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 Arriving at Ellis Island. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress), 1907

 


Frank Kruk by Petras Cvirka, translated by Elizabeth Novickas (Pica Pica Press, 2016)
What would a Horatio Alger story look like if it were written by a Lithuanian communist who had never been to the United States and who was determined to sling satire in all directions? Frank Kruk by Petras Cvirka, ably translated by Elizabeth Novickas, would be the answer. In the space of this novel, the eponymous hero turns from country bumpkin to spoiled brat to fugitive emigrant to vagrant to successful businessman. In the process, Cvirka skewers Lithuanian peasant life, priests, czarist functionaries, socialists, American businessmen and the heartless, winner-take-all mentality of America’s capitalism (the capitalism of the early twentieth century, though how different this was from the present is up to the reader to decide). This is one of the first, if not the first, satirical novels in Lithuanian literature. Published in 1934, when Lithuania was an independent nation and when the author was just twenty-five years of age, the novel reflects the absurdity of country life in czarist Lithuania, the hardships of immigrants in America, the struggles of the working class, and the possibilities for both business and “business” created by the post WWI boom and prohibition.

It is quite extraordinary that Cvirka had never been to the United States. As Novickas tells us in her translator’s note, he relied on first-hand reports from numerous Lithuanian migrants. There are, as we might expect, factual errors. When the hero runs with his date fifteen miles to a picnic, one wonders, for instance, what shoes were they wearing? Were they covered in sweat by the time they got there? Training for a marathon? One also encounters an imaginary river in the countryside east of Brooklyn, and a Union Square in Brooklyn itself. But such trivialities should not detract from the pleasures of the story itself. Indeed, I find his depiction of the United States less distorted than, say, Jonathan Franzen’s cartoonishly ignorant depiction of Lithuania in The Corrections (an otherwise fine novel). Furthermore, Cvirka paints Frank sympathetically enough to make him feel like a real person, as opposed to a satirical caricature. Nevertheless, as the translator says in her note, everyone is skewered in the end.

The novel begins in the countryside. Lithuanian farm life has been much romanticized, and it is still romanticized, often forming a backbone for ideas about national identity. We can see that the country is still, at present, in the grips of its neo-romantic twentieth century conception of itself when Lithuania’s pre-eminent philosopher, Arvydas Šliogeris, claims he is a philosopher of the countryside: “Having written fifteen books, I can say that they are all about Alksnupis – the village of my childhood.”[1]  Or when the leading literary critic, Viktorija Daujotytė argues for poetry’s essential connection to nature: “The one who cannot get nourishment out of nature, cannot do so out of life either. Nor, in the end, from language.” [2]  Cvirka, in stark contrast, gives us a countryside brimming with drunkenness, gluttony, superstition and violence. There is nothing romantic here. As for poetry, it is the poetry of the absurd.

Frank Kruk was born as Pranas Krukelis. His father’s friend and matchmaker is a lazy glutton and drunk who engages in “metaphysical” conversations about lofty subjects like the nature of the soul, in which he argues that it is a puff of air. Pranas’ father, Zidorius, replies: “So it turns out that our spirit is like the steam from some borscht, huh?” (p.34). Later, he himself asks the visiting priest “lofty” questions about whether men in the old days turned into bears and back again, or whether it is true that all Jews go to hell (knee-jerk anti-semitism was sadly common in the countryside). The clergyman, however, is too busy gulping down proffered food to answer. Nevertheless, Zidorius is a successful farmer, and life moves along its strange paths until he is undone by a pig. With not a little symbolism, Zidorius’ prized pig eats his wallet full of money, and Zidorius waits for it to come out the other end, only to be surprised by what he finds: “I could swear to God, I didn’t have a single copper in my wallet! Don’t tell me that horror is going to start giving me small change?!” (p.51). This turns out to be the final straw (so to speak), but before Zidorius can sink the knife in, the pig runs wild, “possessed” by the devil. His son, Pranas, ends up riding it home, scaring a drunken czarist bailiff half to death, who then calls in reinforcements from Kaunas to put down the “rebellion” against the czar. The pig is finally killed, but its devilish “spirit” seems to possess Zidorius. The man even starts oinking, with this sound left untranslated: “kriu kriu”, as pigs say in Lithuanian. The reason why Novickas chose the unusual tactic of foreignizing the text with a Lithuanian animal sound becomes clear enough with reflection: the family name is Krukelis. Zidorius has, in a sense, fulfilled his ancestral destiny by becoming a pig. (This is the first pun on the family name, the second comes from the Americanized version and is made clear in the title of this review.)

After his father’s death, the never studious, never very hard-working Pranas becomes a real spoiled brat. He leaves the work of the farm to hired hands and spends his time carousing. This lifestyle culminates in a fight with young men from another village in which several youths are killed. Pranas flees the country, pursued by the czar’s police. He ends up in America – yet another poor immigrant fresh off the boat. Here we catch our first glimpse of Cvirka’s true sympathies. We hear of a girl on the ship traveling with her widowed mother. The mother falls ill and dies; the girl is left alone, an orphan on a boat with nowhere to go. Another such vignette soon follows: upon arriving to Ellis Island, one old man is not let through. “They don’t let him in. America needs healthy people.” (p.84). It is worth taking a moment to reflect on such episodes. Besides providing an emotional counterpoint to humorous satire, they have, I would argue, a Homeric element to them. When a hero is killed in the Iliad, Homer often pauses to discuss his life and family, humanizing the death, counterpointing the depiction of honor and glory that are granted heroes for successful combat. In Cvirka’s novel, the successful combat is business and industry – the bosses and business owners get the glory. So Cvirka takes pains to show us the other side, that of the otherwise unsung people who don’t make it. These moments, as in Homer, are often unexpected shards of humanism that touch us all the more poignantly through their contrast with what surrounds.

Pranas is determined not to end up like them. Through a distant relative, he finds a job in a factory. It is here that Americans begin to call him “Frank”. His Lithuanian name, he is told, is “unsuitable”. (Lithuanian names were often domesticated for the local culture; similarly, foreign names have always been domesticated in Lithuania.) Frank works and saves, drinking up his relative’s ideology of money first: “At home the only talk was about money, about savings.” (p.93). So when Frank meets socialists at the factory, he is persuaded to stay away by his relation, who considers them worthless layabouts. Frank’s hardscrabble attempt to climb out of poverty is undone by his courtship of the daughter of the house. The father wants someone better for his college-bound girl. He kicks Frank out. Yet, the young man has learned his lesson. Money is what counts, and he plans to get it, no matter what: “Dozens will die, but one will become a millionaire.” (p.96) – as his relative used to say.

Frank goes to New York City to make his riches with a friend from the factory who introduces him to horse-racing. He loses everything at the tracks and lives as a vagrant. This leads our hero to reflect on how the socialists sometimes spoke the truth, but there is no political change of heart: “Yes, Frank, the people who make money worry the least about their conscience. You worry about it less too. You’ll be one of the chosen to make money.” (p.113). Finally, he finds work at an iron foundry. A black man burns to death on the factory floor, ordered to douse a fire by the foreman. Cvirka, in one of his Homeric interludes tells us about the man’s family waiting for him at home. The horror of the death is real, but rather than push Pranas towards compassion or socialism, he becomes more cold-hearted and determined not to be one of the people that don’t count. Socialist workers try to recruit him again, but he ends up informing on them, ingratiating himself to the bosses he admires. In the end, the bosses turn on him, making a deal to resolve the strike caused by the the worker’s death. [3] Pranas is out on the street again.

He finds a job with the Salvation Army, using his musical talents and acting ability to wow crowds. The clarinetist for his troupe, Ben, is another socialist. Frank disagrees with Ben, but views him sympathetically, admiring his compassion but pitying him as a man who will always be on the bottom. Next, Frank becomes an army recruiter during WWI (from salvation to damnation, we might surmise), unscrupulously talking men into service. Cvirka makes sure we know the cost these men have to bear in another Homeric interlude: an invalid returns, poor, unwanted, ignored, with no where to go but to the “barracks of the Salvation Army” (p.160). From damnation to salvation indeed: the ironies here are especially poignant.

Frank’s gift of gab eventually leads him to a job selling pre-fabricated houses to poor people, often immigrants like himself. In one of the most touching moments in the novel, Cvirka traces the fate of a young Lithuanian couple who buy a house from Frank. One missed payment and the house is taken away. Their American Dream shattered, the young family end up destitute and the father then works himself to death, leaving his wife and child to uncertain fate. We can’t help but consider how complicit Frank himself is in this. He employs a hard-sell tactic, and he imitates a Nightingale in the bushes whenever immigrants view the houses. There are no nightingales in North America, and immigrants are often overcome with sweet nostalgia by the sound, yet Frank comes across here less like a crook than a smooth-talking, somewhat sleazy, salesman type. The relentless demands of the economic system on the worker seem to be the true source of woe. In this we might see some aspect of Cvirka’s communism shining through. On the other hand, criticisms of unfettered capitalism with no safety net are hardly an earmark of a strong ideological stance. The struggles of uneducated workers were, and still are, real.

Be that as it may, our hero is now beyond caring for people who fail. He is a different person now. Pranas Krukelis is done and gone. The chrysalis of poverty, toil, and shame has finally been sloughed off: “Slowly, very slowly, Pranas Krukelis died within him, and in his ruins Frank Kruk grew...” (p.174). Furthermore, he has no apologies for his new, self-made self: “If a friend or associate stood lower than you, you had to forget about him and never stop worrying about your own matters for even a second.” (p.175). On the other hand, we might wonder whether Frank has made himself in his own image, or whether he has borrowed this image from the unfettered, unscrupulous capitalist system around him. Has he made himself in the capitalist system’s image just as much as a communist ideologue makes himself in the image given to him by the communist system? In czarist-controlled Lithuania, surrounded by gluttons and drunks, Frank became a debauchee; in the wild capitalism of the United States, Frank becomes a heartless striver. Where is the real Frank? He always shapes himself to his surroundings. Do the surroundings make the man?

Frank takes the money he has earned from his questionable sales practices and starts his own business as an undertaker. This is the final chapter in Frank’s transformation. He does whatever it takes to succeed, cozies up to the socialists when needed, even to the Roman Catholic church (donating more money than his rival so that the priest would send people to his business instead). He does anything to raise his profile, attract clients and drive out competitors. One of his only friends, or his only friend, is a Lithuanian bar owner and bartender who is a member of the socialist party. This man has faith in its noble ideals, but when his servers ask for higher wages he scoffs. Apparently, socialism is great unless it affects your bottom line.

In the end, Frank lives up to the pun in his Americanized last name. These are the days of prohibition, after all, and Frank concocts a scheme to smuggle booze in coffins to sell at his friend’s bar. What happens next, this reviewer will not say. But money is king, and those without it – fodder. “The newspapers never stopped crowning new kings,...” (p.161), writes Cvirka. What alternative is there? Communism is mentioned only as an attempt to restructure the whole system, but we never meet its representatives. Perhaps some will draw the conclusion that that is the only way to defeat the dollar worship at the core of Frank’s story. Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps crowning the kings of capital is the best humanity can do (President Trump?).

One of the most unique aspects of Cvirka’s book, from a stylistic perspective, is his liberal use of Lithuanian-American slang made up of borrowed English words Lithuanian-ized in their spelling and grammatical inflections: “polismenas” (policeman), “nais” (nice). As Novickas notes, this created tremendous difficulties for Lithuanian readers, many of whom had not been exposed to much English (this was the 1930s). Perhaps there is a parallel here with the difficulty American readers face in encountering the Dominican slang in the writings of Junot Diaz. Future editions of Frank Kruk contained glossaries. But how to convey this stylistic feature in an English translation? Novickas’ solution is simple in its brilliance – she doesn’t translate them at all. “Nais” remains nais in the English text, and likewise for the rest. There is a glossary to assist non-Lithuanian readers with such words. So, this foreignizing element of Cvirka’s that made such an impression on Lithuanians remains for the reader of its English translation.


                                    Rimas Uzgiris, Ph.D., MFA
                                    Vilnius University

1.  Arvydas Šliogeris, interview with Mindaugas Nastaravičius (May 7, 2012), my translation. From http://www.15min.lt

2. Daujotytė, Viktorija. lašas poezijos [a drop of poetry]. Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2013, p. 9. (My translation)

3. At this time, communists and socialists were often the only ones for whom “black lives matter”. In the famous case of the Scottsboro Boys, the communist party successfully worked to exonerate black youths falsely accused of raping a white woman (the crime actually perpetrated by a white man).

 

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