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U?upis ("on the other side of the river") is, in reality, a neighborhood in Lithuania's capital city of Vilnius, which took the peculiar step of declaring itself an independent republic in 1997. In this novel, however, it is the lost homeland of a middle-aged man named Hal, who lands in Lithuania hoping to travel back to the town of his birth in order to bury his father's ashes there--in a place that might not really exist. In a literary tradition dominated by social realism, The Republic of U?upis is a unique work of melancholy, Murakami-esque whimsy.
Dalkey Archive Press
About the Author
Haïlji, born at Kyongju in 1955, studied creative writing at Chung-ang University in Seoul and earned a doctoral degree in France. Currently he is a professor at Dongduk Women's University. He has written more than ten novels in Korean, as well as poetry in English and French, including Blue Meditation of the Clocks.
Dalkey Archive Press
Read an Excerpt
The Republic Of Uzupis
By Haïlji, Bruce, Ju-Chan Fulton
Dalkey Archive PressCopyright © 2009 Haïlji
All rights reserved.
Jonas the Taxi Driver
When the Asian man appeared at immigration control, the official, a young woman in an olive-green uniform, was startled. Asians were not a common sight in this country.
With an amiable smile the man presented his passport. As the woman flipped through it, her face took on a solicitous expression. She spoke briskly into a telephone, a note of urgency in her voice. Then she turned back to the man.
"Mr. Hal, someone will be with you shortly."
And soon two other officials arrived, border control agents. They were dressed like the woman and they were armed. One of the men was gigantic, six and a half feet tall. The first thing they did was size up this man Hal, a clean-shaven, neatly dressed gentleman in his early forties. He was calm and thoughtful, his demeanor refined.
"Your boarding pass, please," said the big agent.
What to make of this request? Granted, the big man's accented English was a challenge, but who expects to be asked for a boarding pass at the immigration booth? Besides, the other arrivals were proceeding through immigration without a hitch. Why was Hal being singled out—it didn't make sense.
"Boarding pass," said the other agent, also in English, extending his hand. "Boarding pass!"
When Hal finally responded his voice was polite but firm. He had presented his boarding pass at the departure gate in Amsterdam, why were they demanding it from him now that he had arrived? He didn't understand.
The two agents were taken aback. Was their command of English so weak that they could not understood Hal?
The young woman stepped in: "You are 'no visa,'" she explained to Hal. "Which means your stay in this country is limited to fifteen days. But before we can admit you, we need proof that you will leave the country within that time. That's why we're asking for your return ticket to Amsterdam."
Hal shrugged. "But I'm not returning to Amsterdam, I'm going somewhere else, and I didn't purchase a round-trip ticket. You're not saying you're denying me entry because I don't have a roundtrip ticket, are you?"
The young woman interpreted for the two agents, who conferred with each other, their expressions grave, before giving the woman some instructions.
The woman turned back to Hal: "When do you plan to leave the country?"
"As soon as I can. By the end of the day, if possible."
The woman was dubious as she interpreted for the agents. The two men instructed the woman further.
"And where is your final destination?"
"The Republic of Uzupis."
When this response was relayed to them, the two agents conferred once again, this time at some length, and came to a decision. After issuing one last directive to the woman they left.
The young woman produced a form and asked Hal to sign it, and when this was done she stamped his passport. "We are admitting you for forty-eight hours. If you are unable to exit the country in that time, it is your responsibility to report to the office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that deals with foreign nationals; there is the address." And the woman returned Hal's passport along with the form.
Hal thanked her and was proceeding past the booth when she asked him one last question.
"The Republic of Uzupis?"
"Where is that?"
Why would she ask such a question? Hal didn't answer.
Having changed some money, Hal left the terminal, overcoat draped over his arm. It was snowing and there was a sodden chill in the air. Hal donned the coat. It was stylish and of an excellent weave but too lightweight for the severe winters of this land. Hal didn't realize what winter was like here.
Outside the terminal was a sleepy, nondescript plaza. It reminded Hal of a train station you might find in a small city in the countryside. A file of yellow taxis, a dozen or so, awaited fares, and a short distance off, a blue metro bus sat idling; there were no other vehicles. The plaza had turned into a sheet of ice, and beyond it spread a grove of birches. Hal didn't know what to make of it all—he had never seen such a small, unprepossessing international airport.
"Where to, sir?"
One of the taxi drivers snagged Hal, a man who whose hair had turned white, but who couldn't have been older than his mid-forties. His English was passable.
"Uzupis," said Hal.
"Uzupis?" said the driver, as if he had never heard the name before.
"Yes, the Republic of Uzupis."
"Republic?" The man looked even more puzzled.
Hal produced a postcard and offered it to the driver. "Here's the address. I think maybe it's not so far from here. It's postmarked Vilnius, Lithuania."
The man put on reading glasses and inspected the postcard, then approached his fellow drivers, who were huddled nearby, and showed them the postcard, asking them what they thought. Stamping their cold feet, the drivers looked at the postcard and debated with one another, occasionally glancing in Hal's direction. Finally Hal set down his suitcase on the ice-covered plaza. Turning up the collar of his coat and putting on a pair of gloves, he took in his surroundings.
Shrouded by the falling snow and the advancing dusk, the birches at the far end of the plaza seemed to be floating on air. The blue bus admitted one last passenger and set off toward the birches—beyond which the city must have been located—and before long it too was floating through the falling snow. The plaza lapsed into desolate silence.
And then an imploring voice cried out: "Jurgita!"
Startled, Hal turned to see a beautiful young blonde with a doleful expression. Floundering toward her was a bulky, middle-aged man, a farmer by the look of him, clutching to his chest a huge goose. It was he who had called out the soulful "Jurgita!" presumably the name of the beautiful young maiden. The melodramatic meeting of this graceful woman and the comical farmer was like something out of a play. Impervious to it all, the snow continued to fall.
"Okay, let's go!"
The driver was back. He returned the postcard, and while he loaded Hal's suitcase into the trunk Hal continued to gaze at the encounter between Jurgita and the farmer. Whereas the farmer was overcome with emotion and about to burst into tears, Jurgita remained still, her expression as doleful as before. She could have been a princess returning home from a long exile, being welcomed by a former servant whose station had fallen to that of a rustic.
"Please," said the driver, gesturing toward the back seat. With one last look at Jurgita, Hal climbed in.
The taxi was a vintage make and apparently finicky in cold weather, for it was reluctant to start. After turning the engine over several times in vain, the driver opened the door, planted his left foot on the icy road, and managed to rock the vehicle several yards forward, at which point he released the clutch and the engine finally engaged. Back in went the driver's foot, the door shut, and off they went.
The first scene they passed was that of the other taxi drivers, big, well-built men stamping their feet, shoulders hunched up against the cold. They gazed vacantly at Hal as the taxi went past.
The next image was that of Jurgita and the farmer. Jurgita still looked doleful and she still hadn't moved. Depositing the goose on the icy ground, the farmer hefted her bags. Hal looked back at the retreating scene, drawn by the intensity of Jurgita's beauty. She might have been looking his way, but he couldn't be sure. Presently she was out of sight.
The taxi continued toward the birches, and as they passed the grove the driver turned on the radio and Hal heard a broadcast that he assumed to be in Lithuanian, not a word of which he understood. He wondered if it was the news.
Beyond the birches, Hal saw the outline of the city. Gray buildings came into view, dreary structures that might have been factories or apartments. He felt no warmth from this scenery, though these buildings too, owing to the fall of the snow and the night, seemed to be floating in the distance. And yet he felt buoyant as he gazed out the window, anticipating his imminent arrival at his destination.
Some ten minutes later the taxi suddenly braked and turned onto a through street. There wasn't much traffic and the snow had accumulated on the road, which was flanked by barren, snow-covered lots, beyond which rose somber, grimy apartment buildings.
Hal watched, uncomprehending, as the taxi went in this new direction. The driver too, so sure of himself when they had left the airport, looked left and right, examining each sign they passed—had he lost his way? The strange thing was, the road itself was not difficult to follow, not the sort of road where a person might get lost.
Finally, on a deserted stretch on the outskirts of the city, the driver came to a stop. "Would you please show me that address once more?
Hal handed the postcard to the man, who once again put on his glasses to examine it. Then he pocketed the glasses and proceeded to slowly cruise along, examining each road sign as if expecting Hal's destination to appear. Hal was disbelieving: Did the driver really think he was going to find the Republic of Uzupis on the outskirts of this dismal city? And all the while the meter was running.
The driver pulled over and stopped again, set the hand brake, and got out. "I'll be right back." And off he went through the snow across a vacant lot toward an aging apartment building in the distance. Hal couldn't help thinking the man had decided to milk his foreign passenger for all he was worth.
The driver approached three people standing outside the building and spoke to them. Inside the taxi Hal smirked: Let's see how much you try to squeeze me for. The unintelligible broadcast still issued from the radio and the meter still was clicking, the fare working its way up. Above the meter was a clock that read 4:47. Hal removed his watch and re-set the time. And then he found himself coughing. How damp and chilly it was inside the old taxi! So much for the heater.
Just then Hal noticed a hefty, middle-aged man plodding through the snow. Balanced across his shoulders was a massive grandfather clock. His clothing was shabby and he appeared exhausted—he must have toted his heavy burden a long distance. It was a curious sight, the man's leaden steps dislodging snow and the clock that rested on his shoulders looking rather like a coffin. Hal watched, fascinated.
As the driver made his way back to Hal, he and the man with the clock crossed paths. But neither man seemed aware of the other. Each walked on in silence.
"I'm sorry," said the driver once he was back inside. But just as they were pulling away, a taxi approached from the opposite direction. Hal's driver quickly brought his vehicle to a halt, set the brake, rolled down the window, and beckoned the other driver. The second taxi came up close. Down came the driver's window and out popped the head of a man who looked very young for a taxi driver. The two drivers began a conversation, unintelligible to Hal. Hal's driver handed the postcard to the other man, who inspected it and then, looking exasperated, got out of his taxi. Hal's driver got out as well, and the two men continued their conversation, at one point the younger man fishing out a cell phone and punching in a number. The fare kept climbing. When would the conversation end? Waiting patiently, Hal was hit with a wave of drowsiness and began to nod off. He heaved a yawn and shook his head to clear it. Jet lag was setting in.
"Okay," said Hal's driver when he finally returned. The sky was distinctly darker.
"All right, you've had your fun, yes?" said Hal, who had finally lost patience. "The game's over—let's be on our way."
The driver's embarrassment was almost palpable. But he didn't respond—perhaps he hadn't understood? Instead he swung the taxi about and set off in the direction from which they had come. The bleak scenery passed by in reverse. Hal watched the still unfamiliar landscape, but with no interest. Night had fallen.
They drove through the twilight, stopping at a railroad crossing while a dark, interminably long freight train passed. Hal fell asleep.
When he lurched awake, there was light outside. How far had they come? Hal saw a city street, but it was lifeless, snow accumulating all about.
The taxi made a circle on the plaza in front of an antiquated white building. Where were they? Hal asked. City Hall, replied the driver in a gruff tone. He must have been upset that he wouldn't be able to string Hal along any further.
They left the plaza, turned down a dark, narrow alley, and crossed a bridge. Hal noticed a sign—"Airport 6 km." So, an hour to travel six kilometers.
Across the bridge the taxi came to a stop. Finally. The driver got out and opened the trunk to retrieve Hal's suitcase.
Hal climbed out and saw, faintly lit by a streetlight, a forlorn side street. At the foot of the light pole the snow continued to accumulate.
"That will be eighty-five litas," said the driver after he had set down Hal's suitcase. "But let's say sixty, because I was a little lost back there."
Hal looked about in a daze.
"Don't get me wrong," said the driver. "I'm actually a professor. I only do this on the side—that's why I don't know the roads so well."
The part about not knowing the roads was presumably a bald-faced lie, but there seemed to be an element of truth to the claim that he was a professor: not many cab drivers could be expected to have such a good command of English.
"But this isn't Uzupis," said Hal in a restrained voice.
"No, this is the right place—no doubt about it," said the driver as he indicated a dilapidated three-story building. On the front of the building a small neon sign reading Hotel Uzupis blinked on and off.
Hal clapped a hand to his forehead in dismay. "I said Republic of Uzupis, not Hotel Uzupis!"
The driver became agitated; he was in a fix.
"Well, no matter," said Hal as he produced a hundred-litas note from his wallet and offered it to the driver. "It's dark already—I guess it'll be all right if I spend the night in this hotel and go the rest of the way tomorrow."
The driver relaxed. He reached into his pocket for change.
Hal made a dismissive gesture. "Forget it. Consider it a tip—nice job with that little game you played."
The driver was skeptical. But when he finally realized Hal was in earnest, he became ecstatic: "Oh, thank you, thank you! You are so generous, sir! A true gentleman, sir!" And then he bowed.
Hal was disgusted.
"I tell you what," said the driver. "If you wish to go to the Republic of Uzupis, then I will be your guide—I will take you there tomorrow. You see, I have no classes tomorrow morning." So saying, the driver extracted a business card and gave it to Hal. "My name is Jonas. May I ask yours, sir?"
"Aha! Mr. Hal, you are my true friend now." And with that Jonas climbed into his taxi and drove away.
Hal remained in the desolate street, gazing at his surroundings. The darkness and the impassive accumulation of snow made everything look the same; nothing distinctive caught his eye. Still, Hal remained where he was, looking about blankly. Finally he hefted his suitcase and pushed open the door to the Hotel Uzupis.CHAPTER 2
The People of Hotel Uzupis
Hotel Uzupis was an ordinary European inn consisting of a lounge on the ground floor and guest rooms on the two stories above.
The front door opened onto the dim lounge. Someone was singing, but Hal couldn't identify what kind of voice it was. A soprano? No, definitely not. Curious about the unusual timbre, Hal glanced about. A cloud of cigarette smoke hovered over a sea of heads—the lounge was full. Hal had encountered few people on his way here from the airport, and was taken aback by this sudden throng.
The voice was coming from a stage at the far end of the lounge, where a raw-boned man sang, accompanying himself on some sort of medieval instrument. In the middle of the lounge several couples danced slowly to the music.
The peculiar thing was, this place chock full of people was muted except for the music. At first glance Hal thought it was a recital. But then he saw that most of the people looked gloomy, were preoccupied with the dancers, and silently sipped their drinks and smoked their cigarettes—not at all a recital audience. Finally Hal spotted a vacant table and settled himself there.
Excerpted from The Republic Of Uzupis by Haïlji, Bruce, Ju-Chan Fulton. Copyright © 2009 Haïlji. Excerpted by permission of Dalkey Archive Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Jonas the Taxi Driver 9
Chapter 2 The People of Hotel Uzupis 17
Chapter 3 Chez Eigis 26
Chapter 4 Vladimir of the Silver Hair 37
Chapter 5 Nocturnal Encounters 46
Chapter 6 Tomas, Prime Minister of Uzupis 54
Chapter 7 For the Love of Vilma 65
Chapter 8 At Café Mano 75
Chapter 9 Jurgita's Husband 85
Chapter 10 Poets of a Colonized Land 98
Chapter 11 Marija, the Flower Girl 108
Chapter 12 The Swallows in the Drawers 117
Chapter 13 Jurgita of Adutiskis 126
Chapter 14 Down by the Vilnia River 138