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Jurgis Kunčinas (1947-2002) is still one of the most popular Lithuanian writers. In life and in work, he was known for his ability to sense beauty in the mundane, and even in dirtiness, and for his humour, sometimes bitter-sweet, but often side-splitting, which is rare in Lithuanian literature. He is also known and admired for his penchant for describing well-known places and cityscapes (usually of Vilnius, but also of his native Alytus), and for transforming them into something intrinsically romantic and beautiful.  His often drunken vagabond characters invoke comparisons with Charles Bukowski and beatnik literature.

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Photo from the Vilnius review archives

From “The Vilnius Review”, 1999, Summer

Translated by Michael Chusid

 

 

 

The Minstrels in Maxi-Coats


Songs for a Viola d’Amore from Vilnius’s Užupis Region
from the Eighth Decade of the 20th Century

 

Exerpt

 

The rusty red cliff above the Vilnelė, a broad brook which flows into the Neris in the centre of Vilnius, can be seen from afar. Would you care to go there? All you have to do is cross the wooden bridge after passing the endless open-air tennis courts and then take a turn to the right across an almost inconspicuous prominence of the river bank, where once a wooden pavilion decayed, long and stubbornly, with its hand-carved windows and strange-spired tower. The reddish precipice is no longer far off – soon you will stumble over its magnitude, suddenly halting as if transfixed at a round table with seven throne-like chairs, placed there, as it were, for the convenience of the weary. Here, you will awake your new cohorts – seven minstrels in maxi-coats, crashed in the grass in a heavy drunken stupor. Have them take their seats properly and brace them on their firm thrones. Are you comfortable, dear debauchees? They do not blink but sit frozen and wordless like the mute wax figures in Madame Whatever’s Museum. They stare with open gaze but are asleep. My friends, the minstrels. Who knows, maybe someday at least one of them will actually gaze at our descendants from the pantheon of the Lithuanian National Wax Figure Museum. The minstrels in maxi-coats. Tired Vilnius troubadours. Old-Town bards. Hussars of the Belmont stables and cossacks of the Vilnelė. Fall of 1978. They are being sought by the police. They are taking a breather in a holding cell. No one, it seems, rests more than they do. Depoliticized, degraded, desperate, delyricised and deported from all of the city’s taverns, snack bars, beer bars, bistros, train stations and station stop-ins, they will rest here, on the banks of the Vilnelė, en route to the Red Cliff, not far from Kasparas Bekešas Hill, on the way to sunny Užupis – the far side of the Vilnelė: our town’s pride-and-joy, our Sorrento and our Athens!

They sit there, just as I have had them seated. Frozen in the most uncomfortable poses. Without stirring. And around them, in the growing and sadly smelling grass, are lying at rest their violas d’amore and violas da gamba (imaginary, of course), leaning against the trunks of trees. Imaginary as well, are the note-covered sheets of music on the wooden table and chairs. Pentagons of dead spiders and flies, fallen into the spiderwebs. Only the wine bottles are authentic – green, colourless and brown – all lying in a neat little circle around the musicians. The seven minstrels are sleeping. All are wearing black hats and white scarves. All are in black maxi-coats. Asleep. It is doubtful whether they still remember the fairytale about Eglantine. The wasps of September, which have crawled into the bottles, are licking up with their invisible tongues and suction tubes the last drops of the Agdam, the Rošu de Desert and the Bile Mične. They fall intoxicated on their backs, their legs trembling in the air, and fall asleep as well.

It is peaceful here and solemn! One only hears the continual cawing of a sated September crow. Oh, blessed time of dreams and fantasies! And in the clouds, along with the swallows, gallop synthetic, polyester White Steeds. From time to time they neigh and snort, and one of the minstrels flinches as if shocked by electricity. But he again settles back into sleep. A September siesta. But who is that over there? Look, people!

Accompanied by two strapping policemen, a grey-haired Christopher is fording the waves of the Vilnelė with a foundling from the orphanage on his shoulders – in the lack-lustre sunlight, their golden halos are hardly shining. Now, these halos look like the flaming hoops through which lovely Bengal tigers leap in itinerant circuses – now, their lairs are no longer in the jungles or in the bamboo undergrowth but under a circus tent, stinking of rotting carrion and excrement.

Christopher is fording the brook. The policemen curse, stumbling over stones, but such is their fate and duty: to accompany the fording saint – back and forth, back and forth! A whole eternity passes before
they are relieved by a new shift.

The minstrels in maxi-coats sleep, though it is not yet winter. They sleep in their black coats, black hats, black boots and white scarves. Their foreheads gleam, while their cheeks are of a borsch-red colour. Their fingers are yellowish like parchment, and their finger joints crackle like the leaves of a dry autumn. They appear sad, romantic and solemn as at the end of the 18th century, though they themselves, of course, have no inkling about this. Their white knuckles shine, and the sinuous rivers of their veins are bluish. But not all their blood is blue – perhaps only half, if that much. But the minstrels don’t bother their heads about these niceties. They are asleep.

Christopher, meanwhile, is on his way back across the stream with the foundling on his shoulders. A pine staff trembles in his gigantic hand, and the empty holsters of the policemen dangle at their sides. It is already getting slightly darker. Very slightly. Just like at the end of the 18th century. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is.

Yesterday evening I was still smiling. At the market hall, as the Poles say, in the vegetable section, a nimble lad asked one of the minstrels: “Uncle, wanna buy a bunch of carrots?” “Of course,” the déclassé bard cried out. “I’ll buy it! We’ll go off to Bekešas Hill to chomp on orange carrots and drink violet wine, my boy! Let’s have your carrots!” “Here you go!” said the pleasant market waif, hurrying to catch up with the black coat. “Who is Bekešas?” “Kasparas Bekešas.” The vagabond poked his long red finger in the air. “Kasparas Bekešas was a Hungarian warlord who led the Lithuanian army against Moscow! That’s all!” And humming a fatal romance and sticking his hands and carrots in the bottomless wide pockets of his coat, he joined his waiting friends to wander off to Skruzdėda Ravine, not far from Red Cliff. And over the pavement of the market hall, striped watermelons trundled, rumbling and splattering the reddish softness of their bellies, while the lad looked longingly after the minstrel – that was a genuine uncle! I can hear it as if now: a banal romance, but fatal. The melody? Well, let’s call it moving. Listen for yourself:

A gypsy wandered through the world,
roving across wide fields!
His wife was of beauty unheard –
he had a herd of children superb!

A herd of children superb, not bad! And today, I see my buddies leaning back in their dark oak chairs with their hats pulled over their eyes, or vice versa – with their wide-brimmed hats crushed under the backs of their heads – and 1 feast my eyes on these enchanting dear madcaps which nobody needs! Such a September! And they’re sleeping as if made of wax. Here and there lie the stubs of orange carrots with their green tails still on. And the reddish cliffs next to Bekešas hill in the background. Light grey puffs of smoke drift over from Skruzdėda Ravine. The smell of withering honeysuckle. Crows, angels, White Steeds. The indefatigable Christopher. Autumn, autumn... “I’m doing fine somehow – why, I don’t know.” Also from a romance. A poster in a window: “Have you gotten inoculated against Romances yet?”

Once again having waded across the Vilnelė, Chritopher and his foundling are taking a rest in preparation for a new crossing. But the two policemen, already squirming in their soaked uniform pants, are cursing angrily over their drenched cigarettes and announce: “That was the last time, you ragamuffin! Our shift is over, old man! That’s it for today! If you want to, go wading by yourself!” And, spitting, they hurry off to the endless open-air tennis courts. Should they pick up stray balls? No! Their business is public order and making sure the citizens stay calm. A true respite after the shift with Christopher! Well, maybe they’ll even toss some ball back to a tennis player, allowing themselves by way of reward to gaze impudently at her chocolate thighs under her white skirt. The police officers take no affront at the minstrels, if they even see them – they are not in their zone, and besides, they are sleeping so peacefully! The valiant seven. The seven samurais. The seven against Thebes. Seven in one blow... The seven minstrels in maxi-coats! Maxi, maxi, down to their vert heels...

What can I say? Adieu, my sleepy buddies – spongers, homeless products of a developed society, with incomplete high school and even higher diplomas. Adieu, sensitive-souled musicians – I’m off to sunny Užupis! That’s where I was planning to go anyway: my beloved is awaiting me there. Off to the Independent Republic of Užupis! Our Sorrento, Athens, our Monterey, Toremolina and Pamplona! Let me step across the border – the Vilnelė. Adios! Vale! Let me just take a little drink from the spring, sprouting on the shore of the brook. So my throat doesn’t get dry.

I hike up the steep trail and glance back half-way up. Down below, Christopher is still commuting from shore to shore, God bless him. On the far bank, a rusty-coloured wooden movie house can be seen – there, films are shown until the first frosts of winter, when moviegoers begin exhaling steam. Squeamish moviegoers of today.

This is just a typical Wehrmacht movie theatre – the Wochenschau review of the events of the week used to be shown here. Marches and speeches by the Fuehrer. This theatre is now in the final stages of being consumed by fungi and sawed away by bark beetles. But it is still standing, looking rusty and even playing something or other. But I, step by step, continue to climb the steep ravine, my soles sliding on the slippery clay and mud and on the wet leaves. Beyond the hill is Užupis. Today, it is altogether not sunny, however my Beloved – the light of my eyes – lives here. My gnu antelope. My hip-eater, my Dorothea and Laura!

Once again, I look back at the golden valley. What are those black spots down there? I rub my eyes: way at the foot of the ravine all of the seven minstrels have begun moving in my direction. The seven maxi-coats, awakened from their sleep, are approaching in an orderly file. They trample, stagger, but carefully maintain their distances. They are carrying apparently their imaginary instruments, their music stands and sheet music, and the last two are even lugging bags with the empty bottles of Rošu de Desert and Bile Mične. Why not? In Užupis, a place is still open where they can collect the deposits on the bottles! They approach me – slowly but steadily. I can already clearly discern their violas d’amore and violas da gamba, and I can already hear the squishing of liquid mud under their poor feet – the angels and steeds have scattered in all directions, so striking is the slow pace of their autumnal traffic. Now, the minstrels have begun the ascent of the hill itself – the path here is not only steep, but forked, tortuous and slippery. How will they be able to force up the hill their tired, swollen bodies, bearing their drunken instruments and notes, jumping off the pages? Yes, they’re jumping like little flags or cheerful little frogs! I suppose the minstrels haven’t woken up yet properly – they are pacing like lunatics, like Breugel’s blindmen. They utter no words and are not singing – they are just stepping along. But I know – minstrels are a proud lot. They will not allow me to grab them by the nape of the neck and haul them up to the summit one by one. They have to do it themselves, slopping through the mud. This is the very first arbalest shot on my part – now they’re even closer. Aha, now the kings of sleep are perking up! I can see how their gleaming lips are moving – what is that they’re murmuring? The minstrels’ recitative remains unheard. What is it they’ve struck up? Maybe “Oh, you green burdock”? An unpretentious, lovely little song. But no. Most likely, they are rehearsing at half-volume “When the gladiators come marching in.” Then they can strut into the Užupis dog market and strike it up at an ear-splitting pitch! A march to end all marches. Gladiators? Perhaps. But now they’re just a camel’s spit away from me, though nothing can be seen! Aha, now they’re singing that sad song, “How persuasively the song echoes over the fields”! A song for real men. How much leeway there is here for a dramatic tenor! I still can hear the second line: “The wind will carry the echo into our homes!” Frankas’ song. The song of Frankas Kaributas von Tarvydas. My old buddy Frankas loved to sing this melody and, forgetting the words or actually falling short of them, would sing it compressing his lips together, in the so-called mormorando manner. Hearing his luxuriant soft voice, the palms and loins of our ladies of those years – freckled philologists in cotton print skirts – would grow moist. “When will the two of us meet again?” That was the French student Frankas from the Trakai region – 100 kilograms in weight and 191 centimetres in height. “The wind will carry the echo into our homes!” However, my minstrels had no idea who Kaributas von Tarvydas was – they were singing on their own and were already ascending into Užupis, where urgent issues of love are awaiting me as well. Affairs that can’t be put off. What does one say on these occasions? Either/or. To be or not to be. O God! How would it be if I were to bring them along on a serenade under Dorothy Laura’s window? Excellent! But will she like these foulmouthed troubadours, these Don Juans, these winos, these ex-Komsomol activists, these little monsters? My minstrels in maxi-coats? Why shouldn’t she? She’ll like them. She should like them. Doesn’t she like mediocre cognac, secession-period carpets, carbide lamps, copper pots and tea kettles with holes in them, bark bettle-holed oval frames, faded oleographs and other precious excavated items? She likes them plenty! That’s why she’ll like this band draped in maxi-coats. Right?

Right! Now they’ve taken a little pause, laying down their valuable luggage, and the rear guard plops their bags of wine bottles on the ground, clinking the empty bottles in a true carillon of love...

And now, as if on a pilgrimage, they are kneeling down next to a spring and greedily drinking the pure icy water. If only this balsam is not deleterious! Perhaps one of them even says a little prayer. Mormorandum. Or maybe even aloud. In impeccable well-articulated Latin. Let’s say, with a Tuscan dialect. Or perhaps they are only wetting their parched throats, moistening their lips and palates? It’s not been all that long now since they last drank wine. Seven minstrels and twenty-one bottles of Moldavian Rošu de desert. Eighteen percent alcohol (not degrees Celsius, of course). Sugar – only 6 percent. A classic! Classical minstrel rotgut for one rubble, 22 kopecks. Three bottles each. My buddies, the minstrels. The confessors of Saint Christopher, devotees of Bacchus. Low life, pseudoposthippies, tramps persecuted in the name of the law. Dregs of society! Munchers of carrots with dirt under their fingernails. Hm, do they even know how to pray? Even one little prayer? Highly doubtful! Does even one of them believe in the Resurrectio Domini? Or ever held in his hand not a wine goblet or Soviet polyhedron glass but, say, a Biblium Pauperum? No. Never. These are only empty, rhetorical questions and that’s all. Oh, these minstrels! Apolitical habitués of dens of iniquity. Indifferent pacifists. Herzogs and Markgrafs of empty bottles, if you like. And it’s clear – they don’t have any violas. They only imagine they have, they only pretend to play. Instead one of them actually does have a harmonica. Another has a metal tooth-comb. A third has a comb, as well, but it’s plastic and several teeth are broken off. If, when playing this instrument, the teeth vibrate on the same frequency, an almost unique sound can be heard which bears a resemblance to peristaltic movements. True, a fourth minstrel is carrying a four-stringed guitar – it had had six strings but one was being employed by the musician to hold up his trousers and another had been used to suspend a kettle over a campfire. Shall we call this instrument a sitar? Before kneeling down at the well, each minstrel solemnly removed his hat, and to me – standing by the second wind-fallen tree half-way along the trail – it seemed I was observing a rare ritual: the hung-over minstrels were drinking spring water! Drinking from the very same spring which had perhaps quenched the thirst of Herzog Kynstutes, as the Teutons called him, and later Steponas and Kasparas Bekešas. And who else had drunken from this spring? Oh, an hour must be called an hour! Monks, tramps, sluts, soldiers and generals... everybody!

Now they’ve drunken their fill. They’ve once again donned their black head gear, wiped their mouths with their black sleeves, drying their young faces, tired from life’s rhythms and melodies, and bent down to pick up their instruments, though only the bags with empty bottles were real. Real is only this late September afternoon. Like the worn-out tires, the broken, rusty mattress springs and discarded perambulators peppering the banks of the Vilnelė – Christopher and his uniformed guardian angels kept all this at a distance. All of this is real like the voiceless gurgling of water.

The true spectres are the young ghosts, making their way to Užupis. The minstrels in maxi-coats. One has a nose, thick as the beak of a pelican – Hubertas Steponas Ega. I don’t know any other of his names or patronymics. And this minstrel is a curly-headed youth, whose hair appears bluish, so black it is. A third looks a bit like Maximilian Schell in his younger years. Another looks like the Mona Lisa. The same smile. And so, I’ll hire them!

“Guys!” I emerge from behind the wind-fallen tree. “Gentlemen! Stop! Attention, please.”

They come to a halt in silence and look around. Their pupils expand and their ears’ radar systems begin operating. They even appear to have heard something.

“Attention!” I clap my hands. “Achtung! Attention! I’ll buy you all two... no, three! Cases! Of beer!” They cluster around me – they are listening! “Wait a second!” I paused. “Not for nothing! The beer is in exchange for a favour – not for nothing! Listen, men, would you agree to sing for an hour under the windows of my beloved?”

They exchange glances. They begin nodding. They take off their hats and, as if they were on a stage, begin bowing – to the weather. The senior minstrel says to me:

“Our life is a song. A mournful, wrathful song, which squeezes out a niggardly manly tear. A song of the city, a song of the street – a minstrel’s song. And you know, sir, we don’t sing any pop.”

“Sure,” I say. “Yes, yes, of course! Something between Marlene Dietrich and Frank Sinatra. Between Enrico Caruso and Russian romances?”

“Right!” the leader says. “So, shall we be on our way?” Promises must be kept – now I have to get a few cases of beer even if have to dig them up from under the ground! What can you do? If you want to romp, romp!

“Wait here, men!” I say. “I’ll be right back!”

Flying off to the Uzupis grocery store, I sell for a song my silver spurs, my jewel-studded navy officer’s medal and several old books... Hey, beer! I lug the cases back, waving to the minstrels, but where will we drink it now?

“Not again under the skies of Andalusia?” quizzically inquired one pimpled minstrel, panting from exhaustion. For if was clearly preparing to rain – is this anything novel in our latitudes? Before our very eyes it was growing ever gloomier, and I began conjuring up what we would do next: how about crashing in on the master of Užupis – the golden-haired, red-bearded lithographer Herbertas von Steinas? He must be toiling away right near by – in the wheelwright’s workshop, next to the “Apotheca”! He would understand, be overjoyed and show us hospitality! Of course, the Maestro is completing work right now on a major cycle of engravings, devoted to the theme of Don Quixote. I’ll finish up, the Maestro told me the other day, and be off on that very evening to Iberia! Perhaps one of the minstrels could serve him as a model. Anything is possible. We lug the cases of beer to the wheelwright’s workshop down a few steps into the cellar, and my benefactors cheerfully begin rehearsing:

Can you recaaaall? The white bird-cherries
were blooming!
We were waaalking happily down the streams?

That’s fine. Just right. The intonation I need. All that remains is to await true twilight. Lyrical chansons. Combs and a guitar. Without any jokes.

“Sing away, boys!” I shout. “I’ll just take a look to see if the Maestro’s in his bear-den. Keep an eye on the beer!”

The Maestro is home! Catching my breath, I dash back up out into the courtyard to see the minstrels, standing in a broad semi-circle with linked arms, humming on their combs and singing pathetically and sorrowfully:

Only the birds
return again!
Love will never return!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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