In Search of a Forgotten Land: The Republic of Užupis by Haïlji
- onFebruary 16, 2015
- Vol.26 Winter 2014
- byCailin Neal
- The Republic of Užupis
Tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton 2014300pp.
When The Repulic of Užupis by Haïlji opens, Hal, a Korean traveling to Lithuania, is explaining the purpose of his trip to an immigration officer. He has come to bury his father’s ashes in his homeland—The Republic of Užupis, an independent state not far from Vilnius. However, whenever he states his destination, it draws blank faces and laughter from immigration control, his taxi driver, and some friendly Lithuanians he meets in a hotel bar. The place he speaks of does not exist.
But Hal persists.
In a number of proceeding scenes, Hal regains his confidence when he sees the Užupis flag or hears its national anthem or hears people speaking Užupis. Despite not being able to speak Užupis, he can clearly understand it, and hears it often around the city, including being spoken by the mayor in a funny scene where a Lithuanian falsely translates the mayor’s Užupis, which she cannot understand. Yet still, people deny the existence of this independent state.
It is Jurgita, a woman Hal meets on his first night in Vilnius, who confirms the existence of the Republic. In an intimate scene, Jurgita cooks him traditional Užupis soup, and tells him stories from her childhood: her lost love, memories of her dead father the practice of old traditions. When Hal asserts that he will find their fatherland, Jurgita says, “That’s exactly what my husband said. He promised he’d take me to Užupis. But he never came back.” Knowing the fate of so many Užupis men—killed by their own hand—Hal still decides to travel forth.
With the city blanketed in snow, he takes a trip out of Vilnius, where he meets his fate and an elderly woman with answers to some of his questions. Sliding into a chapter out of Kafka, the reader is ultimately warned by Hal’s sad fate.
The descriptions of the snow-covered Lithuania are breathtaking, and add to the sense that this is a land both familiar and not. The translation by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton is outstanding. This story lingers long after the pages are closed.
by Cailin Neal
Dalkey Archive Press