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Herkus Kunčius

Herkus Kunčius (born 1965) is a prose writer, playwright and essayist.
He is one of the most prolific Lithuanian writers, publishing a book or a play every year since his debut in 1998. His work, novels, essays and plays, is marked by postmodernist features and a scornful irony towards consumer society and its fake and superficial values. He often gives frank descriptions of bodies and bodily functions, and he is never afraid of blasphemy or indecency. His writing has been described as a ‘carnival’, and it clearly contains shock value, cruelty and nihilism.
His works have been translated into English, Bulgarian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, German and other languages.

reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

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Šarūnas Sauka, Population, 1995. Canvas, oil, 60 x 60 cm. From the MO Museum collection.

 

An excerpt from the book “Lithuanian Sketches”

 

 

The Seventh Sketch

In the 1990s, an insurmountable crisis hit the Soviet Union. Nothing helped, not charm nor decrees from the Communist Party, or the glasnost and perestroika declared by the secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. The shelves in shops were empty, and Soviet leaders started expressing the idea that life was no longer bearable as it was.

When there was nothing left to eat in Lithuania, talk about independence became louder. Sąjūdis meetings were growing. The time of the Singing Revolution began. In an attempt to persuade the Lithuanians to stay in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR, visited Vilnius on 11–13 January 1990.

On 11 March 1990, the Supreme Council of Lithuania passed the Act of the Reconstituent Seimas declaring the reestablishment of the independence of Lithuania, despite Moscow’s threats to impose an economic blockade. On 13 January 1991, Soviet troops in Lithuania received an order from the Kremlin and used force against civilians. Thirteen people were killed outside the Television Tower in Vilnius.

On 8 December 1991, Stanislav Shushkevich, Leonid Kuchma and Boris Yeltsin, the chairmen of the supreme councils of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, met in Belovezh (Belarus), and accepted the fact of the collapse of the USSR. On 25 December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from his position as president of the USSR. The USSR was no longer a state on the map of the world.

With the collapse of communism and the reestablishment of independence, a new era, that of wild capitalism, started in Lithuania. There was an influx not only of Western goods, but also of adventurers of all kinds, experience hunters or fools who were useful to nobody-knows-whom, with the naïve belief that they possessed sufficient knowledge and experience, and thus could teach the locals how to live and behave. So, in the summer of 1992, in addition to all the others, Princess Caroline of Monaco visited Lithuania.

 

I

Crossing the State Border

Since her childhood, the Princess of Monaco was known for her whimsical nature. She enjoyed her independence. If she ever listened to anything, it was usually her own opinion. She had her own ways. Thus, neither persuasion nor threats by Rainier III, the Prince of Monaco, not to travel to an unknown country, helped. The Princess of Monaco and Hannover was tempted neither by the famous Monte Carlo Rally that was soon to take place, nor by the prince’s sweet promises to open unlimited credit in a casino where she could gamble happily for months on end. Disregarding all the warnings, the princess put on a bouffant dress, packed her bags, and set off for Lithuania all by herself.

The princess knew little about Lithuania, often confused it with Estonia, and was convinced that the capital of Lithuania was Riga. She once saw a CNN documentary, and fell in love with the land at once. She liked the Lithuanian people, their determined look, their lips firmly pressed together, and their big political rallies, and they carried flags in the streets. She had not seen anything so exotic in wildest Africa, or in the South American jungle, or among the Maori of New Zealand, whom she visited several years ago on an extremely official and emphatically state visit as the Princess of Monaco.

She bade farewell to her noble family, and, after boarding a coach in Monaco, half an hour later she was in Nice. With the help of a French-Russian phrase book, she flew from Nice to Paris, and then from Paris to Warsaw. Before seeing her off, the Prince of Monaco implored her to fly with Lithuanian Airlines, which was not too reliable, but it was still something, but the princess bluntly refused. She would not fly to Lithuania. She stamped her foot. She wanted to spend several days in a rickety bus, as ordinary people do, clattering four hundred kilometres. For some reason, neither would a train journey, which was not at all shorter, suit her either. So, after standing in a long queue in the coach station in the Polish capital, the princess bought a ticket and boarded the bus that was to take her to Vilnius.

When the Princess of Monaco settled in her seat, her neighbour spoke to her. The middle-aged woman introduced herself as a former chemistry teacher, but now she was a Polish businesswoman. She confided that it was not her first trip to Gariūnai, and suggested to the princess that if she had any dollars with her she should hide them. The Princess of Monaco learned from the businesswoman that the safest place to hide currency was not in the shoes or the bra, but in the knickers, or even deeper.

The princess could not understand what the woman was talking about. But the businesswoman had a kind heart, and was very open, so she started to show her where she hid her money in case of thieves or muggings. The princess found this novel, interesting and unexpected. Before then, she had thought naively that the safest place for money was in the Bank of Monaco, the palace, or the credit unions in Nice, but things were different in Eastern Europe. Therefore, on her neighbour’s advice, she put everything where it had to go, and kept just a couple of small notes for basic necessities in her Versace bag.

As the ramshackle bus clattered along the bumpy roads, the princess started to feel sick. All pale, she wanted to ask the driver, as politely as possible, to stop the bus, but her neighbour convinced her that her troubles were of no interest to anybody, and that she would be able to throw up as much as she wanted in five hours or so when the bus stopped at the border. Strange as it seemed to her, the princess had to accept this order. Actually, not far from Łomża, she tried to tell the driver she was desperate for a poo, but he retorted that it was an international coach carrying businesspeople and not shits. He called her kurwa matka[1], added some four-letter words, and told her loudly to go back to her seat and not to bother him again with her stupid needs. The princess sat down. She hunched down in her seat, held her stomach, trying not to breathe, pulled herself together, and suffered. Her neighbour asked what she was carrying, and how much she was planning to charge for the cigarettes, but the princess answered with the plaintive lowing of a cow waiting to be milked.

She suffered unbearably until the bus reached the Polish-Lithuanian border and stopped. The driver opened the door kindly, and announced: women to the left, and men to the right. The princess did not understand at first, and followed the smoking men. Luckily, her neighbour saw her and called her back. Having shown how it was done, she advised the princess to squat down next to her on the other side of the ditch where dozens of peeing women were already squatting. At first, the princess objected, of course. She, who had no experience of this kind, found it embarrassing to do it in nature, amid strange and openly curious gazes. However, when her neighbour reminded her that the international coach did not wait for shits, the princess followed her example. And she immediately regretted it, for she stepped into something. She looked round, and saw numerous piles, and pieces of paper attempting to cover them. These pieces of paper were not just pages torn out of newspapers or colour magazines, but also secret documents, certificates, foreign passports, and a couple of decrees issued by the government of reestablished Lithuania.

When the passengers returned, the bus pressed on. Not for long, though. After several dozen metres, it stopped at the state border. Then a Polish, or maybe Lithuanian, border guard climbed in and counted everybody several times. He took all the passports, and vanished. When he returned in half an hour, he ordered the passengers to get off the bus, with all their belongings.

A crowd thronged by the luggage hold of the coach. Polish and Lithuanian businesspeople pulled back-breaking suitcases, mysterious containers, nameless boxes, bags of monumental dimensions, and the-devil-knows-what-else, everything that was in demand on the free market in Lithuania. Unlike all the others, the princess was carrying very little charity: just four Sony loudspeakers that she had bought in a hurry in Warsaw, three Kenwood amplifiers, six Sony CD and video players, several dozen Samsung camcorders, a collection of Swiss watches, a makeup set, and a bottle of extremely rare wine that she intended to offer as a present to a person she liked in Lithuania, and, possibly, even to share it on a romantic evening.

After the passengers flocked into the customs hall, each one began to put their personal belongings on metal tables. The princess also laid out her treasures. While waiting for the customs officer, she learned something new again. Advised by her neighbour, she planted a dollar in the customs officer’s palm as soon as he came up to her. Since he was surprised and leapt back as though bitten, and then forward again, she gave him another. Then she was told that everything was fine. She could take her stuff back to the coach, except that she should leave a camcorder, two amplifiers, and a Philips player, because the customs officer found them somewhat suspicious. She would be able to collect them on her way back. Of course, if the princess wished, she could stay in the customs office until they clarified things down to the smallest detail. But he warned her that it might take a long time. The Princess of Monaco understood, and gave the customs officer one more dollar. When she recovered her Philips player, she shoved several deutschmarks into his hand. His face told her it was not enough, so she added a handful of pennies left over from a recent trip to England. As soon as the customs officer had them, his suspicions evaporated. He returned the camcorder and the amplifier to her, but kept one amplifier as a memento, he explained.

She got back into the bus and settled in her seat again. Her neighbour was not there. Tearful, she was staying to spend the evening in the customs office ‘for personal examination’, they said.

The bus moved on, and the princess started looking out of the window. Unlike Monaco, newly free Lithuania was very green, there was lots of gravel and neglected collective farms. Admiring the roadside view and in an elated mood, the princess travelled to Vilnius. An encounter with an unknown city promised new impressions, unexpected acquaintances, cool experiences, and yet-unknown trials for the Princess of Monaco.

 

II
The Princess in Gariūnai

When the borders opened, Gariūnai market, which sprang up outside Vilnius, was known as the largest market in Eastern Europe, if not in all of Europe at that time. Goods and services flowed there, not only from neighbouring countries, but from Asia too. Everything was sold there: tights and contract killings were on offer at every corner. It was like a closed city, with its own order and its own hierarchy.

For the convenience of passengers, the coach would always stop in Gariūnai first, and then proceed to Vilnius bus station. As soon as it stopped, the princess alighted with the others, rushed to the luggage hold, and started spreading out her charity out on the side of the road. When she had built quite a hill, she pondered how best to sell it at a profit. Alas, there were no porters in Gariūnai. Such services were not on offer there. She had to rely on herself.

Having dragged her boxes one by one, constantly turning back, the princess finally found herself in the most likely looking part of the market. There were lots of metal kiosks, army tents, ramshackle marquees, and numberless structures, still unseen by her, swarming with suspicious types. They included dozens of PhDs and once-famous professors, and some associate professors and a couple of senior lecturers who had developed an interest in trade. The princess realised that she had to act on her own, and squeezed between two sisters selling irons, slippers, and vacuum cleaners. When asked nicely, these twins moved over and made some space, albeit unwillingly. With her boxes laid out tidily and lovingly on the ground, the princess was now expecting buyers for the charity she had brought.

Unfortunately, the people just walked past. That day, they were more interested in winter tyres, wheel rims, and polarised windscreens, which the princess did not have. Advised by the sisters, she started to tell everybody she would have bumpers and Lada mirrors the day after the next, although it was possible they might be delivered the following day.

While she was still in Monaco, the princess had nurtured the naïve hope that her charity goods would be snapped up in no time, and now she was disappointed. She learned from her neighbours, and kept repeating, like a parrot, that unfortunately she did not have either cigarettes or nappies. When it was repeated hundreds of times, this incomprehensible mantra drove her to despair. In addition, it started raining. She begged the sisters to lend her an imitation-leather tablecloth, somehow managed to cover her treasures with it, crawled under it herself, and waited for the rain to stop.

It rained solidly in Gariūnai all that day. The princess was soaked through hiding under the fake leather. She started to sneeze. While she was looking around in search of a better shelter, a young man approached her. He looked well built and courteous. His head was shaven. He was wearing a tracksuit. Around his neck he had a gold chain with a cross. Without introducing himself, he started asking the princess where she was from, if she had been there long, and whether she had a ‘roof’. Anticipating some sympathy, the princess started explaining that she had not thought about a roof while in Monaco, and if the young man could offer her one, she would gladly accept it, if it was not inconvenient, of course. As soon as the rain stopped, she would return to the charity she had brought with her, and which, alas, was soaked by the rain. Then the man crouched down. He had misunderstood her. He thought she was from Moldova, and took a calculator from his pocket. He counted all the charity stuff, and showed the princess the figure on the screen. The numerals did not put off the Princess of Monaco. They were Arabic, the same as in Monaco. All right, maybe slightly larger, and not so refined. The princess nodded in agreement. She crawled out from under the fake leather, and was about to follow the stranger, but the rain suddenly stopped. Now it was pointless to accept the roof he was offering. The Princess of Monaco showed in gestures that she no longer needed the roof, and stayed with her things.

She liked the lad who could count so fast. He was attractive, solidly built, muscular, and unquestionably strong. Nothing like those weaklings in Monaco that she could stare at endlessly on the beach. This one was different, he was real. A gold tooth added to his charm. Just like the massive ring on his middle finger. Her curiosity was sparked. She asked the sisters if they knew him, and was told that he was a ‘torpedo’ with the Vilnius Brigade. She thought that Torpedo was his name, and imagined him as a freedom fighter, very likely an officer.

The princess liked army officers. Not those from her immediate surroundings, though. Those serving in the palace were tiresome and would not leave her alone. On many occasions, the Princess of Monaco, who yearned for freedom, had had to run away from them and hide. The soldiers of the French Foreign Legion stationed nearby were completely different. They seemed to resemble the ‘torpedo’ of Gariūnai in some ways. They liked to twirl the car keys hanging seductively on their index fingers; they glowered, and talked little. If they laughed, it was only after a litre of Pernod. Once, the princess will always remember, she hid from her parents for a whole month with a sergeant from somewhere in the east. She planned to leave Monaco for good, and live incognito in Algeria, or Tunisia, Morocco, Russia or the Ivory Coast … They dreamed of having ten, twenty, a hundred children in a cosy hut in the desert, and living to a ripe old age. And to die on the same day, at the same hour, the same minute, holding each other’s hands. Alas, Prince Rainier III of Monaco had sniffed out his daughter’s plans, and found them appalling, and through his vile and corrupt connections he sent the sergeant as far away as possible from the princess. After a while, she found out that her beloved had gone missing somewhere in Sudan.

As she stood in Gariūnai, the princess felt peckish. Her stomach rumbled, and she started asking the sisters, Snieguolė and Rasuolė, where the restaurant was. She was not interested in Thai cuisine. She never liked food cooked by Mexicans, the French, or Greeks. As for oysters, snails, and all sorts of English steaks, she had had enough of them at home. She wanted to try the local food. She was told she could get something at a kiosk nearby. She asked the sisters to look after her goods, and went over to the kiosk.

When the princess asked for something tasty, the fishwife with a moustache retorted angrily that she could stuff herself tastily at home. Here she had to take what was on offer. The smells from inside the kiosk reached the princess’s nose, and she frowned. When the fishwife saw this, she uttered four-letter and longer words, and told the princess to disappear and not to scare away her customers. The princess realised her mistake, and became very apologetic. She said she did not want to offend Lithuanian cuisine, that she simply was not yet used to local fragrances, and also that she had just arrived from Monaco and everything was new to her. After a tirade of apologies, the hag in the kiosk relented. She suddenly took a liking to the princess, and advised her not to eat the belyash, if she did not want to die. The chebureki were also not too fresh, and could give her food poisoning. The kibinai were left over from yesterday, but she did not have any with meat fillings, only rice. So, if she was very hungry, she should have a cabbage pasty, for nobody had complained about them so far today. Oh yes, an ambulance took one rag seller away a moment ago, but that was for different reasons. After hearing this, the princess was in no hurry to make up her mind. At last, she decided to buy a pasty. But then she explained that one pasty would be too much for her, and could the seller cut one in half and wrap it up, in paper, of course. She would not want it in plastic. With great patience, the woman started explaining to her that paper was for wiping your arse, and not for wrapping pasties. Besides, she would not cut it in half. If the princess wanted, she could find a smaller one for her. The princess was forced to accept this.

Refreshed by the pasty, the Princess of Monaco went back to her place. The sisters were nowhere to be seen, just like two Kenwood amplifiers and the Philips player. Whatever the sisters had managed to carry was not there. The princess felt hurt. She was about to cry, when a man resembling the ‘torpedo’, probably also an army officer, approached her. Curious about her Samsung camcorders, he shuffled the princess’ boxes around in a matter-of-fact sort of way, and kept asking about their country of origin. The princess, who valued nothing but originals, assured him that everything was made in Japan, or even in Germany. The Russian-speaking chap knew nothing about Japan, but the name of Germany rang a bell. It made his blood boil. He called the princess ‘a left-over fascist’, and started interrogating her, asking her yet again about a ‘roof’. The princess did not need a roof. She explained patiently to the slow-witted chap that the rain had stopped a long time ago, the sky was clear, and she did not need a roof. Besides, it looked as if there would be no more rain this week, because she had checked the weather forecast before leaving Monaco. Then the man asked her if she had just fallen from a tree. No, said the princess, she had never fallen out of a tree. Only in her childhood she had rolled down a hill in Monaco, but that was not a high hill, so nothing terrible had happened. Then he wondered if she was dumb, by any chance. No, not dumb at all, the princess replied. She had been to a prestigious school in Monaco, and used to gain only good marks, and her professors at university praised her too. On hearing the unknown word ‘professor’, the guy lashed out again. He warned her about swearing in the market, told her to show at least some politeness to bleeding Lithuania, and asked her if she knew who was standing in front of her. The princess admitted she did not know, but presumed he was an independence protester. This made the chap laugh. He called her an imbecile, and suka bliat[2],  and started asking her what she had sold that day and for how much. The princess admitted that she had not sold anything yet, and that she might have been robbed. She had eaten a very strange-tasting cabbage pasty, and when she returned she could not find some of her boxes. She would feel very hurt if it really was a robbery. On the other hand, it would please her, too. Because she did not come to Lithuania, which was impoverished and newly independent of Russia, without a reason. The Princess of Monaco was fully aware that people who were worn out by communism needed help. Good words and advice were not enough. When the man heard her speak about independent Lithuania and the collapse of communism, he tightened his fists. He said he had always been a decent Soviet citizen, and would remain one, and could not restrain himself at the mention of Sąjūdis. He recalled the torn-apart collective farms, and called labusai[3] faggots, and other words that the princess could not understand.

Hardly had he stopped swearing when the young man the princess had met earlier appeared. To her great surprise, the supposed supporter of independent Lithuania hit the foul-mouthed wretch in the jaw without any warning, and shut him up. Blood gushed from his mouth. He spat out a tooth, tried to respond, but was hit in the nose. He was pulled down to the ground and subjected to a lengthy and tedious kicking. When he wanted to rise, he received a well-directed kick in the head. Then he switched off. He lay on the ground, and did not even groan.

Everything happened so quickly that the Princess of Monaco did not even understand. When she realised that an innocent man was lying at her feet in a pool of blood, she wanted to fall on her knees, overcome with pity, and wipe his face. She was surprised that nobody lifted a finger. Life in the market went on as if nothing had happened: people were haggling, trying on clothes, and counting out money.

The princess looked at the ‘torpedo’ with bitter reproach. Addressing him as ‘dear Torpedo’, she began to reprimand him and told him not to behave like that, not just in a public place but also in the presence of the Princess of Monaco. She spoke French, so he missed it all, although he was good at foreign languages, for he knew some words of Tartar. Meanwhile, the princess, who suddenly discovered a hidden pedagogical talent, made up her mind to educate the thug. She preached to him about the fragile shoots of democracy in Lithuania, on decent behaviour and respect for humans, on civil responsibility, on resolving conflict through negotiation, and intolerance of violence. At first the ‘torpedo’ tried to listen to what the princess was saying, but soon his patience ran out. He kicked at the box containing the Philips player with all his might, turned around, and disappeared. The princess realised that she was all alone, fell silent, and resumed her work.

A little later, a strange man in a raincoat approached the princess. Without a word, he stopped opposite her and looked straight into her eyes. Then, very casually and briefly, he opened his raincoat. The princess recoiled, frightened, as though stung by a bee. She thought he was a pervert. She had read about exhibitionists in the newspapers. Not in high society columns, but in the crime sections, after they were caught by the Monaco police lingering by the ducal palace. However, this one was different. When he opened his raincoat again, the princess did not see anything interesting. Nothing she might have expected hung or stood proudly. Curiosity drove her closer, and she took a better look. To her surprise, she saw a machine-gun under the raincoat. Next to it was a shiny AK, and a dozen grenades that looked like lemons. She felt calmer on seeing this huge arsenal. It was good to know the man was not a pervert. Feeling comfortable with this realisation, the princess asked the stranger if she might interest him in a makeup set. Or maybe a CD collection of the latest hits? The man in the raincoat said he was not interested. He was not a buyer, but a seller. So when he noticed a yet-unseen foreigner, he made up his mind to offer her something she would never get in markets in her own country. He recommended a brand-new AK assault rifle, greased and exuding a fresh fragrance of oil. If she wanted a machine-gun, he would add some grenades for free. He also had several TT pistols, and a Makarov that had just been stolen from Šiaurės miestelis[4]. If she had any special wishes, he could procure a tank in a day or two. A BMP, a mortar, and cannon would be no problem either. In addition, he guaranteed that all these could be delivered to any destination. If she did not trust him, she could try them out in the forests of Nemenčinė[5]. So how about it? The princess had doubts. She said she would think it over. A minute later, she admitted she would like to take her father back a present from Lithuania, and asked the man to leave a grenade so that she could inspect it at her leisure and get used to it. Having assured her that it would be no problem, the man in the raincoat held out the grenade. However, she returned it with hardly a glance, for she did not want one that looked like a lemon. She preferred one that was not so sour: an anti-tank grenade with a cool shaft and a cylinder that looked like her daddy, Rainer III, when he would set off in a tailcoat for the race course to watch the horse racing.

Before she could take hold of the grenade, the Vilnius Brigade armed with crowbars and levers appeared from nowhere. It was led by Boris, who not only wore a gold chain around his neck, but also had a Georgian surname. Having found out from his ‘torpedo’ that the Princess of Monaco was selling charity without his permission, he hurried over to have a look at her. He brought along his accomplices, several dozen cut-throats in tracksuits, for support. Yet again, the Princess of Monaco mistakenly took them for volunteers with the recently reestablished Lithuanian army. She greeted them politely, and when she looked around, the man in the raincoat was gone.

Boris Dekanidze (1962–1995), the ringleader of the Vilnius Brigade, was a young man, not only with a cultivated face and soft manicured hands, but also with an insatiable curiosity. He introduced himself as a successful Lithuanian businessman, and kept asking the princess about investing in Monaco. He was interested in the possibilities for acquiring citizenship. Boris wanted to know about the tax system, offshore investments, and money laundering, and not just in the Principality of Monaco, Luxemburg, Liechtenstein, and the Vatican, but also in Cyprus, Malta, and Andorra. He was curious about a multitude of details about which the Princess of Monaco, brought up at the princely court, knew nothing. Unwilling to appear ignorant in the eyes of a local businessman, she guessed and answered his questions with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Boris reckoned from the princess’ brief answers that racketeering was in great demand in Monaco. Prince Rainer III simply adored it. It was no secret that he prayed to it sometimes. As soon as she returned, she would gladly intercede on behalf of Boris for an introduction to the prince. A villa on the coast and a luxury yacht would be ready for him when he arrived on a business trip. Manning the yacht would be his own responsibility. Also, if he brought several millions in cash, he would be able to deposit it in a bank under her father. The money would be safe there, and it could be moved to wherever he needed, if necessary.

Cheered up by these and other promises, the leader of the Vilnius Brigade decided to do something to please the princess. Although it was against his principles, he made up his mind to buy her charity. The princess jumped with joy when she heard this. She started clapping her hands. She forgot her royal origins, fell on Boris’ neck, and kissed his cheeks. The young man was not expecting such an outbreak of emotions, and hastily took out his wallet. He started counting. He gave her a wad, and assured her it was as good a price as she would get anywhere in Gariūnai.

The princess was taken aback by the wad of small square pieces of paper. She began to inspect them carefully. They had drawings of animals under numbers, like on a ticket to a zoo. Hideous wriggling lizzards, perching goshawks and martens, a lynx stalking its prey, and a grazing moose were depicted on the pieces of paper. An aurochs, two otters, a deer and a bear were stuck between a moose and a thrush in a nest. Boris noticed the princess’ astonishment, and assured her that this was genuine Lithuanian money. A ‘thrush’ was enough to rent an apartment on the Baltic coast, a ‘bear’ would take care of her in the Stikliai Hotel, and a ‘moose’ was worth half of the old town of Vilnius, if not more.

The princess felt embarrassed at this news. She thought it was too much money. Having heard on CNN how hard life was here, she did not want to mistreat the Vilnius Brigade. Boris immediately found an attractive solution to this. He suggested playing a game.

It was very simple. The player just had to guess which thimble pushed around by Boris had a tiny ball under it.

The princess listened to the rules, and was very taken by the yet unseen game. At the beginning, Boris rolled a little ball, and she guessed it was hidden under the middle thimble. She won a ‘marten’ for that. When she guessed a second time, she won a ‘marten’ and a ‘lizzard’. She won several more times. But disappointment awaited her when she was convinced the ball was under the thimble on the left: she lost a ‘deer’. Soon she was lucky again. She won a worn ‘marten’ three times in a row, and an almost-new ‘thrush’ in a nest. Not to be put off, she kept guessing, regardless of the fact that she had just lost an ‘aurochs’, a ‘bear’, and another inhabitant of the Lithuanian forests.

Ten minutes later, when the Princess of Monaco bade farewell to her last ‘moose’ and a tattered ‘lapwing’, the game was over. All the money went back into Boris’ pocket. The leader of the Vilnius Brigade did not want to appear heartless, and, with a noble gesture, gave the princess two ‘otters’. He then added some ‘goshawks’, and ordered his ‘torpedo’ to hail a taxi to take the princess wherever she desired. Not quite sure what was happening, the princess got into the car brought over by the ‘torpedo’. She sat next to the driver, who was shaking with fear, and told him to take her to the Stikliai, where Rainer III had booked her a room by fax a week ago.

 

III
In Old Stiklių Street

After a few turnings, the Vilnius taxi driver came to his senses. He started talking, unprompted. Driving nervously, he was angry at the whole world. He disliked the new order. He swore at democracy, freedom, the Lithuanian authorities, and, jamming on the brakes now and then, he drove the princess round the town in circles. In Salininkai, he got stuck in a cul-de-sac. Then he got stuck in Baltupiai, and had foul words to say about Lithuania again. According to him, everything had gone to the dogs because of independence. He asked rhetorically if Lenin had been in anybody’s way. Why did they have to pull his statue down? Now Lenin Square was empty, it was dreary, and there was nowhere to sit and nobody to look at.

The Princess of Monaco could not understand the driver’s tirade. Having sworn at some mysterious ‘bottom hill’, he stopped at the Stikliai Hotel, and she proudly extended a ‘lapwing’. She waited for her change. The driver was in no hurry to give her the change. The princess asked politely if everything was all right. He said that nothing was all right, and demanded more money. The princess thought she was being cheated, and had no intention of paying more. Tactfully, and unwilling to give offence, she reminded him that she was not a dumb foreigner, and was just about to get out of the car, when the driver grabbed her arm. Pressing tightly, he demanded more money. The princess baulked. She told him that one ‘lapwing’ should be more than enough, because, according to her good friend Boris Dekanidze, it could buy a beauty parlour, or even a factory. On hearing the name Dekanidze, the driver changed colour again. He yelled that she could wipe part of her body with that ‘lapwing’. Seeing that he was not happy, the princess took pity on him, and added an ‘otter'. However, this did not pacify him. He started screaming that he did not give rides for free, so if she did not want to be hit on the head or be taken to the woods, she should pay for her tour of the city. The princess was indignant. She made it clear that she always travelled alone, and never went on tours, God forbid. The driver then snapped that he did not give a fuck whether she would or not, she should just pay and fuck off.

The dispute was eventually resolved when the princess fumbled around in her knickers and took out a dollar. The driver’s face lit up. He grabbed it from her hand, and started kissing it and rubbing it against his cheek. His anger evaporated. A very kind and even sweet uncle was sitting next to the princess now. As they parted, he addressed the princess as his little daughter, and promised to take her wherever she wanted, and for another dollar he would wait as long as necessary. The princess, too, appeared to have forgotten the very recent misunderstanding, and blew him a kiss.

In the hotel, she was met by a receptionist who was sullen that his sleep was disturbed. Yawning and with a sour face, he explained that there were no vacancies, there would not be any, and therefore the princess should go back to where she had come from, and not disturb the peace and quiet of the hotel guests. The princess reminded him that a week or two ago, the hotel had received a booking by fax from Rainier III, the Prince of Monaco. The receptionist had not heard anything about this. In addition, the hotel’s fax machine had been taken away for repairs months ago, and nobody knew when it would be ready, because a part needed replacing. It was very hard to get. With much difficulty, the repair man had placed an order for it in Japan or somewhere. Now he was waiting for it to be delivered. This would take time, of course. But it was worth it, because the hotel would function much more smoothly with a fax machine.

The princess could not care less about the breakdown of the fax machine, the spare part, or the smooth operation of the hotel, she demanded the suite that was booked for her. The receptionist smiled forgivingly when he heard about the royal suite. Then he explained very patiently that all the suites in the hotel had been booked before the reestablishment of independence. He could not help her, said ‘Pardon’, and indicated the door.

The Princess of Monaco did not intend to leave, and said sharply that she would not budge. The receptionist advised her not to make a noise, or else he would call the police.

At the mention of the police, the princess changed her tune. She called the receptionist’s attention to the fact that she was the Princess of Monaco, and told him about her difficult childhood and the bullying at school she had had to endure because of her background. He relented on hearing her story. He promised to think of something, and started browsing through the reservations. It took him some time and effort, but then he whispered that he would make an exception for the princess, and put her up for a night with an English lord. Displeased, the princess retorted that she would not share a room with a man she did not know. The receptionist tried to calm her down, saying that the lord was not much of a man, he was old. He picked up her passport and checked his information again: was she really the Princess of Monaco? The princess rummaged in her handbag, and pulled out a crown. To make her point, she put it on her head.

With this unquestionable proof before him, the receptionist gave in. With a wink of the eye, he asked if the princess was really thirty-six. The princess blushed. After a moment, she said ‘Yes’. Then the receptionist praised the princess. In his opinion, she looked her age. The princess thanked him for the compliment. And still, when she received the key, she baulked again. Then the receptionist told her that the hotel door was not locked. If she desired, the Princess of Monaco could sleep in the street. The princess did not want to sleep in Stiklių Street. She said in an imperious voice she did not need escorting, and went to the room.

Lord Yehudi Menuhin (1916–1999), the world-famous violinist and conductor, worn out by his tour and an astoundingly successful concert at the Philharmonic Hall in Vilnius, was fast asleep. He had fallen on his bed in his tailcoat and bow-tie, was lying on his back with his nose in the air, and snoring melodiously. Without turning on the light, so as not to wake up her neighbour, the princess lay down beside him, also fully dressed. She crawled under the blanket, and, much against her will, began to listen to the lord’s snoring. And indeed, one could not remain indifferent to the sounds emanated by the unsurpassable violin virtuoso. Resorting ingeniously to the lowest registers, the lord would suddenly change to a crescendo, and then, after a pause, he would take up the lateral theme, embellishing it with staccato and other musical ornaments, legato, pizzicato, glissando, and marcato.

Much as she enjoyed Classical music, tonight the Princess of Monaco did not want to listen to it into the early hours. Unable to bear it any longer, she shook the lord. Unfortunately, this made him feel the music more intensely. Now in fortissimo, he tried to snore a horrific ballad of some sort. He inhaled deeply, and, like a troubadour, told of the unhappy love of the Phantom of the Opera, of carnivorous dragons, and of monsters lurking in hell. Terrified, the princess tried to block her ears and hide under the pillow. Nothing helped. The lord’s night overtures had such an effect that the princess, an optimist by nature, started to contemplate suicide. She dismissed her suicidal thoughts after a while, and decided to get up and ask for sleeping pills.

Woken up yet again, the night receptionist was angry. He listened to the princess’ complaints, and said that the hotel was not responsible for the snoring of its guests (in particular lords), and did not deal with complaints. If the Princess of Monaco wanted, she could sleep in the corridor, or in an armchair in the hall. When she asked the receptionist for a sleeping pill, she was told it was not a pharmacy or a hospital. If she wanted, he could call her an ambulance. She would be able to rest in Accident and Emergency at the Red Cross Hospital. At the words ‘accident and emergency’, a tear ran down her cheek. Worn out by the journey and by her charity, she was especially sensitive that night.

The receptionist saw her tears and softened again. He made sure the princess wanted to sleep, and, on receiving a positive response, he offered her a screwdriver, a speciality of the Stikliai. The princess admitted she was not familiar with technology. In addition, she thought it would barbarous to finish off the lord with a screwdriver. After all, there were hundreds of other ways: axes, knives, saws. The receptionist laughed. He said that nobody was going to kill the lord. He was offering the princess the company’s speciality cocktail, a screwdriver, instead of pills. Is it poisonous? No, the receptionist assured her, it was fifty-fifty. What? The princess still did not understand. Was it poison? She was incredulous when the receptionist took half a glass of vodka, and added to it the same amount of orange juice.

She took the screwdriver and started finding fault. She demanded a straw. Ice. A nicer glass. But the receptionist urged her to drink and stop messing around. With a frown, the Princess of Monaco emptied her glass in one go, and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. She then belched and demanded a second glass. Then a third. Now she was quite cheerful, and started stamping her feet. Then she attempted a seductive dance. She failed, and swore a couple of times. Singing, with a fourth screwdriver in her hand and supported by the receptionist, she staggered upstairs to the lord. As soon as she entered the room, she fell on the bed and was dead to the world.

 

1. Polish for ‘bitch mother’.
2. Rusian for ‘bitch whore’.
3. The nickname that the Russians use to call the Lithuanians derived from the Lithuanian word labas (‘hello’).
4. The Northern Town, a former area of barracks in Vilnius dating back to the nineteenth century. Units of the Soviet army were stationed there throughout the Soviet period in Lithuania.   
5. A combat training ground near Nemenčinė, a small town very close to Vilnius. 

 

Translated by Diana Bartkute Barnard

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