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Kęstutis Navakas is an aesthete, poet, essayist, and—since this year—a novelist. His surrealist texts based on free association and word play resemble dreamlike mazes that you do not really want to find a way out of. Space, time, epochs—everything is interlaced. Real personalities, literary personages, fiction—everything and everyone are witty, never short of words, and take pleasure in their right to exist. The readers must just accept the rules of the game and enjoy themselves. Oh, and they must not to attach labels, either to the author or on his works—they do not stick to these texts.

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Mindaugas Skudutis, Ranka, 2016. Photo by Vidas Poškus

 

A Copy of Wine
    
An excerpt from the novel

 
Chapter One

I died this past night.

There is nothing supernatural about this. Nature kills everyone. Only rocks are immortal. Nonetheless, it’s a bit unusual. You live and you live, then—poof—and you’re six feet under. I don’t like these sorts of sudden reversals, and, what’s more, I’ve read that dying isn’t always in our best interest, even from a literary point of view.

I look around and I can’t see either heaven or St Peter with his master key. I’ve found myself in a small dark room with invisible walls. The visible surface of the floor melds into invisible darkness. The room has two chairs and a table. There’s a lighted lamp on the table, and Maria Casarès is sitting behind it. Not the one from Carné’s Children of Paradise, but the one from Cocteau’s Orphée, except she’s a little bedraggled and worn-out looking. That’s paradise for you, I say to myself. And where’s the tree of knowledge? Where are the rest of the deceased? Could it be that they’ve all descended into Hell, and here I find myself the only Portuguese guy in Heaven?

And another thing that displeases me is that Casarès, as we all know, is someone who is quite directly associated with death. As it is, death is a pretty big blight of fate, and here in front of my eyes is page three-hundred-and-sixty-two of the greasy well-fingered encyclopaedia of cinematography. Maybe the person I really want to see sitting at that table, or, better still, on it, is Bardot in a miniskirt—now that would almost be Heaven, but this plumper who looks like she should be standing behind a cash register in a cafeteria gives rise to one catharsis after another.

I’ll be brief, Casarès says. I find this consoling. It’s crystal clear to me: she’ll be brief.

What sort of establishment is this? I ask. Where’s everyone else? I understand that this is my ethereal body, and that it has a whiff of the Shroud of Turin. But where’s my earthly one?

You want to see it? Casarès asks. Have a look then.

And she pokes the indiscernible wall with her finger. A small hole appears, and I shove my curious eyeball into it. In the murky distance, I spy my family and neighbours interring me beneath the sod. Before now, I didn’t believe I had any such personages in my life; however, for such an occasion they’ve all crawled out from unknown bushes. After this the image flashes: I see them all at my wake, sitting around a table and tucking into grub. Scorcese the dog circles the neighbours and sniffs them, as if they’ve rubbed badger fat into their shins. It’s all clear to me. And here (that is to say, there) they suddenly break into a dirge! Not Ye Holy Angels Bright but Hugo Wolf’s Feueurreiter, which causes my level of surprise to hit almost 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

Well, have you got it now? the dame asks me.

Not everything. Where’s my friend Shmuel, who died the year before last? Where’s John Lennon?

This is just our reception desk, says Casarès. Everyone else is elsewhere. And you aren’t completely dead yet.

What do you mean by not completely? I don’t understand. I watched them bury me.

That’s just an illusion, she says, shrugging her shoulders, like everything in the world you’ve been living in. You, sir, live by illusions, fantasies and dreams, at least you have been for the last little while. We know everything; it’s all recorded here.

And, from a drawer, she pulls out the thickest possible document folder. What is going on? Don’t they have computers in Heaven? It wouldn’t surprise me if all those records were in Latin, like in a pharmacy or a bird store. Of course, it’s easy for them to observe me—just poke a finger in that wall and ogle me as much as you want.

We found you were an odd duck, Casarès mumbles, leafing through the documents, which is why we haven’t come to a decision about you. Also, we have no idea whether our competitors will take you.

What competitors? I feel like asking, but she cuts me off:
We’ve decided to return you to life for one more day. Do what you want while you’re there. You won’t be bound by the laws of space and time. Go wherever you want. Hang out with whomever you want. We’ll wait and see what comes of it all. Get stoned. You’re a wine copy now. And, by the way, you’re getting a sidekick.

I want to respond, but suddenly she lets out such a shriek! After this, all her skirts and petticoats begin to flutter, and she flies off into the darkness.

I try shouting a rejoinder at her in Latin, but, just at that instant, I awaken.

  

Chapter Two


A drop of pâté? asks Count Pti, one leg swaying, a foot adorned by a Greek slipper with a large pompom.

Pâté doesn’t fall in drops, dearest sir. What pâté? And where did you get those slippers? Syntagma square? Up to this point I’m still unsure if the break of day doesn’t somehow determine the first thoughts that cross your mind. I don’t care. I’m awake, I’ve seen, I’ve thought. Day has broken. I’m just now starting to appear. It always annoys me that such volatile substances are more stable than I am. You were, you vanished, you awoke. You have the whole day ahead of you again, a slipper’s pompom, and a drop of pâté.

It could be worse. How about Gregor Samsa, for instance … But where, out of all fairness, am I? I don’t like these questions. They place too much emphasis on appearances. That said, where am I? I know it’s me, which is comforting. I don’t know where I am, which is irritating. It’s just that I hear buzzing and then more buzzing. It grates on my skull, and drops of pâté are landing on it.

I’ll be off now, says Count Pti. Don’t forget to add saffron. Just a smidgen. To that pâté.

Of course, I won’t forget. I’ll never forget. With my last breath, I’ll blow out the saffron lodged between my lips, but right now I have no clue where I am or what this saffron is about.

The room is like any other room. I won’t describe it it—descriptions always lie. It’s the room of a sedentary person. The things in it have been almost absorbed into the air; they’re so steadfast and obvious that it would be impossible to carry them off. They are oppressive things, I must say. They bind you to them. Of course, in all other respects, they’re nice, especially this screen. I’m almost tempted to hide behind it until a she of some sort comes in. Then I’d jump out from behind it, toss out all the hats I’d discovered there, without even thinking those hats would run out, and then there would be an awkward pause. But it’s not important. A she of some sort would enter, I would astound her, the hats would run out, and she would immediately realize I was her type. I hope she hurries up, because I won’t spend more than fifteen minutes lurking behind that screen.

And what is, in fact, behind that screen? I get up to take a look. Should I tell you that I’m also wearing my housecoat? It doesn’t matter, I won’t say, because it often happens that the housecoat wears me.

For some reason, waking up in the mornings happens like this: beside me stands (or sits?) a symphony orchestra and a violinist in a frock-coat who immediately start to play—with vigour—putting me into the context. And they usually play Mendelssohn’s Concerto for violin, Opus 64, which is as sweet as milk chocolate. I’m so sick of it that if I never wake up again, it’ll be for fear of having to listen to that piece. There it is again. Am I in a concert hall?

I don’t need to know this instant who is behind that screen. For the time being, I’m pretending that it’s three nude Chinese women. They’re very small and very cold.

I’ll invite them to come and sit on the sofa. I’ll blow on them so that they thaw. And afterwards I’ll ask them where I can get some saffron. Lick it from our lips, the three naked Chinese women will answer. It’s “Made in China”. And I’ll tell them that I’ll do no such thing, that I’ve never seen anyone like them, that they are to me only statistical units, just numbers in a table, and then I’ll lick those lips of theirs as clean as a whistle. And there won’t be any saffron in them—just cabbage and garlic.

The housecoat, about which I’ve said nothing, also raises endless suspicions. It isn’t my size, but it’s been broken in so well that it fits me perfectly. The elbow creases are precise, like the ones in astronauts’ space suits. Wearing it, I feel as though I’m actually inside a space suit, tethered to an interplanetary space station by a striped belt, like being tethered to the handle of a bathroom door. I just hope the oxygen supply doesn’t get cut off, otherwise I’ll never find out what’s behind the screen.

There’s an apple on the table, there’s a magazine with some sort of rhinoceroses on the table, there are matches that were once trees rustling in the wind on the table, but there’s nothing on the table that would expand the room out of absolute anonymity, that would tell me who it belongs to, where I am, why I am, that would show me that everything here obeys the laws of nature, of cause and effect, of buttons and loops, of grandparents and grandkids, but no, the room is silent, like some sort of nebula brought closer by a telescopic lens. And then I suddenly notice that the apple on that table has a bite taken out of it.

The symphony orchestra stops playing, takes a bow, and leaves. I’m quite sure that the conductor didn’t take a bite out of the apple, so I take a bite right next to the first bite, and I’m frightened to see that the marks left by my teeth are totally different. I have no idea where I am, I still don’t know who is behind that screen—but I’m not alone. There’s someone else living here—someone with teeth. They should be grinding at night, I suspect, to Opus 64.

When you no longer know who you are, or if you are facing some other mortal threat, what you need to do is find something to read as quickly as possible, even if it’s only a paragraph, or just two letters of the alphabet. On the table there’s an apple, on the table there’s a magazine (like I’m going to read a magazine), on the table there are matches (like I’m going to read matches), on the table there are sunglasses, a candlestick, an empty Venetian glass vase, a few other items that have lost their meaning and name, and a compact disc with music by Serge Gainsbourg. Dieu est un fumeur de havanes, je vois ses nuages gris the label reads. He writes so simply, and reading it makes me oh so calm. Dieu est un fumeur de havanes ... Everything is clear to me; the world regains its structure and its cosiness. Je vois ses nuages gris.

That Gainsbourg is a Jew somewhat upsets the structure of the world. Not that Jews upset the structure of the world per se—I like Jews and their klezmers—but this one is French, and that’s not good. And when you recall that the Frenchmen Vartan, Laforêt and Aznavour are all Armenians, the structure of the world loses the last of its safety pins and crumbles into primordial bits, like a cake returning to its components of sugar and margarine.

And so, once again, everything will have to be gathered up and put back in its rightful place; the world will need to be recreated because un fumeur de havanes is too lazy to do it today; he’s so lazy that he doesn’t even have an idea where he is. Incidentally, how long have I been here?

There aren’t many items in the room showing the time. It seems that there are not only clocks here but calendars too, yet under these conditions it’s difficult to recreate chronologies. I’ve already lost hope in knowing everything down to the nanosecond, but suddenly the magazine with rhinoceroses tells me that we’re now in the month of May. This is getting interesting, because I remember seeing snow outside my window before going to bed. It was winter, there were snowmen, and an icebreaker, The Lenin, appeared on an old postage stamp. This means, for crying out loud, that the sakuras have already blossomed. What have I been doing here these past three months?

I’m itching to peek behind the screen, but sometimes when you give in to the urge and look you end up disappointed, which is why I’m delaying; the glance at the magazine with rhinoceroses was enough for now. Then I looked and some Jewish Armenian Frenchmen came, shovelled the snow, burst into leaf, and so now here I sit like a shepherd boy whose geese have run away, and I have no compass, no sextant, no handle, and no thread.

Someone has been holding me captive here for these three months. Someone has been drugging me with lysergic acid diethylamide, feeding me magic mushrooms, or whacking me over the head with a stake, because I can’t remember anything; it’s all new to me, and my aged body is sitting on the edge of a new bed. I’m afraid of this body of mine. There’s a skeleton inside it, and I’ve always been afraid of skeletons. We once had a tenant named Tina, a medical student, living with us. She had a homo erectus skeleton, and she even hung her dresses on it, but this didn’t make either Tina or the skeleton any prettier. And so now my skeleton sits on the edge of this bed, and it doesn’t know where it is, what time it is, or what’s behind the screen.

It’s a skeleton of total unknowingness, which is why its’s terrible. I don’t feel solid. I feel frail. The back of my head itches, so I sit here and scratch it. Itchiness is usually consoling because it returns you to sensation. After being consoled by the itching for a second time, I stand up and walk towards the screen. Drops are falling outside the window. I hope it’s not pâté, but, with so many unknowns around, everything has become possible.

I stop in front of the screen and it hits me that the second I take a peek, I’ll either be disappointed or horrified. Because I’m still not myself, and I don’t know where I am or who took a bite out of the apple. These are the first things I need to figure out. From here on I’m going to use an abbreviation as a disguise; therefore, in this story, which will at times be narrated as the dove flies, you can call me K.

 


Chapter Three

 

Maybe let’s begin with your childhood, suggests d’Artagnan, who is sitting on the left side of the small table. A multitude of psychoanalysts have written about childhood, and they used the lapels of their housecoats to fan dry the ink. Go for it, Martian: when you were born and where, when you wrote your first poem, and when you got punched in the face for the first time. Many things will be clearer.

Don’t be a numbskull, say Porthos and Aramis, who sit on the right side of the small table. We’re better off drinking.

Everyone takes a drink except K., who sees the threatening anorexic finger of Count Pti reflected in the glasses in the rack over the bar.

I don’t know, says K. This morning I woke up who knows where. Perhaps I was even born this morning, because when you’re born you can find yourself anywhere, just like when you die. There was no one in the room. Maybe someone was hiding behind the screen, but I didn’t look. It was enough that the screen was pretty. Sometimes I buy a book only for the sake of its cover, but afterwards I never crack it. I’m happy to just imagine what’s written in it—to create it myself. When the ability to create it myself diminishes somewhat, usually on Thursdays, I feel the breath of someone or other panting into my shoulder blades just a little too tangibly.

Well, that’s some serious business, Porthos says, picking his nose. I’ve woken up who knows where many a time.

This is different, Aramis says. Your who-knows-where always remained who-knows-where, but this person actually wants to figure it out. This means he wants to go back there, maybe even die there some day.

So why don’t you stick your snout behind the screen? Porthos asks. Maybe you’d figure something out?

I didn’t want to, K. replies. What if it’s not what I’m hoping for, or if it’s just empty? The point of a screen is to hide a secret, not steal it. Once upon a time, Flaubert wrote …

Piss off with your Flaubert, says d’Artagnan. We weren’t written by him but by Dumas, the one who was the father. Therefore, he’s our father. Incidentally, if we’d been written by Dumas the son, then he wouldn’t be our son.

This Mazarine is not at all to my liking, grumbles Aramis. Let’s drink up and get into a swordfight over some damsel who’s being carried off to be burned at the stake. And if the damsel isn’t to our liking, we’ll help to burn her at the stake.

Let’s get going, say the other two. And we’ll invite Madame Bovary to join K. for this one—because as we all know, she is Flaubert himself.

But where’s Athos? K. wonders. Maybe they’ve murdered him and stolen some of his belongings to compensate for their own penury? In general, they strike me as inauthentic. Maybe they’re disguised lion-tamers from a circus that’s passing through?

You strike me as inauthentic, says K. in a low voice. You’re not from the actual book; you’re mostly from the manuscript.

D’Artagnan starts to draw his sword, but the other two use indelicate gestures to get him to calm down.

What do you want? Porthos asks. Many years have passed. We’re worn out. We’ve been deromanticized. Humanity has read us to the point of senile dementia. Even our shadows are more authentic than we are. Look, see for yourself.

K. glances at the fragments of the musketeers’ shadows on the edge of the ashtray, and when he looks up he sees they’ve disappeared.

Louisa arrives almost at that same instant. She gathers up the dishes, even the ones that aren’t on the table, flashes a barely perceptible smile, and K. notices that her lipstick is smudged. Could someone have been kissing her? During working hours? The cook?

Sit down, says K. Let’s have a chat. Someone has just kissed you. Who was it?

I can’t, says Louisa, shaking her head. Kisses are only for after work.

The thing that bothers me most is the banality of life, mumbles K. So would you like to meet up after work or what?

Louisa just smiles her cook’s kiss smile and moves to carry away the non-existent dishes.

And where are my friends, the ones who were sitting here? K. shouts. The musketeers, those blots of ink in manuscripts. Where did they go? Were they the ones who kissed you?

Now it’s Louisa’s turn to be surprised.

What friends? You were sitting here alone. You always sit here alone. I find that beautiful in its own way.

It’s that cinematographer, K. thinks. It’s all the fault of that cinematographer. The matrices fasten themselves to the brain with the accuracy of a micron, and there’s no getting away from them. I’m better off looking for that fucked-up saffron.

I just spoke with d’Artagnan, and it seems there isn’t much left of him. Dumas, the one who was the father, has watered him down and pulled a total boner. I’m going now because she only kisses after work.

It’s all cinematography. If I stay here, Ennio Morricone will start ringing in my ears, and the end titles will be filled with the last names of actors who’ve recently died.

I’m going now.

 


Chapter Four

 

Sun and wind. Linden trees line the boulevard. A cat runs past, its fur standing on end like the quills of a hedgehog. The flags above the municipal building are like tablecloths faded from too much laundering. The wind shreds the flags and the sun blanches the city’s crests. This is how nature takes its revenge on heraldry for having invaded its very marrow. And let it. I couldn’t care less, as Pliny the Younger once wrote.

If you were to dig a hole to the centre of the earth and drop a book into it, it would fall for forty-two minutes. It would be interesting to find out whether the debut novel and the collected posthumous works would fall at the same rate. It would be interesting to find out how fast I would fall.

For two seconds, Count Pti, says to me kindly, having just emerged from somewhere or other. Saffron would fall for longer, or maybe it wouldn’t fall at all. How does he always manage to appear both when you need him and when you don’t? Why does he pester me continually with his saffron? Is he himself perhaps essentially that saffron? And why would I end up falling for only two seconds when my posthumous collected works would fall for forty-two hours?

Because Dieu est un fumeur de havanes. He serenely occupies thrones, so many of which were drawn by Michelangelos and Buonarrotis. He smokes Habanos and blows smoke rings in your direction. And every day you fall through those rings down to the centre of the earth. In one second; the second second is straight to the head, for good measure.

He says this and leaves. I think about a rebuttal, but right now I can’t come up with anything that’s more fundamental. The wind is dying down, allowing the lindens along the boulevard to regain their canonical forms and the flags on the municipal buildings to droop. An airplane flies overhead. I can’t tell in which direction but, as Pliny the Younger once wrote …

If a room is just a bigger version of my body, as one such person wrote, then the city should also be my body, only turned inside-out like a glove—all its arteries and the four points of the compass propped up by the horizon. Thus, we not only go into town, we bleed into it, and most of the time our clots pool in the main blood-letting trough—that is to say, on the boulevard.

All of the preconditions for blood-letting are here: cafés, shops, bakeries, bailiffs’ offices, benches, one or another monument created by Aleuts, and a great many pedestrians, who walk past with such expressions on their faces it’s as though they’ll never bleed out. What wonderful naiveté, I think, to swim in the blood of pedestrians. Naiveté is a simulation of hope, but I find this beautiful, this beauty that is the beauty of the oxen depicted in the Altamira caves.

In the mornings I, too, am unable to wake up from the Paleolithic right away; when I do awaken, I see a multitude of oxen painted on the walls of my cave, and those oxen offer me a peculiar guarantee that I have slept deeply, that I have had enough air, and that the nude, sexy women I dreamt about were not succubi. I try not to blink for a few moments, because I know that as soon as I blink those oxen will vanish and daylight will come and I’ll have to get dressed, and I’ll eat my own funeral shroud, and I’ll end up having to stand for a long time in the middle of the room, straight up, like Cleopatra’s obelisk, until I end up blinking, and those oxen will vanish, and I’ll go out into the boulevard, soaked in the blood of pedestrians, diluting it with my own with every step I take.

The city you live in eventually wears out and vanishes completely. You spend a couple of decades discovering it, always surprised by what you find; however, with each surprise you wear the city out like a sock, because you learn more and more about it, you remember it, and, quarter by quarter, house by house, tree by tree, dog by dog, you load it into your warehouse of memory until you discover and remember so much that there’s not a dash of astonishment remaining; it’s all routine, the daily grind, inertia, a state of insignificance; shreds of pedestrians floating along the boulevard, and that’s when you remember—barely able to dredge up this memory, barely able to lift it up like a weight from your internal floor—that long ago the city surprised you endlessly, the same way that first grade multiplication tables surprised you endlessly.

And so here I am in this city, on this boulevard where the wind has calmed down, where once again candles can be lit in the outdoor cafés, and all of this has been seen, experienced, forgotten, culled, and mowed on so many occasions. The internal candles burned out long ago, but, as the Younger once wrote, I couldn’t care less about any of it.


Translated by Darius Ross

 

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