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Gint Aras (Karolis Gintaras Žukauskas) has been trapped on planet earth since 1973. His prose concerns itself with identity, memory and imagination, and conflicts to do with ethnicity, religion and race. His translations, essays and short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals, among them The Chicago Neighborhood Guide, Quarterly West, Hypertext, St. Petersburg Review, (Re)Imagine, STIR-Journal, Šiaurės Atėnai and others. He’s the author of two novels, Finding the Moon in Sugar (Infinity, 2009) and The Fugue (Tortoise, 2016), the latter a finalist for the 2016 Chicago Writers Association’s Book of the Year Award. His most recent work is a memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen (Homebound, 2019). He splits his time between Klaipėda and Chicago.

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By Gint Aras

 

Raised by Lithuanians in Chicago, I naturally gathered that little in the world was more important than being Lithuanian. This was self-evident: how could being Lithuanian be less than paramount if people like us, Lithuanians, had been born Lithuanian?

Naturally, I did all the important things that Lithuanians do to demonstrate their importance: I danced folk dances, sang folk songs, ate potatoes and boletus mushrooms, helped my grandmother with the garden cucumbers, and I learned to decline words like peilis (knife) and viltis (hope). If you don’t read or speak Lithuanian, you have no idea why the subtle but really important declination pattern of these words is of paramount importance. And so you’ve backed into my point. Had you been born truly important, you would know the importance of these two important words. If you do not know it, you lack the necessary importance, and cannot be as important as only the paramount can be.

Or so the story went.

The most important moment of my youth came in the summer of 1992 when I first visited Lithuania. I came with an important folk dance troupe that would dance important Lithuanian folk dances before important Lithuanian audiences, in important places like Elektėnai, Marijampolė and (yes!) Palanga. Frankly, it was hard to figure out which place in Lithuania was most important, but I soon gathered that all important Lithuanian places are alike, while all the most important places are the most important in their own paramount way. This is how cities like Kaunas and Vilnius can be the most important places in the world at exactly the same time.

I was obviously excited to finally bask in all the important things, and to speak to as many people as I possibly could. So it stunned me to hear from them, when they learned I was from Chicago, that I wasn’t truly Lithuanian. It happened a lot. But what on earth could this man with a gold chain and jogging pants mean when he said, tu netikras, or “You’re fake?”

I fought hard against this idea. I had to. If I turned out to be a fake Lithuanian, I’d be forced to give up some or all of my importance, and sacrificing any amount would obviously mean that I’d fall from being paramount. The alternative to being paramount? It was to be some peon. What good would my Lithuanian sashes, and the collection of wooden figurines I bought on Pilies Gatvė be if I were actually a peon.

But there was no fighting it. The evidence was clear.
Did I speak Lithuanian with an accent?
Yes.
Had I been born in Lithuania?
No.
Did I have any Hiperbolė or Pompa records?
No.
Could I drink a warm liter of vodka in under an hour?
No.
Could I hit a three-point shot?
Sometimes.
Did I have a training suit?
No.
Could I swear in Russian?
Not really, although I was a fast study.
Could I tell the difference between kelmučiai and kazalėkai?
Only with a book.
Could I make šašlikai?
You mean kebabs? From Turkey?
Did I have a black leather man-purse to hold all of my important dokumentai?
No.
Did I shower daily and wear deodorant, even on Sundays?
Yes.
Well…then what was my problem? I was fake, and as soon as I admitted it, the sooner I could get on with my peon life, or what would be left of it now. What was I to do? I went to the nearest šilelis where I brought a small rupintojėlis, set him down on the moss, fell to my knees and prayed, “Jesus, Jesus, please make me real! Make me paramount!” But the Lord forsook me. And why wouldn’t He? I was some American poseur.

While the truth now stared me in the face, I still protested, and I found the blind courage to hold out hope. Perhaps if I returned often to Lithuania, and if I found true and real Lithuanians, I could imitate their ways. Perhaps I could become so similar to them that no-one would be able to tell any difference, and then I could assume ultimate glory.

Of course, in the process, I noticed something. It seemed everyone I met was in some way incomplete or lacking proper Lithuanian-ness. And it didn’t matter if I was in the most important city in the world, either Kaunas or Vilnius, or a place that was just important enough, like Plungė or Molėtai. Most people would claim to be perfectly Lithuanian if you spoke to them, but the truth came out when you asked their neighbors: they were lacking some ultimate Lithuanian essence, or they had foreign cooties. That guy over there…did I know he had a Polish relative? And the woman from Šventoji? Her maiden name was German. This one here spent too much time with Roma friends. That other one was Jewish. The kid from Utena would be okay, but his sister married a black man from Birmingham. Did I know Basanavičius had lived in Bulgaria, and had been educated in Moscow?

On and on it went. Soon enough, it seemed comforting: I wasn’t alone. Yet I faced another conundrum. If being Lithuanian was paramount, yet no true Lithuanian existed, didn’t that mean that Lithuania didn’t exist? After all, what is a nation if not its people? This thought sent me to near panic, and I felt a sudden urge to save my country…or…the country I had been taught was mine but turned out not to be…whatever…it didn’t matter. A world without Lithuania would be a tragic, unthinkable place, so I had to find a real Lithuanian as quickly as possible.

I thought a good place to look would be the center of the universe, Girija, or the location of the geographic center of Europe. There’s a golf club there, conveniently named The Golf Club at the Center of God’s Belly Button, but I couldn’t look there, because golf is about as Lithuanian as jalapeño jam. So…where?

Not far away from the center of it all was a tiny but attractive property, complete with a wooden cottage, its A-frame ornamented with carved pagan symbols, and shutters obviously cut by hand. The property featured a well, an orchard of apples and hazelnuts, and nightingales fly about the land, as common there as seagulls along Neringa’s dunes. Serpents twine about branches, in between blades of grass, and amber falls from the sky along with the rain, the only place in the world where this happens regularly. Rainbows appear there constantly, even at night. And in the middle of a lawn strewn with amber chunks, in a gazebo built of birch, sat a man who introduced himself as Kestutis Gintaras Algirdas Šaltinis Kaminas Visatoscentrinevičius Lietuvininkas Baravykas, though he asked me to call him by his nickname, Toni.

Toni did not need to speak in order for me to understand that I had finally found the truth. I toured his small house where I discovered an amber basketball, a closet containing nothing but jogging suits, an elk’s antler draped with over a dozen gold chains, any number of pirated mobile phones, and in his black leather man-purse, I found a Bible signed by Vincas Kudirka. Most stunning was that local berries bounced into Toni’s house under their own will, like so many tiny pagrandukai, as mushrooms from the nearby forests scurried into Toni’s kitchen like little elves, all of them begging to be eaten first. And who was sitting at Toni’s table eating lašiniai, refusing to share with me, a fake Lithuanian? Sabonis, clean shaven, broad-shouldered, gleaming like a pagan god.

So, there you have it. Toni exists, which means Lithuania exists, and everything you’ve always believed in is true, paramount, ultimate, the bamba of bambas. While the rest of us are all fake, we can relax. Toni exists to relieve us of the burden of being real, and if we can only be fake, let us embrace each other’s falsity, and feel fine that our favorite food is probably foreign. That’s okay. Our favorite swear words are, too.

 

 

 

 

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