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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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 Egidijus Rudinskas, The Eternal Tree of Life III 18 / 50, 1985, etching, 45,5 x 50 cm, From The Modern Art Center collection

 

Excerpt from Tūla

Something inside me always stirs—today too—as soon as I see those two bridges again, the long Bernadine monastery, the narrow gap in the enfilade of little yards, and the little gateway, beyond which spread the real intestines and cloacae of Užupis—how much of it has been walked over with stumbling feet, not with Tūla, without Tūla, still not knowing Tūla, and then afterwards... how much this place has been staggered over, and in the mornings, grimly plodded along.

It’s doubtful whether I have even so much as a theoretical right of spiritual inheritance to this riverbank with its dreary buildings, to the nettles, the burdock, the artemisia, and the inedible mushrooms—the crumbly, flaccid kind—overgrowing the slope to Tūla’s house, which, of course, never belonged to her either, just as the long monastery building never belonged to my combative aunt Lydija, her gentle husband the policeman and my American cousins Florijonas and Zigmas—all of them lived there in poverty during the years of the German occupation. Did they really live in poverty? Aunt sewed, the policeman uncle built stools and the cousins attended the preparatory school next to Saint Casimir’s Church. Nowadays they’re both still lively old men (gray or bald?) but only Florijonas, the Chicagoan, when he flew into Vilnius, rushed down to the long building at dawn with a film camera, circled around it several times, ran over both new bridges as well, and took off headlong back to the hotel—he was expected on an excursion specified by Intourist’s carefully calculated plans.

Ma’am, one blindingly golden fall—maybe last year?—I asked a woman with an eagle face hanging out laundry, ma’am, excuse me... didn’t you live here during the war? As I said this, I waved at the long monastery beyond her hunched shoulders. I did, I sure did, the Lithuanian woman answered unexpectedly, and what of it? Then did you... I began, and shut my mouth: it wasn’t the fumes of Tokay that came out of my hungry mouth, but the stench of Izabella, ordinary, quintessential rotgut—nineteen proof and five percent sugar, a classic! She continued to gaze after me for a long time from the covered gallery: an old, tired eagle.

You see, I’m not talking about Tūla anymore, not about the brown fur jacket she was wearing the first time I saw her, not about her phlegmatic brother and that brother’s arrogant buddies, but about an eagle, rotgut, a New York cousin who married a real German, Lota, and his small children in Albany, New York, who probably used to thank him after getting a treat by saying “Danke, Vati—Thank you, father!” Now those children have children themselves, and Zigmas I saw only once, twenty-one years ago; he wasn’t an old man yet. Apparently, he did well in his studies, cut pulpwood in Germany, worked hard when he got himself to America—at first, of course, like all the DPs. But Zigmas didn’t come to heave a sigh next to the monastery.

So, Florijonas and Zigmas, my real, true cousins—they still remember my grandfather Aleksandras whom I never saw, who collapsed by the well in 1944 and never got up again—they’d hurry to their prep school, steeped in dusk, over the other little bridge; it stands there yet today—serious and solid, with cast iron railings from the time of the Tsar and ageless embankments of rough-hewn stone on both sides. If, on occasion, you’re in a hurry coming from the direction of Old Town, then, running over that bridge, you immediately end up in Malūnų Street; dash under the arch, and you’re home already. On the way, a nearly round electrical transformer from Pilsudski’s days still juts out—or maybe that’s a Pilsudskian telephone substation?—but if, finding yourself there, you should go looking for a foreign spirit, there it is: a little island of Russia in Vilnius’s liver, begun by Grand Duchess Uliana, ceaselessly perfected by the Orthodox community through decades and centuries—Prechistenska Sobor, the Orthodox Church of the Holy Mother of God. It is a pretty church, even if it’s as stocky as a country market wrestler; I’ve stood next to its great iconostasis and pulled its bitter incense into my nostrils while Tūla pulled at my sleeve and whispered: Let’s get out of here, let’s go, look, the old women are muttering already, they’re glaring at us, let’s go... No one was glaring at us, not in the least; then we went out and headed down along the river. I kept leaning on the metal railings—not the bridge’s, the bank’s: you can still see some like that next to the Arsenal and across from the covered bridge—nice, dear railings, when your feet slide and tangle themselves, how good it feels to put your hot palms on them and instead of smelling cold air soaked in incense, a blast of wind takes your breath away. The same kind of dark railings, but on the other side of the Vilnelė, were visible outside Tūla’s windows; she was living at Petryla’s then, in the house with an apse, it was just that we so rarely looked out through those windows. But when we did glance out, the first thing we would see was the Bernardine Church, as massive as a blast furnace, melting in the glow—at that time, it was some five years after my distant friend, the black-bearded Jurgis, covered its roof with tiles as bright as the red flag above the Party headquarters. Jurgis wasn’t a roofer, no, he was the work supervisor; he would stand below, his thick head set on a stocky body turned upward, and shout: Hey! It’s not lunch time yet, why are you climbing down!? Jurgis, I’d say, when, together with him and his drudges, we’d snack on vodka with canned sprats in tomato sauce in the narrow office under a cut-glass vault, Jurgis, what do you mean, playing the idiot that way? Jurgis, dark, bearded, and as grim as Gáspár Békés, wouldn’t even smile, wouldn’t start whining that there wasn’t money, or that the craftsmen were worthless, and these—he’d point to the young roofers—winos! Have a drink, have a drink, it’s your turn now, was all he would mutter, let’s go, guys! Jurgis was already marked with the waxy sign of death, don’t tell me he didn’t realize it himself? That cold wax in his reddish face was so obvious. Maybe he didn’t want to know? But Jurgis managed to cover the roof anyway—it was the first thing I would see on leaving one of those “soviet” hospitals by the Missionary Church, where I used to visit Uncle Hans after his first stroke; that time he got well quickly, the prognosis was excellent. I’d pause there every time, in the little square next to the old corpus of another former monastery: on a sunny day all of the barely visible city would glimmer, but your eyes would instantly find the red Bernardine roof of their own accord—it was my and Tūla’s close neighbor, and the late bearded Jurgis roofed it. Jurgis died, and eight years later his drudges so tore up the church’s walls, scraped them so badly—they call that work probing!—that another time, when I stopped by to see Dionyzas, Jurgis’s successor (also a great guy, a slow-talking debauchee, apparently a distinguished economist), I just couldn’t find my inscription from those days anymore... and after all, at the time I had used green oil paint to write—drunk, of course—her name, in letters nearly a yard high, supposedly translated into some foreign language—THULLA! Yes, with an exclamation point and two l’s. Who was it who grabbed the paintbrush out of my hands and started yelling at me? Maybe Jurgis himself? I don’t remember anymore.

Tūla’s poor house beyond the little “freight” bridge: the Orthodox churches and abbeys surround it today as they did a century ago—all of them much smaller than our Bernardine blast furnace, all of them more graceful—with glittering little steeples, spikes, and brick drapery—St. Anne’s most of all, of course; not at all long ago, going up to it, I rubbed the devil on its door handle—his blunt, wide forehead—with my thumb. Maybe you know, O devil, what Tūla is doing now? An inhabitant of the chthonic world, an old idiot, but in other respects, a very dear creature on the door’s metal ring... Do you know anything?

In the old days, when I awoke in the night and slurped some flat beer, all I would see out Aurelita Bonopartovna’s window was the calm and gentle silhouette of the Blessed Virgin Mary the Consoler Church—the very tip of the spire and a part of the graceful tower. Aurelita Bonopartovna slept in the other room with her young daughter Ewa Gerbertovna, while at night in the kitchen their mother and grandmother Helena Brzostowska would drink red wine thinned with boiled water, listen to Penderecki and Vivaldi records, and sit up until dawn carving ritual masks out of blocks of linden, masks that were full of evil fantasies—of Mardi Gras, Japanese, and Užupis inhabitants. But no, maybe I made it up. Only one thing is for sure: awaking in the night, I’d immediately see the little triple-nave church’s tower—apparently I knew it was a triple-nave. It was vivid even in the darkest sky. I knew a lot more—it had been a long time since the old lady Daszewska lived next to the Virgin Mary the Consoler with her slutty daughters and crazy son Tadek, who went nuts the day he was bested at the open ring final in Philharmonic Hall—it wasn’t just his fiancée Angonita Brandys who abandoned him, but all of his friends and drinking buddies. That happened in 1956, right after the 20th Communist Party Congress—when talking about this event to me and my colleague Teodoras von Četras, pani Daszewska always mentioned the Congress. She was in the Hall herself at the time, so it’s not surprising that every time she remembered her beaten-to-a-pulp son (when the fight was over, someone thrashed him in the locker room too), the old lady’s voice trembled. Zofia, a suburban letter-carrier and a great one for nookie, understood her brother’s insanity completely differently: listen, Tadek went crazy from eau de cologne and acetone glue in jail; you can see for yourself how puny he is, what a puke pack he is! But young Maria, who used to get me and Teodoras cheap socks from her Sparta factory, the beautiful Mariana, with whom we would dance at the Arklių Club, the dreary dance hall belonging to the Interior Ministry, avoided talking about her little brother entirely. The biography of pani Daszewska, widow of a legionnaire chorąży or ensign, in “our” time already a wrinkled and slovenly but still energetic and crazy old lady, would perhaps be worth further study, even though I don’t doubt that most people would much rather read the spicy memoirs of the late letter carrier Zofia—no, no, not about the tiresome delivery of letters and newspapers, not about the mean mutts of Filaretų and Olandų Streets—what else then, but her never-ending, dangerous, and breath-taking adventures in bed! Actually, Zosia in her youth was as pretty as a church painting—the pictures prove it!—but to us, Almae Matris Vilnensis liberal arts graduates taking shelter in one corner of the Daszewska den in the fall of 1967, she no longer, unfortunately, looked as charming and seductive as she had, for example, to the Soviet cadets of 1949, or to the boxing trainer who, they say, talked Tadek into fighting with the trained soldiers in the garrison’s club. Zosia liked to stop by our little room, separated from the stinking kitchen by a width of flowered cotton, sit on the creaking stool and, puffing on a cigarette, start reminiscing. Četras and I tried to fix her up with Francas, a well-fed French student who was always desperate for a woman, but when he saw Zosia, Francas vanished backwards from the door, and he practically never stopped by our furnished hole anymore, even though Zosia always asked: nu, gde vash tot usach—well, where’s your bewhiskered one? I had already lost Tūla (did I ever have her?) when I discovered, quite unexpectedly, that in this very same tiny little room where I with my colleague Četras once wasted pleasant days of half-starvation with the alley cats, the rats scurrying under the floor, and Tadek wailing one minute and cackling the next, yes, in the very same den, in 1907 I believe, Čiurlionis once lived, the one and only officially recognized (even by the Russians!) genius of our nation. When I found this out I got the urge to find von Četras, buy a bottle or two of some decent wine, and go to that courtyard—all of the Daszewski family, excepting maybe Mariana and her kids, had died out already—to glance once more at the black window frames and the copper door handle that had survived through some miracle, and at least try to imagine the genius’s silhouette in the gateway or pressing that handle... wine helps, doesn’t it? But as it turned out, Teodoras was away in Vienna—I guzzled down the wine under the Daszewski windows with some scabby guy. When we finished, he started demanding more, and I barely managed to escape. Once more I turn in circles, just so I won’t have to immediately reveal everything about Tūla, about THULLA with two l’s. Tūla, whose name I wrote in six-foot letters of green paint on the narrow wall of the Bernadine shrine, not far from the Great Altar...

translated by Elizabeth Novickas

 

You can read an article about Užupis and Jurgis Kunčinas here

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