit of a bohemian life in Lithuania at a time when Lithuania was completely subsumed under the Soviet yoke. It’s not just that there are Party slogans and Russian phrases everywhere; it’s also things like the blue milítsiya jeeps the unnamed narrator finds so terrifying. That word milítsiya, incidentally, has no English equivalent; it’s neither police, who are subservient to a local civilian administration, nor what we think of as militia, which is a volunteer defense force. Military police would perhaps be closest, but what country uses military police to keep order among its citizens?

Adrift in Uzupis 03A building used as an artists’s canvas. Photograph by the authorLike every place anyone has lived, the narrator finds himself simultaneously attracted and repelled by it. It is the site of both suffering and of happiness; the place where he spends the memorable week with his lover Tūla and years wandering the streets (or working perforce at a conveyor belt). Although the novel’s time frame is the declining years of the Soviet empire, the still-older history of the city intrudes everywhere, from an electric transformer left over from the days of Pilsudski’s rule to the remains of Sigismund Augustus’s water pipes. It’s a graceful interweaving of the many presences still wandering Užupis’s streets amidst a doomed love affair, alcohol (lots of alcohol), and poverty.

Between the narrator’s fanciful flights in the shape of a bat and his unforgettable lovemaking in a field of burdock, Tūla did its part, too, to create the legend of Užupis. The three mottos declared by the Republic of Užupis, “Don’t Fight,” “Don’t Win,” and “Don’t Surrender,” could very well be the mottos of this novel. The narrator, despite being besieged from every direction, continues to reject the “normal” life:

The vagabonds and brodyagi shake my hand, rock me by the shoulder, crush my bones, thrust tattooed fists under my nose, and others—their relatives and the blue coats—chase me out of the stairways. They threaten to call whom and where needed, promise to stuff me into a windowless cell, but I’m still alive, I’m walking with Tūla and I spit at your furnished apartments with a bidet and life-sized stuffed animals! From the highest roof in Vilnius!

Adrift in Uzupis 04The door handle of St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius. Photograph by the author.Appalled as the reader may be at the conditions the narrator lives under or his forced incarcerations for alcoholism, and as dismayed as she might be sometimes at the narrator himself, she still finds herself drawn into this bleak little world, with cats jumping in the windows and crazy landladies using the kitchen sink for a toilet. Chatty, digressive, lyrical at times, this book offers a companion whose moral failings are offset as much by his openness and self-effacement as by his irony and erudition. When the reader finds herself being judgmental, the narrator reminds her of what his Uncle Hans used to say: “We’re just feeble creatures, there’s no need to be ashamed of our weakness, physiology, or the flaws we’ve inherited from unknown ancestors!” It is in the narrator’s own willingness to forgive himself those weaknesses that the reader, too, finds her own weaknesses forgivable.

The first full English translation of Jurgis Kučinas’s Tūla. published by Pica Pica Press (www.picapica.press), will be appearing in November.

And you can read an excerpt of Tūla here.

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