Jurgis Kunčinas
Number of pages:
145 mm x 217 mm
Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla

Tūla (1993) is every Lithuanian art student’s favourite book. Roaming through the old streets of Soviet Vilnius, the nameless narrator drinks, wastes time, and remembers the week he spent with Tūla, a girl he was hopelessly in love with and then lost. The memory is the only thing that really matters in the otherwise pointless, dreary and boozesoaked life of the narrator, who is in fact a literary type in his own right, a ‘vagabond intellectual of Soviet society’, as a critic once called him. Thus, the novel is three-fold. It is a story of star-crossed lovers, and unattainable, impossible, and, in a way incredible, imagined love. Tūla herself does not have a single line of speech in the whole book. It is a love song for Vilnius, seen through the soft focus of bleary drunken eyes. It is also a valid social commentary on the late Soviet years, and the situation of a well-educated, creative person who is at odds with the regime, and thus has no place in society.



But then, domine, I was already in the Second Section – I’ve already mentioned it rather vaguely. Vasaros, Rudens and Olandų streets, right up to the rise of the Polocko line on the southeast, were its natural boundaries, where for almost two months I made myself at home. The hospital territory was, obviously, much more restricted. On the east side rose a steep, pine-covered slope, which when climbed opened into the valley of the Butterfly Cemetery. On sleepless nights, domine, above it I would fly to the corner of Filaretų, and there, making a turn to the west, I’d be flapping to Malūnų Street...
There’s nothing to hide any more: the Second Section was a poorly disguised sanatorium for alcoholics – most of the time they’d write into the hospital admission records that such and such a person suffered from a disturbance of the central nervous system. This was certainly true, but there wouldn’t be a single word about hallucinations or phobias, or about hangover syndrome or cirrhosis.


But then, domine, I was already in the Second Section – I’ve already mentioned it rather vaguely. Vasaros, Rudens and Olandų streets, right up to the rise of the Polocko line on the southeast, were its natural boundaries, where for almost two months I made myself at home. The hospital territory was, obviously, much more restricted. On the east side rose a steep, pine-covered slope, which when climbed opened into the valley of the Butterfly Cemetery. On sleepless nights, domine, above it I would fly to the corner of Filaretų, and there, making a turn to the west, I’d be flapping to Malūnų Street...
There’s nothing to hide any more: the Second Section was a poorly disguised sanatorium for alcoholics – most of the time they’d write into the hospital admission records that such and such a person suffered from a disturbance of the central nervous system. This was certainly true, but there wouldn’t be a single word about hallucinations or phobias, or about hangover syndrome or cirrhosis. An open secret, a finger on the lips when someone from the outside asked: the Second Section? What’s that, really?
It was the dullest section. Those slaves to the bottle, whatever remained of their minds still whispered: go on, take a break, then you can booze it up ‘like a man!’ again; accompanied by tearful wives or girlfriends, or else alone like me, they came to this shady park, lived in barracks that looked more like coquettish summer-houses, and lolled about for a good month, guzzling vitamins and tranquilizers, in their free time corrupting the unhinged young girls that filled both the beautiful park and the woods around the insane asylum. The beige barracks held only these resting, male alcoholics, but in the other sections – brick buildings, some with barred windows, and a tall, wire-entangled enclosure for walking – in those building calmly going out of their minds were potential suicides, handsome young men beset by depression, curly-haired schizophrenics with eagle noses and fiery glances, unfortunate students who had decided it was better to sit in a nut house than go into the army, hysterical teenagers (some of whom you could hardly call teenagers) in conflict with their parents and lonely old people who no longer wanted to go anywhere except the kingdom of heaven. They were the ones who fluttered off to that vale, to the Butterfly Cemetery, where they would quietly be buried in an even quieter slope… usually at night, for some reason. I saw this…
The soft sand, the restless butterfly graves, the pockets of the dead filled with wind-blown sand…
The alcoholics got better right before your eyes – they would lift a rusting two-pood weight by the door, hang around the kitchen, play cards, and nearly all of them had a handle that would open almost every door.
As not just a drunk, but also a homeless one, I felt particularly well there. Clearly the Second Section was, in a certain sense, a concentration camp, whose administration and personnel attempted to turn the ‘drinking animal’ into a human again, even though the detox specialists and psychotherapists had long since given up believing in miracles, and therefore in the meaning of their work. But they did what they could, or at least pretended to. A thin, nervous doctor with sternly twitching cheek signed me up for the experimental group right away – I agreed to all the conditions. Every other afternoon he would take us, six or seven wretches, to the attic of the barrack, lie us down on cushioned platforms, roughly chest-high and covered in brown oilcloth, and, slowly repeating pleasant words, urge us or even force us to relax… Really… after a filling lunch the body would grow lazy, the eyes would shut of their own accord. During these séances, Glebas, a freight handler from the ‘Krasnūcha’ industrial zone, who lay to my right, would often, to our horror and to his own misfortune, start snoring. I’d want to laugh but the psychotherapist, giving an angry shout, would poke Glebas in his bare stomach and start the second half of the experiment: in a high voice, full of drama, he’d start passionately cursing vodka, wine and beer, comparing the bottle’s neck with a nipple; his eyes probably sparked. But we couldn’t see – we’d been ordered to lie with our eyes tightly shut and not to stir, otherwise everything would go to hell. But it’s questionable whether he himself believed in the power of his influence when, reaching the climax, he suddenly spouted:
‘There it is, that damned vodka! There! That’s the reason (he’d jab the nearest prone chest with his finger) you lost your job! It’s because of vodka that your wife left you! (At this point he could have jabbed almost anyone.) Vodka destroyed your brains! Vodka! Vodka did it!’
Nearly hissing in fury by now the doctor would order us to open our mouths as wide as we could and, pulling out of somewhere a full bottle of the self-same cursed vodka, or spirits diluted in half, he’d start slopping it into our open mouths… And sloshing and splashing this wayand that it’d get onto our face and eyes – that’s why he told us to close our eyes! After emptying the entire bottle of spirits, he’d collapse limply into an armchair, cover his eyes with his palms and, brushing back the black hair that had fallen onto his forehead, request, in a more normal voice, for us to get up, slowly. There were red and blue plastic buckets set on the ground between the cushioned platforms, but it was a rare patient, moved by suggestion or by the vodka splashed on his lips, who would throw up. And this was the goal of this cruel treatment – to force vomiting, to cause as much disgust as possible. The pukers were encouraged in all ways possible and held up as an example to the non-pukers.
‘Well now,’ after each séance the doctor would ask every little lab rat, ‘How do you feel? Do you still want to drink?’ ‘Oh doktor!’ my neighbor Glebas, the freight loader from Krasnūcha, would moan, ‘Nikgoda bol’she, i bogu!’ – Never again, oh God! – ‘Chto by ja jetu gadost’ bol’she buchil!’ – I’d rather soak in lye than this filth! – ‘Basta, zavjazyvaju!’ – That’s it, it’s over! The doctor’s bad eye twitched, and he marked something down in his observation notebook.
‘Well, and how are you doing sir?’ he asked me one beautiful fall afternoon. Beyond the narrow white window fell gray, green and red maple leaves bigger than your hand and rays of warm sunlight glittered. How badly I wanted to answer this good person with something like Glebas did! Alas, the saddest part was that I, like the majority of the inhabitants of this colony of alcoholics, didn’t imagine myself as an invalid of some kind, not by a long stretch. Maybe a tired boozer who didn’t have anywhere to live and who in general didn’t have a life. Who had nowhere. I was ashamed to look into this nervous, thin man’s troubled eyes. After all, he had addressed me politely. After all, it was actually his brother, an actor who had yet to voice his definitive words, who helped set me up in this autumn sanatorium. He even requested that they not go overboard and force me to take medication. It was this doctor I had to thank for my bed in a corner by the window and for the fact that they had already, on the fifth day of my voluntary captivity, allowed me to go into town – I went down the street knowing I had somewhere to come home to, a blanket to crawl under.
I don’t know, I’d say to the doctor, the actor’s brother, when he asked; it’s disgusting to me, of course… believe me, I try, but I don’t get nauseous… I don’t throw up! A person gets used to all kinds of smells, you know… ‘No matter, no matter,’ he’d shout, fairly elated, ‘you just need to hold yourself together and not fall apart, and everything will be okay!’ I’d nod and together with my gray-faced colleagues march out to rake armfuls of fallen leaves and pile them into the little tractor’s rusty trailer.
In the evenings, when the guards were wiping puddles of milk soup and bacon rinds off the long tables (family would bring the smoked meat products; recovering alcoholics were overcome with a beastly hunger!) I would often settle down under the refectory’s dim lamp. I could sit and read there until the middle of the night, or, having been woken up by the mighty snoring of one of my neighbours and unable to fall back asleep or find somewhere else to put myself, I’d come here with my notebook – I wrote down some impressions, tried to compile the minimum of an explanatory slang dictionary, but mostly I’d write you letters, Tūla – by then I didn’t send them anymore… and not just because I didn’t have an address for you…
Often some other guy, also tortured by insomnia, would come and bother me – most of the time they were overflowing with a passionate need to let it all out, to talk it out – I’d unwittingly fall into an empty conversation, or listen to interminable monologues about riotous all-night parties, quarrels and fights with drinking buddies, about endless escapades in bed and about constant battles with the authorities, with wives, with neighbours, with the entire world! Sitting around in the night-time cafeteria I wrote and wrote you letters – I no longer crossed anything out, I’d tell you about everything in turn, or sometimes just the opposite – I’d confuse everything so badly that I myself was no longer able to distinguish what was true and what was an invention smacking of quiet insanity – no illusions!…
Tūla, my love… how are you? Alive? Still in one piece? Alive. Still in one piece…
Let’s go? Where? You know where… And give me some more of our wine, today everything’s possible,
everything’s permissible, never mind the idiots, the perverts and the self-declared morality police!…
Everything? Everything, everything!
So… let’s go? Let’s go. By this bridge? This one, this one… and not far…
So now that’s everything.
A night of burdocks, a night of sleeping dragonflies, a night of homeless cats, and unhappy madcaps!
The dark fans of burdock above my face, above your face, Tūla, from time to time, through the gaps and breaks in the leaves, sparkle blinding night stars, or maybe it’s just sparks flying from my eyes – they burn through your green skirt, all of the scanty clothes you were wearing today when you so unexpectedly wandered into the Rotunda… was that only today? Sob, Tūla; writhe, cry, lie to me, poison me, until that cement cloud from Bekešas Hill finally slinks over; until from the sky spill the coins gathered up by a whirlwind – thalers, ducats and groats; until all the coffins open up and we are all called to the Last Judgment – me, you... Lavinia and Romanas Būkas, all of your disappointed suitors… the lithographer with white eyelashes, the professore, and even citizen Graždanskaja… all of Užupis will howl and thunder when we arise! But for I’ll intercede with my body for you, while you can still feel my thighs on yours, here, between the burdock, knot-grass, nettles, catnip, valerian, thistle, dill, goosefoot, as long as you still whisper to me – press me, press me deeper into the earth – press as hard as you can!… And I feel myself plunging ever deeper, some kind of spring breaks through under you, Tūla, what’s that gushing in the dark – blood, silt, brown spring water? Let’s roll away, but not let go, don’t let go under any circumstances – hang on to me with your nails, feet, and arms; after all, we’ve broken through to an underground spring with our bodies, when we get up from here a fountain will probably gush in a jet to the skies – we’ll see it yet! Tūla, my true one, my patient Tūla! Why do you moan? You’re crying, Tūla? Your face is smudged, my dear, muddy now, from the fingers you thrust into this muck, the fingers you try to brace yourself with, to prop yourself up against something, you’re straddling me now, your fingers sticking deeper and deeper, you sob like a child being beaten even though no one wants to hurt you, don’t you be afraid, Tūla, dance, it’s truly our last dance… pour wine on my face, wash it off, then I’ll wash off yours… Don’t shout, don’t scream so loud, don’t gargle, I beg you, we don’t need the evil spirits to hear us, we don’t need the good ones to hear us either, breathe into my green as a burdock ear, poke me with your pointy breasts, fall on me exhausted, all your strength gone, wait!…
Wait a bit, don’t fall yet!
Burdock on your thighs, on your quivery breasts, on your belly overgrown with shadows – like moss, like the roots of grass; why did we pick this particular spot, what knocked us over here, laid us down on this blocked spring? No, not blocked, but just overgrown with grass. Now I’m afraid to slide over, it will spurt out, gush to the skies, outgrow the hills and towers, tell me, Tūla, why are we making love here? Now you press me into the ground, Tūla, press me… Why are you pressing my mouth with a palm covered with thin mud,
I’ll suffocate! It must look like I’m talking, that I’m screaming, but I’m quiet, quiet, quiet!… Why do you wipe that same slippery palm and blackened elbow across my face, whispering – it’s cleansing... What cleansing, cripes, now I’m drowning, I’m sinking!… All right, if it’s cleansing, then why are you crying, Tūla? Are you really crying? Go ahead, cry, cry, trample me, Tūla, trample me into this dirt, this mud, press on me with your brown bottom, it’s all I’m worth, wrestle me with your hands, mouth, nipples, all of your beloved flat body, here, on this slope, in this sludge below the Užupis garbage dump, below broken double bed frames, rusty baby carriages, skates, tires that continue to roll even down here – they lie at the bottom, next to cradles in which neither our nor anyone else’s children will cry, below the potatoes peels, cat shit, and rotting stalks… tell me, Tūla, affirm for me… is this mud in which we’re soaking, tortured by burning passion as though we’re trying to make up for seven long years, is it really cleaner than our whole lives, than the shadow lives watching us, than our deaths, still to come, and everything that will happen afterwards? Repeat this to me, soothe me and beat me, Tūla, turn your face to the dark sky so that at least your nostrils won’t fill with mud, be careful of your nostrils, Tūla, at least while we’re making love, while the giant burdock leaves rustle above our heads – their undersides are silver, pale, coarse… lie down on me, rest for a minute… who would have thought that beneath this tangle of grass a hideous mire pulses and a spring beats… you’re lying down?
Lie down, rest, Tūla, until they come to take us away – it doesn’t matter where – to heaven or to hell… or until the Užupis veterans and the decrepit aristocrats, in their silk robes and fringed slippers, hurry over; until people crawl out of the basements and attics, rubbing their eyes, un-artistic people, people of love, and not of love; until the first full-bellied crows rush over to peck out our eyes, but it’s not time for them yet, Tūla!… Love only succeeds when it ends in death, said the executioner, and cut off both their heads, where’s that from?… I don’t know, Tūla… Love me even when you’re dreaming, quietly ripening on my limp body, dream while loving me, rest, Tūla. Rest some more, until that cloud that eradicates everything in its path rushes down from Bekešas Hill; no doubt we’ll still manage to say everything to one another, so few words remain. We’ll sit whimpering, splashing in the mud with stalks of grass and roots and streaming blood onto the barbed wire emerging from the ground, the sharp mattress springs, who will wash and bandage us then, Tūla? Who will drown us and pull us out – not needed by anyone anymore – not even each other! – naked, squeaking like the rats that mate over by the sheds, oh... what’s left for us? Only to love, to whimper, to cuddle, to moan, to spit black blood through clenched teeth, love’s blood, the blood of a mad dog, the juice of the moon, to rub burdock liquid on our already marked foreheads… you rub my forehead, too, rub it – it’s so refreshing, even if it’s revoltingly unappetizing, that burdock juice and goosefoot… hey, Tūla, can you still hear me, through one little ear at least?… Do you realize you’re lying on top of me, your legs spread, that in the green moonlight your little rear end shines dimly? Do you see me, splattered with dirt, memories, spittle, tears, do you feel my rod rising anew on your groin, are you riding with me to hell on this damned and beaten path, to hell, whose red glow shines already beyond those hills, from the direction of the Butterfly Cemetery, from the Polocko highway, from Filaretų Street and Belmontas: why are you silent!?
Why don’t you say something to me, why are you spitting blood too? Why did you lock me up by the legs and arms so that I can’t even budge? Where do you get the strength, my delicate one? Who told you these herbs are poisonous? Nonsense! They merely cause an even greater desire to make love, they drive you out of your mind, it’s true – chew them, suck their juices, pull them out by the roots, yank at my hair, you insane woman, you Medusa, you traitor, strangle me to death because there is no other alternative anymore, don’t tell me you don’t hear, my drunk, dirty, beloved Tūla, or maybe I’ve gone deaf and blind myself? What are you shouting at me? I don’t hear anything anymore! Whattt? Don’t shout! Or else shout, howl, fall over on top of me again, grab onto the rocks so you won’t lose your balance, let’s lock ourselves together again like beasts, splattered with dirt and blood, beasts grinding their teeth, that’s what’s been made of us, that’s what the world has nurtured – raw meat and the luminescence of your ribs, which I can see even through a layer of dirt… hit me as hard as you can, Tūla, my love, I beg you… so that I could hit you too, bite at your sallow, weasel-like breast; stab me with a rusty kitchen knife groped out of the grass because I never managed, back then, to love you so that your howling echoed above these slopes and hills, the echo resounding in everyone’s ears until they all understood that you were mine alone and no one would dare to stand in our way, stab me because I didn’t manage to do that, that I didn’t resolve to steal you, tie you up and take you away with me to my wilderness, to turn you into a slave, into a tramp just like me, because I didn’t, in the end, pay forty sheep and camels for you, as is acceptable in your puffed-up Second City… kill me because I’m drunk, because there’s only wine, not blood, flowing, oozing through my open pores, strike me and put me down!… Without you there’s neither life nor death for me anyways… and already I’ll never tell you anything else ever again… well? At least hit me if you don’t dare kill me, knock out my front teeth, they’re all that’s left – as long as I live I’ll suck burdock juice with my gums and love you… Tūla!
Translated by Elizabeth Novickas, edited by Medeinė Tribinevičius
Jurgis Kunčinas

Jurgis Kunčinas

Jurgis Kunčinas (1947-2002) is still one of the most popular Lithuanian writers. Very prolific, he wrote mostly half-fictionalised autobiographical stories, some novel-length, some shorter. He also published several books of poetry (including poetry for children), and a few collections of non-fiction essays. He was a very proficient translator from German. 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. Kunčinas is also one of the most widely translated Lithuanian authors: his works are available in Polish, Russian, Swedish and German. His often drunken vagabond characters invoke comparisons with Charles Bukowski and beatnik literature.


Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla

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Lithuanian Writers' Union Publishing House was established in 1990. Currently we publish around 60 books per year and are ranged between 10 biggest Lithuanian publishing houses. The scope of our publications is wide: new books by Lithuanian authors, including prose, poetry, essays, memoirs and critical studies, also the first books by young authors, books from the literary canon and exiled authors as well as translations of elite foreign literature.


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