/ 5 October 2019

Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania

Between Each Other’s Lines

...There must be something, something

besides this hollow air

that continues to blow through

every crack, pore, and open mouth.

Rimas Uzgiris

‘Oh, they can’t speak, but they understand everything’ – that is how Lithuanians (and not only them, I suppose) refer to smart dogs. This phrase could also be used for people who reside in Central and Eastern Europe. This summer I, too, found myself in the circumstances of a pretty smart dog, when I was invited to attend a literary translators conference held in a small Polish village of Gorajec, located on the Ukrainian border. Now, I can comprehend Polish, I read in it, but I can’t speak it, or perhaps I’m only shy because I believe I cannot.

As for the others – the Hungarians, Czechs, Latvians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Croats, etc. – Polish was their lingua franca. I understood them, I laughed at their jokes, and nodded if I was asked something, but for several days I felt mute. And for this my psychology and the inability to overstep this particular barrier of mine are probably to blame, not my inaptitude at the language. This year, I was constantly faced with these sorts of barriers, these instances of miscommunication, this unwillingness to cross some threshold. Either that, or maybe I just learned to notice it. 

Or maybe I learned a thing or two from Polish writer and journalist Ziemowit Szczerek’s book, Międzymorze (Intermarium), which I read this year. It is a book about travelling across Eastern and Central Europe – but not a tourist guide, and perhaps not even a travel book, but a book on roaming the nooks and crannies and through wherever the eyes can see. The author has an observant and fault-finding eye and likes to loiter around the boundaries of today’s almost non-existent state borders and see how one state crosses onto the other, and what, if anything, makes them different. I most enjoyed not his irony, not the jokes, or the brilliantly recreated dialogues, but the somewhat childish (or acted out) surprise that states today are separated by some strange (as for the European Union – also invisible) borders, that so many people were killed, that so much blood was and continues to be spilt for these borders. And the surprise that beyond these invisible borders reside the same yet different people. The surprise that they are all united not by a common history but psychogeography and way of thinking.

During the evenings, when I sat with the multilingual group of translators in Gorajec, I felt as if I belong to one big, colourful, bickering family. This family has its own eccentrics, maniacs, geniuses and silent workers. Well after midnight the ones who had a voice began to sing their songs. And then I understood another thing – that all of our songs are the same in how sorrowful and gloomy they are: We sing of the linden tree hunched over the fallen soldier, the girl waving her handkerchief, and so on. True, the songs of other nations are similar, as well, but the songs of this piece of Europe are united by some draught of the other side, a wind blowing from the realm of bereavement. Nobody danced, though those Central and Eastern European dances (as far as I’ve seen) seem awfully jovial to me – that is how people have fun before some anticipated calamity befalls them. These dances are like a ritual for scaring the calamity away, suppressing it, or just forgetting it, if only for a little while. Perhaps it’s true, but I’m no ethnographer.

We are also united by stereotypes: How we perceive one another. Each of us has three or four blocks with ‘Pole’, ‘Latvian’, ‘Slovak’ and ‘Hungarian’ written on them, and we lay these in various (but limited) combinations. Every nation possesses a constructor kit with the properties of their neighbours. It’s not hard to find out what the pieces look like: Just listen to the popular jokes of the region or ride the public transportation (if you understand the language); but by far the best method is to talk to the cab driver taking you to the airport or from the central station. Cab drivers are the oracles of folk politics, the distillate of popular folk superstitions and opinions – this particular, slightly chemically-flavoured bouillon cube.

Cemeteries are no less telling. I’m not sure about other Eastern Europeans, but Lithuanians love cemeteries – these are at once a peculiar community club, a place for romantic strolls, and a space for meeting with the beyond that has virtually replaced the church. Also, in the cemeteries (unless they are already flattened, built over, or moved) one cannot hide anything. It is a paradox, but it’s true.

We visited the cemetery in Gorajec with the translators, as well. When it had already gotten dark, of course. The prancing rays of our flashlights snatched away from the dark gravestones with Polish and Ukrainian inscriptions. It was a Ukrainian village, it seems, and some of the residents were Jews. The Second World War erased everything. Only the gravestones and a recently built memorial stele are left here. An emptiness full of suggestions is left here. 

Of course, it is once again inhabited, but the places where a multinational life once bubbled – it does no more – have a lining of sorts: Of a murmuring, silently droning empty space. It only buzzes and hums ever so faintly. The new settlers living there get used to the buzzing, forgetting it, becoming deaf to it. But it’s there, it doesn’t go anywhere… 

I am writing this in a hotel in Athens – Greece is surely not Eastern or Central Europe, but the barriers and borders are the same. As I wandered the city, I took a turn (on purpose, led by curiosity) from a busy touristy street into a dimly lit neighbourhood filled with dark and silent shadows – streets and houses inhabited by immigrants and refugees – right here, beside the flashy shops and restaurants. The average tourist avoids places like these instinctively; by now they have already developed this sixth sense, this facultative blindness to the things they know but have hidden away in the recesses of their minds and refuse to see. They do not choose being in ‘between’, they choose, as it seems to them, the side of light. But that light is artificial.

This short and somewhat scattered essay came out like a chorus to Szczerek’s book, a contemplation within its footnotes, a glance toward the places he either did not or did not wish to visit. And to that condition of ‘between’, for sometimes it seems to me that we all in this space of ours exist between each other’s lines. In the margins. In a perpetually shaven text. A palimpsest:

I could barely breath, the air

was so full of meaning. This

was my home. There. Here.  Now.

Then. Like a hermit crab in the sea,

or carried like a louse, Odysseus

with no Ithaca, I live in between

the lines. Maps cannot contain me.

Rimas Uzgiris, Between the Lines

By Marius Burokas, a poet, freelance writer, translator and editor-in-chief of online magazine of Lithuanian literature “Vilnius Review”. He is the author of four poetry books (the most recent poetry book “of clean being” (švaraus buvimo) was published in 2018 and got the Poetry Spring festival prize). His selected poetry book in English “Now I Understand” was published by “Parthian Books” in 2018. His poetry book in Ukrainian „Найменші речі“ was published this year. His poetry has been translated into Polish, Russian, Slovenian, English, German, French, Dutch. Ukrainian and other languages. Marius Burokas translated poetry of American, Canadian, Australian poets and others. Marius is a Lithuanian Writers’ Union member since 2007 and the member of Lithuanian Association of Literary Translators since 2013. He lives in Vilnius.

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas