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Undinė Radzevičiūtė (b. 1967) graduated from the Vilnius Academy of Arts with a degree in art history, theory, and criticism. She spent 10 years working in various advertising agencies and then began her career as a writer. Radzevičiūtė’s books Strekaza, Frankburgas, Baden Badeno nebus, 180, Žuvys ir drakonai, and Kraujas mėlynas are written in a unique style that separates them from the traditional Lithuanian literary canon. Her critically acclaimed works were included in the annual most creative list of Lithuanian books on four occasions and twice in the annual best book lists; the book Žuvys ir drakonai received the prestigious European Union Prize for Literature and was selected by the Lithuanian PEN Center as one of the best books of the decade in 2015. Foreign publishers have recently taken a great interest in Radzevičiūtė’s books—they are currently being translated into more than 10 European languages. In Austria, Radzevičiūtė’s novel Kraujas mėlynas was selected as the best book of June 2019.

In early February 2020, the Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House released Grožio ir blogio biblioteka, a new novel written by Radzevičiūtė, which transports its readers to Weimar-era Berlin. The narrative tells of an eccentric heir who, engulfed by an immense passion for unique books, wishes to create a one-of-a-kind library and is ready to cross all moral boundaries in the process.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Karl Blossfeldt, from "Urformen der Kunst", 1928. Source: The Rijksmuseum

 

 

Excerpt from the novel The Library of Beauty and Evil

 

Beauty is Painful, Beauty is Evil

1929

I.

 

“Would you like to see the catalog?” asked the tattoo artist, Joseph Hildebrandt.

“I would,” said Walter.

“Hilda, take off your clothes and come over here,” said the tattoo artist.

Only a curtain separated the rooms, so there was no need to raise one’s voice. Probably, the tattoo artist Joseph Hildebrandt – a tall, powerful man with a harelip so big that even his mustache couldn’t cover it – wanted to show his client that the woman behind the curtain belongs to him.

Walter let his gaze wander over the twilit, shabby surroundings. The advertisement on the pole for the tattoo artist Joseph Hildebrandt had looked far more respectable.

“Hilda!” called the tattoo artist, and a tall, voluptuous woman appeared in the doorway.

She wore black panties of cheap satin, a size too large.

Walter did not realize at first that the tattoo artist’s Hilda was naked down to her waist,  for she had black drawings all over her body that seemed to adhere to her bluish and not so supple skin.

“My wife,” stated Hildebrandt the tattoo artist.

The tattooed wife turned her back to Walter.

“Wilhelm I, Friedrich III, Wilhelm II,” the tattoo artist poked at the emperors with his finger. “The warship Kaiser Barbarossa, and here you can see the famous Battle of Jutland.”

The tattoo artist Hildebrandt had no pity for his wife.

“The cross of the Knights of the Cross, the Swedish Lion, and, well, butterflies, flowers, ribbons, hearts for women… sailboats, as needed,” said the tattoo artist Hildebrandt using his finger like a school teacher with a pointer mapping scenic pathways on his wife’s back to illustrate his speech.

“You have an amazing wife,” said Walter.

“What’s most important is her special gift,” said the tattoo artist, grasping his wife by the shoulders and turning her naked breasts towards Walter.

Her chest was covered with only a two-headed eagle.

“Hilda, raise your hands. Show him your underarms,” said the tattoo artist Hildebrandt.

The tattoo artist’s wife lifted her elbows. She was the perfect catalog.

Walter eyeballed it: she must have a few hundred tattoos on her body. Some were smaller than the smallest coin. Others took up more space than the large palms of the tattoo artist placed side by side. It would be harder to tear the tattooed woman from the blacksmith’s muscular arms than to take a hunk of meat from a starving bear.

“Have you ever counted them up?” asked Walter.

“Three hundred and sixty-five,” said tattoo artist Hildebrandt.

“One for each day of the year?” And what will you do when the catalog is out of date? Fashions change quickly, after all.”

“Clothing fashions change quickly, but tattoos, mister, much more slowly. Though, it’s a shame I don’t have a daughter.” The tattoo artist Hildebrandt gave his wife an angry look. “She’s to blame for that. It was my dream to have three daughters. O how I would have pampered them. They would be so beautiful now.”

“Four catalogs would be enough for a lifetime,” said Walter. “Fashions wouldn’t matter.”

“She didn’t give me a single daughter, but she has a gift,” said the tattoo artist, now full of pride.

“What gift?”

“She’s a medium.”

“She’s clairvoyant?” asked Walter?

                Walter didn’t like the fact that the tattoo artist’s wife was a medium. Even though he didn’t believe in mediums, or in spiritualists, their presence nearby annoyed him.

                The tattoo artist Hildebrandt shook his head, and that meant that Hilda did not read minds.

                “She summons spirits?” asked Walter.

                “She tells the future,” said the tattoo artist. “Would you like, Herr…”

                “Walter. Walter Kurt,” said Walter Schultz.

                “Would you be interested, Herr Kurt?”

                Covered only in tattoos and a pair of satin panties one size too large, the tattoo artist’s wife Hilda observed Walter searchingly as if he were the naked one, not she.

                Walter was a morbid man, after all, and that’s why fortune-telling scared him.

                Even though he did not believe in fortune-tellers, he was still afraid that those who told the future might not see him in that future. Or they might see something that Walter would not want anyone to see under any circumstances.

                “My wife simply has a special intuition, like a dog,” said the tattoo artist. “Like a well-trained wolfhound.”

                Walter didn’t want her to guess his future, but he also couldn’t just leave. Walter had plans here in the salon of tattoo artist Hildebrandt.

                “Hilda, get dressed,” said the tattoo artist. “My Hilda can foresee which tattoos it would be better for you to avoid and which, Herr Walter Kurt, would bring you happiness.”

                Well, such guesswork didn’t worry Walter. He himself didn’t know what to choose, so he decided to listen to what the medium had to say, as soon as she finished fastening her bra.

                “How did you decide to become a tattoo artist?” asked Walter.

                “My father was a tattoo artist and his father before him. My grandfather’s brother was a famous tattoo artist. He sailed to America and became even more famous. My brother, who wanted to take Hilda away from me…” the tattoo artist Hildebrandt said his wife’s name more loudly so that she would hear him from behind the curtain where she was getting dressed.

                “He was a tattoo artist?” asked Walter.

                “He was.”

                “And he also sailed for America?”

                “No, they found him with a fractured skull,” said the tattoo artist Hildebrandt, loudly, and with admonition.

                The warning of course, was for Hilda, not for the honorable Herr Walter Kurt.

                It meant that there was no point in Hilda’s taking an interest in the world beyond the tattoo salon of Joseph Hildebrandt.

                “How sad,” said Walter.

                And then the tattooed wife appeared wearing a modest, black dress.

                “Now, Herr Kurt, you will hear the prognostication of the medium Hilda Hildebrandt,” said the tattoo artist. Walter did not object.

                “Medium Hilda Hildebrandt, tell Herr Walter Kurt which tattoos it would be best for him not to choose,” solemnly said the tattoo artist Joseph Hildebrandt. “Which tattoos will bring him nothing but misfortune?”

                Walter recognized the solemn tone. Most likely, Joseph Hildebrandt and his wife Hilda had experience working in the circus.

                The medium Hilda Hildebrandt lifted up her eyes and, within seconds, fell into a deep trance. She spoke with the spirits in her head for a long time, then she lifted her dress above her knees and stuck her finger between her legs.

                When Walter saw where she was pointing, he even flinched, feeling the hairs rise on the back of his neck.

                “Do not, by any means, choose a hot-air ballon, Herr Kurt,” said the tattoo artist Joseph Hildebrandt.

                “Definitely not,” said Walter. “Hot-air balloons would remind me too much of the past.”

                The medium Hilda Hildebrandt looked at him with large, bright eyes lacking, as might be expected of a medium, the slightest spirituality.

                “And now, the medium Hilda Hildebrandt will tell Herr Walter Kurt which tattoo will bring him happiness,” solemnly announced the tattoo artist Joseph Hildebrandt.

                “I want something in words,” interrupted Walter.

                The falling into a trance and frightening prognostication of the medium Hilda Hildebrandt had been enough for him.

                “Memento mori?” asked the tattoo artist Hildebrandt.

                His ‘catalog’ contained no other writing.

                “God is dead,” said Walter. “In Gothic script.”

                The tattoo artist Hildebrandt became suddenly uncomfortable.

                “I don’t know how to write, Herr Kurt,” said the startled tattoo artist.

                He didn’t know how to read or write, and this was the first time he had heard such horrible words.

 

II.

                Walter hated this new world. But differently from Fräulein Bertha. Fräulein Bertha hated the new world because she feared it. She was frightened by all the things that made a racket and moved without her help.

                “Herr Walter, your house does not need a washing machine. I wash very quickly with my own hands,” repeated Fräulein Bertha with a tremor in her voice.

                Walter hated the new world not because of the steamboat and steam locomotive, not because this world was moving into the future, buzzing and droning, but because things multiplied within it. They reproduced themselves by industrial means, all of them exactly according to plan, pushing aside all the handcrafted products of the past.

                They had to push them aside because it was impossible to reproduce handcrafted products by industrial means.

                Walter hated the new world that threw away the rare, unique object as worthless and out-dated. A world where the uniqueness of the person was just an anachronism.

                He hated the world that believed it had killed God, and the primary Creator along with Him, now entrusting creation to the machine.

                He hated the world that didn’t value objects with a past, that esteemed only things that came as if from the future.

                He hated the world where what one person has, all could have.

                Walter hated the world that had no space for him and his library.

                “Those flies reproduce at incredible speed,” said Fräulein Bertha, justifying her constant banging in the kitchen. “We have to keep all the windows closed.”

                Walter wrote “God is dead” on a sheet of paper, using Gothic script, and thought about the family of tattoo artist Joseph Hildebrandt. The grandfather of tattoo artist Joseph Hildebrandt was a tattoo artist, his grandfather’s brother was a tattoo artist, and he and his brother were tattoo artists. He and his brother lived the life of their grandfather, grandfather’s brother and father, not letting the tattoo machine fall from their hands. They were afraid to let it go because they couldn’t imagine a life without a naked body being poked by a metal tip. And when Walter asked for a phrase that was not in Hilda’s catalog, the tattoo artist Joseph Hildebrandt took fright, for he was only a copyist, tattooing the same drawings over and over for decades, all transferred directly from his wife’s breasts, thighs, back and calves.

                He had copied the patterns onto his wife from his mother who carried the same patterns in the same places as they had been tattooed by his father, with maybe this or that added from a cigarette pack.

                Walter liked this turn of thought.

                Courage is one of the most important qualities of a creator, wrote Walter, making a note.

                The courage to cross boundaries.

                Where is the boundary?

 

III.

Joseph Hildebrandt was not a creator, only a copyist.

Walter wrote out the phrase himself, and the tattoo artist re-drew it on see-through paper.

Each letter separately.

                Walter checked to make sure that not one was missed, stealing glances at the ‘electric pen’ with its reserve of black ink. Nothing missing.

                “Do you have many customers?” asked Walter.

                It was his final question before his execution.

                “Customers like you, mister? One.”

                Joseph Hildebrandt jabbed Walter’s flesh millimeter by millimeter with a pen filled with black ink. Walter felt less physical pain than a spiritual pain called up by the tattoo artist’s words.

                Walter had a double!

                The tattoo artist’s wife Hilda Hildebrandt appeared from behind the curtain, but remained silent.

                Joseph Hildebrandt did not raise his head. He already knew that she was his property.

                Walter didn’t want to know anything about this client similar to himself. In order to drive away the inner ache of it, he inquired about the other tattoo customers.

                “One is a weight-lifter, one a tight-rope walker, two are prostitutes, a few were sailors, sometimes there are ex-prisoners. These are not the best of times,” related Joseph Hildebrandt. “We might even have to close down.”

                “Do all your clients use the ‘catalog’?” Walter asked.

                “All of them. Except for that one, the one like you.”

                “And what do the others choose most often?”

                “The Kaiser, the eagle on the chest, and memento mori on their arms, Herr Kurt,” answered the tattoo artist. “Sometimes they want Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin, but those are usually out-of-towners, Herr Kurt.”

                Suddenly Walter was struck with the horrifying thought that the one similar to him had tattooed ‘God is dead’ in Gothic script first, and that Walter was copying him.

                “And the one like me, what tattoo did he get?”

                “He’s like you, Herr Kurt,” said the tattoo artist Joseph. “He didn’t choose anything from the catalog. He is like you, Herr Kurt…”

                Walter didn’t want to go on. If the phrase on his arm was just a pitiful copy, then better to let that copy remain unfinished.

                “He was like you, Herr Kurt. He didn’t use Hilda’s catalog. He chose his own tattoos.”
                “Tattoos? He has more than one?”

                “There is almost no room left on his body to stick the pen. He comes here twice a week.”

                “Tuesdays and Thursdays,” said Hilda Hildebrandt.

                Joseph Hildebrandt gave his wife an angry glare for not holding her tongue.

                Walter’s fear vanished in a flash. He was now entranced:

                “Today is Thursday. When is he coming?”

                “He comes at three PM,” reluctantly stated the tattoo artist Joseph Hildebrandt.

                “And what tattoos does he get?”

                “Flowers.”

                “Flowers???”

                ‘Flowers’ sounded like the most incredible word of the day.

                      “Horrid flowers from disgusting photographs,” said the catalog, Hilda Hildebrandt.

 

 

 

 

Translated by Rimas Uzgiris

 

 

 

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