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Algimantas Maldutis, Way Out, 1983, 29 x 39 cm. From the MO Museum collection.

 

An excerpt from the novel White Shroud

(from Chapter 8)

 

During the first Bolshevik occupation[1] Antanas Garšva wasn’t able to publish his poems or articles in any of the Soviet newspapers or magazines. His work was called reactionary and formalist. Garšva and his father lived in the summer cottage at Aukštoji Panemune. It was a small cottage. Four rooms, a kitchen, a glassed-in porch. A surveyor and his wife rented two of the rooms; quiet people who played chess in their spare time.

Garšva’s father would mope around the garden, lingering by the pear trees (the ones he had once ordered from Denmark), fingering the green fruit. The Bolsheviks had cut off his pension because he was a Knight of the Order of Gediminas, an honour that, as a distinguished Lithuanian government official, he had once been forced to purchase. Garšva’s father spoke little to Garšva. The fingering of the pears was a reduced version of that earlier meditation on the bank of the Nemunas, when his father had gazed at Pažaislis Monastery. Now Russian soldiers meditated there, bayonets thrust onto the ends of their rifles, shouting “Away!” to anyone who approached. His father didn't touch his violin anymore. It hung on the wall gathering dust, and the one time his father strummed a chord it must have echoed loudly in his heart because he grimaced as though he had tasted something bitter, and he strode out to the garden, his hand on his chest – an old-fashioned courtier bearing a declaration of love.

That calm summer evening Garšva was sitting in the glassed-in porch, writing. Acacia bushes grew just outside, a wooden fence separated the little world of the cottage from the quiet street. A lamp with a bell-shaped shade stood on a cross-legged table.  A nightingale trilled in the evening calm.

Certain poets have mercilessly embellished this vigorous, syncopated decline, Garšva thought to himself. He remembered the old Lithuanian polyphonies his father had once hummed, so true in their lyric atonality. Then serfdom was imposed[2], and later, all the freed slaves could do was try to compete with their masters: by harmonizing their songs and importing a brittle Olympus to the North. Perkūnas, Pykuolis, Patrimpas[3], high priests and priestesses, imported southern gods and their servants quickly donned Lithuanian folk costumes.

Lole palo eglelo
Lepo leputeli
Lo eglelo
Lepo leputeli
……………………
Skambinoj kankleliai
Lioj ridij augo.[4]

The nightingale’s ancient song. Jehovah had neglected this land, had focused all of his attention on Asia Minor.

*    *    *

The room had white plaster walls. An unpainted table stood by the window. Two chairs. A cheap felt hat with a soaked brim hung on a nail. Antanas Garšva noticed a heavy paperweight, with fake marble veins, on the table, next to a stained inkpot.

*    *    *

Triangular firs, Lithuanian temple spires, rose to the stars from impenetrable bogs. Gliding mists; dishevelled fairies; small, shabby kaukai[5]; sprites whirring through the air; field and farm deities wrung from the earth. Abstract nature gods, perpetually changing shape.

Lole palo eglelo
Lepo leputėli, –

trilled the nightingale. One had only to stand deep in the forest and watch the grass snakes hugging the ground, the toads contemplating the universe through their bulging eyes. One had only to meditate, suspending thought. Words were still magical formulae. As mysterious and meaningful as the formation of the mists. One had only to watch the sharp-tongued flames of the eternal fire: they lit up the firs – the towers – in the shrine of the great, immeasurable earth. To be born, to live, to die. To dissolve in the mists, to climb up onto high benches, to sometimes wander through familiar forests and marshes.

And if sadness and fear should descend, one could whittle pieces of wood into half-human carvings and place them by the roadsides[6]. Sad fear sculpted into the long wrinkles, the shortened torsos, a final surrender to the earth. These wooden sculptures did not compete with nature. Personifications recognizable in the embraces of gnarled trunks, tangled roots, the movements of lakes and rivers. A sad fear protecting the living.

Skambinoj kankleliai
Lioj ridij augo, –
trilled the nightingale.

Honeycombs, rye ears, rue, tulips and lilies. Lazy, sweet-toothed bears. Pine resin – golden amber, Baltic foam slowly dissolving into the amber sand.

*    *    *

With the back of his hand, Garšva once more wiped the blood that continued to flow from his nose. He glanced at his hand, then at the inkpot. The inkpot was full of black ink. Simutis sighed deeply.
“You tossed it into the Nemunas? Zuika was right. It’s a good thing you’re an idiot. Only an idiot would go to the bus station that same morning.”
“I had two weeks,” Garšva replied, sniffling.
“In the veranda,” said Simutis.

*    *    *

The wicket gate swung open. Two men entered the veranda and stood before Garšva. Two greenish silhouettes outlined by the light of the table lamp. The world of the past sunk into nonexistence. Antanas Garšva stood up, pressing his hands against the table.

“Hello, comrade Garšva,” said the poet Zuika. During the years of independence he had written occasional poems. About war, about Vilnius, about national holidays. The poems contained plenty of exclamation marks and frequently repeated the word “Lithuania.” And he was still writing commissioned poems. About war, about Moscow, about Communist holidays. These poems were not that different. They contained plenty of exclamation marks and frequently repeated the word “Stalin.”

    Zuika was a short man with a handsome face, a small head, hair of an ambiguous colour, and eyes red from insomnia or drink. He had plump, feminine hands, clean and manicured. He looked at them continuously. Garšva didn’t recognise the second man. Tall and broad-shouldered, with prominent cheekbones, a low forehead, and a strong chin, he looked more like a factory foreman.

“Comrade Simutis. He spent four years in prison,” stated Zuika. A plump hand flew out and back, as though Zuika were a policeman directing traffic.

“Sit down,” said Garšva, seating himself. Zuika positioned himself on the bench, Simutis leaned against the veranda window frame and placed his right foot on the rustic white bench. His foot, in its hard, black shoe, was disproportionately long.

“Don’t be surprised that we have dropped in on you at night,” said Zuika in his smooth tenor voice. Garšva was confused. He barely knew Zuika, so the man’s familiar tone surprised him. Zuika snatched up the sheet of handwriting. Suddenly they were children. Garšva lunged for the sheet, but Zuika hid it behind his back. Simutis quickly sat down on the bench between Garšva and Zuika. The sheet reappeared and Zuika read it out loud, his lips quivering with sarcasm.

“A typical blend of decadence and bourgeois folklore,” said Zuika.

“It’s the first draft. Just the beginning of a poem,” replied Garšva, instantly realising that, for some reason, he was justifying himself. Then he spoke calmly, as though scanning his words.

“What right do you have to come here at night and check on me?”

“Calm down. The working people have the right to inspect. And Comrade Simutis here works for the glorious NKVD.”

The plump little hand repeated the policeman’s gesture. For a moment they were all silent. “I am not obliged to be afraid,” thought Garšva, and then spoke.

“If I remember correctly, a stanza in one of your poems went like this:

Now freedom’s bell rings high
We know how to preserve it!    
And the rifleman’s[7] name we cry
Like a brother’s or a friend’s.
Then a week ago I read another version:
Now freedom’s bell rings high
We know how to preserve it!
And Stalin’s name we sigh
Like a father’s or a friend’s.

Your technique is improving. The rhyme ‘sigh’ is more perfect that ‘cry.’ Congratulations.”

Simutis looked at Zuika askance.

“Did you know that the head of the Riflemen’s League threatened me?” squealed Zuika. “And not just me – my elderly parents too! He said he would drive them out of their little farm and make beggars of them. So I had to give in, but you should know: the first version was the second one, and I changed the words. I was forced to. I’d been writing about Stalin for several years, while you were still chasing decaying -isms!”

“How many times did I see you in a restaurant with the head of the Riflemen’s League? I suppose he paid your tab by force?!” asked Garšva, grinning.

“Lies!” was all Zuika could manage.

Simutis took the manuscript sheet and began to read.

“I don’t quite understand it,” he said in a weary baritone.

“And you won’t understand. It’s all verbal acrobatics, encoded with bourgeois propaganda,” said Zuika, cutting in.

Simutis stared at the sheet as though it were illegible. “I’m pulling myself together. I have to find a way out of this,” thought Garšva, and said, “The matter is simple, Comrade Simutis. What you see here is something in an embryonic state. I want to write a poem on the topic of folk song. But unfortunately, my technique is weak – I can’t compare myself with dear Zuika – so I need multiple drafts. When I’m done, the poem will be accessible to the people.”

“He’s trying to get away with it. He’s sitting on two chairs,” said Zuika, glancing towards Simutis. His plump hands rested on the table, their soft dimples and carefully filed nails more distinct under the table lamp.

“It appears that dear Zuika takes very good care of his nails – something that is not typical of a proletarian poet,” said Garšva softly. Zuika twisted his delicate fingers. Simutis put the sheet on the table and spoke.

“I don’t understand everything, but I like it. When I was a child, in the countryside, I heard folk singing. It was nice. It was nice to listen to them in the evening. This is also a song. A folk song, I’m thinking. If you show the people suffering under their masters, and the people are singing… And if at the end Stalin’s sun shines bright, then I think it will do. All the great poets wrote about the people. Strazdelis, Donelaitis[8]?”

“That is correct, Comrade Simutis.”

“Very well. Give it a go. But don’t forget. There is no more oppression. The future is bright. I’d like to read this poem when you’re done with it. How long will it take you?”

“I suppose a week, maybe two.”

“Good. Then let’s say that in two weeks you bring me your poem, Comrade Garšva,” decided Simutis. He got up, as did Garšva. Zuika stayed seated, his little fingers now still.

“I hope you’ll be one of us,” said Simutis warmly, pressing Garšva’s hand.

“Comrade Simutis, I’ll explain…” sputtered Zuika, getting up.

“We’ll sort everything out in two weeks. Let’s go. Goodnight, Comrade Garšva.”

“Goodnight.”

The single window was covered with a grate. On either side of it hung once bright cotton curtains. An enamel spittoon stood in the corner. Yellow cigarette butts floated in a yellow mucous porridge. Cigarette butts also lay on the long-unpolished parquet. Simutis caught Garšva’s eye.

“Now you’re going to kneel down at the spittoon and lick up those butts with your tongue,” he said, and sat down on the edge of the table. Garšva sniffled. The blood was still flowing. He heard a car horn and noticed a blue fly. It was crawling, slowly, up the window grate.

“Faster!”

The nightingale trilled. She wasn’t the secretary of a proud or overly emotional poet. She was just a nightingale. Lole palo eglelo – a polyphony. The gliding mists – spirits of the dead. A fairy tale – a forgotten language.

Antanas Garšva wrote. A calm inevitability flowed back into his unconscious. The nightingale fell silent. Above the fence it brightened. In the nightingale’s song, in himself, Garšva was searching for a lost world. Just as this modest bird had sung a thousand years ago. Its song a cipher, the first communicated code.

Garšva whistled, imitating the sleeping bird. “I’m writing a fairy tale. I believe in Ariadne’s thread, I believe in intuition. I’ll leave resurrecting the past to scholars of ancient religions. They can argue amongst themselves.” Two stanzas of a poem lived on a piece of cheap paper. Trees and shrubs grew in a lost world. Fir, pine, linden, oak, birch, juniper.

*    *    *

Simutis slipped off the table and stood facing Garšva.

“I’m waiting.”

Garšva was silent. He took a blow to the hollow of his stomach and collapsed to the ground. Consciousness faded and returned. He noticed a stench. He had lost control of his bowels.

“Did it in your pants, mister poet?”

*    *    *

The two men left. The little gate swung shut. A reddish glow gushed over Artillery Park. Garšva crumpled the page of manuscript and stuffed it into his pocket. “I’ve got to run, get away. To the country.” He turned off the lamp. Went back into the house. Opened the door of his father’s bedroom. His father’s nightshirt was unbuttoned, a tuft of grey chest hair rising rhythmically. His father slept with his mouth open. It reeked of old man’s sweat. A red blanket shifted at the feet. “Let him sleep. I’ll take off without saying goodbye.” Garšva closed the door. He put on an old jacket and went into the kitchen. He drank two glasses of milk. Ate a slice of bread. Then he lit a cigarette and went out into the street. He walked along the Nemunas, ripping up the crumpled sheet. He threw the shreds of paper into the water. The shreds floated, whirling, towards the bridge.

*    *    *

Garšva tried to get up. He could barely breathe. He could not move his torso or legs. Then he began to walk on his hands, dragging his lower body. Like a dog whose back legs had been hit by a car. Towards the spittoon. He even growled, like a dog. Just two more meters to the spittoon. Garšva paused.

“Faster!”

“Long live Babochkin,”[9] Garšva muttered.

“Who’s that?”

“He did a good job playing Chapayev.”

Simutis grabbed the heavy paperweight from the table.

“Are you going to crawl?”

“Don’t hit me! Don’t hit me!” shrieked Garšva. He crawled another few inches. The spittoon was right there. His arms began to shake, and he collapsed to the floor.

“Get up,” said Simutis.

“Long live Babochkin,” Garšva whispered.

Quivering, he raised himself. All he could feel was fear. “I’ll do anything, anything, even stick my tongue in it, for him not to hit me!”

Simutis’s shoe was right by his nose. The smell of shoe polish was sharper than that of Garšva’s faeces. Garšva looked up, smiled childishly and, staring at Simutis’s noble chin, said, “Don’t want to.”

Simutis smashed the paperweight onto the top of his head.

*    *    *

Antanas Garšva came to in the veranda. He was lying on the bench, Simutis and a man in a white coat stood before him.

“Are you awake?” asked Simutis.

Garšva blinked.

“Good. I spared you. Do you hear what I’m saying?”

“I hear. You spared me.”

“Good. Now listen. You were walking along May 1st Street. You wanted to cross to the other side. You can’t remember anything else. Repeat what I said.”

“I was walking along May 1st Street. Wanted to cross to the other side. Can’t remember anything else.”

“Correct. You were hit by a bus. Understood?”

“Understood. I was hit by a bus.”

“Good. When you recover, you’ll continue to write.”

“Good. I’ll write.”

“I like you. I got carried away. But… I think it’ll do you good. I think you’ll be one of us. Get better. Write.”

Simutis and the man in the white coat left. Beyond the fence a car started. Garšva touched his head. It was bandaged.

 

 

1. June 1940 to July 1941.
2. Serfdom was introduced in Lithuania in 1447, by Kazimeras Jogailaitis, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland. The oppression of the serfs became heavier in 1795, when Lithuania was annexed by Imperial Russia. Reforms abolishing serfdom were introduced in 1861 and intensified following the Uprising of 1863.
3. The ancient Baltic gods of air/lightning, the dead, and nature/fertility.
4. These refrains appear at various points in the novel. They evokes archaic Lithuanian polyphonic song, and have no literal meaning, except for the phrases, skambinoj kankleliai (the zithers rang) and “augo” (it grew).
5. A kaukas (plural: kaukai) is a type of brownie or gnome in Lithuanian mythology, thought to live under a house or in the ground nearby. Kaukai were thought to bring good luck or skalsa, a type of non-material wealth associated with economy and the efficient use of resources, and they might do small, useful tasks. A Lithuanian homemaker traditionally left small gifts to attract one of these positive, chthonic beings to her home, even sewing a tiny garment with a single piece of thread and hiding it in a corner. Lithuanian semiotician A.J. Greimas’ analysis showed that kaukas is associated with water, dampness, and earth. Kaukai were also associated with death, as at some points they were thought to be the spirits of stillborn children.
6. Reference to traditional Lithuanian wooden sculptures (“dievukai”) depicting a pensive Christ (“Rūpintojėlis” – “the Sorrowful One”) or other saints, often placed at roadsides.
7. Reference to the Lithuanian Riflemen’s League, a volunteer civic defense organisation founded in 1919.
8. Lithuanian poets, Antanas Strazdas (1760-1833) and Kristijonas Donelaitis (1714-1780).
9. Boris Babochkin (1904-1975), a Russian film actor and director. Best known for playing the lead character in the 1934 film Chapaev, about a Red Army commander during the Russian Civil War.

 

 

Translated by Karla Gruodis

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