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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Republic of Uzupis - Hailji (translated by Bruce & Ju-Chan Fulton)

Dalkey Archive have release fifteen works as part of the “Library of Korean Literature” the latest being “The Republic of Uzupis” by Haijli. Haijli graduated from Chung-Ang University with a degree in Creative Writing and left Korea at age 28 to study in France. He has published poetry in both English and French and has twelve published novels in Korea where he now works as a professor in Seoul, at the University of Donguk.

Our novel opens with our protagonist Hal (is this a reference to HAL, the sentient computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey”?) . arriving in Lithuania and explaining to the immigration officials that he is there to visit “The Republic of Uzupis”. To his amazement he is given 48 hours on his Visa and told he has to report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs if he wants to stay longer. He finds a taxi only to  be informed that the Republic of Uzupis cannot be found, he is eventually dropped at the Hotel Uzupis. A mysterious gathering accept Hal into their fold and he is informed that nobody knows how the place received its name, but that it is over 200 years old as Napoleon stopped there on his way to invade Russia.

Uzupis the mysterious Republic:

“The people of this city call this particular area Uzupis – it means ‘the other side of the river.’ It is the most run-down area in Vilnius. As a joke, the struggling artists who live here began calling it the Republic of Uzupis. They even wrote a Declaration of Independence and established April Fool’s Day as their Independence Day. Every year they celebrate it – the entire city knows about it – the Lithuanian president himself takes part in the festivities. So we could not help laughing when you said you were going to the ‘republic.’”

This is a mysterious work, one where characters and scenes overlap, as Hal delves further and further into his journey to find Uzupis. He simply wants to deliver his father’s ashes in the country of his birth, in a place he told does not exist, this exchange taking place when he meets a man called Shatunovsky who walks with a limp:

“It appears that each person has different memories from the next. My father remembered a man named Shatunovsky who walked with a limp, but you don’t remember my father. And I have clear memories of the Republic of Uzupis, but you and many others say you don’t. Perhaps we could say that people can be differentiated on the basis of their memories.”

Full of bizarre threads, in the opening pages Hal sees a farmer carrying a goose close to his chest, a man in the abandoned part of town carrying a grandfather clock on his back, and these two examples reoccur throughout.

During Hal’s visit to the lounge of his hotel, and later at a party, Hal meets the mysterious Vilma, who he later learns works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When Hal goes there she interprets for him, however Hal believes the Minister is speaking Uzupis and approving his marriage to Vilma, her translation (from Lithuanian) says that he has an extension to stay in the country. To add to the mystery Hal has been violently told to avoid Vilma, by a man who is in love with her.

Is this a Korean or Lithuanian novel? The back cover says “In this unique and melancholic work author Hailji, while appearing to shun Korea, is in fact examining the yearnings and dislocation of his contemporary Koreans, and posits the idea that freedom and nationhood themselves may be just a dream.”
The city was still overcast, and today it was shrouded as well, with barely thirty feet of visibility in any direction. Pedestrians emerged coughing from the fog to Hal’s left and coughed their way back into the fog on his right. The sodden chill that characterized the weather here must have made the local people susceptible to pneumonia. Before he realized it, Hal was coughing along with them.

Not just dreamlike but full of references to marginalised peoples, icons and displacement this is indeed a “melancholic” work. The women of Uzupis are all left-handed?

Left-handed are the poets of a colonized land.
Left-handed the eat
Left-handed they drink
Left-handed they love
Left-handed they masturbate.
But their watches, of course, they wear on the right.
The lovemaking of the left-handed poets lacks completion
Leaving all their daughters mute
Singing silent songs
Crying soundless tears.
But their watches, of course, they wear on the right.
The lovemaking of the mute daughters lacks completion
Leaving all of their husbands blind
Whispering into the night’s ears
Sleeping in the night’s bosom.
But their watches, of course, they wear on the right.
Left-handed are the poets of colonized lands everywhere
Left-handed they write their poems
Left-handed they nurture their mute daughters
Left-handed they greet their blind sons-in-law
But their watches, of course, they wear on the right.

A work that questions the true nature of patriotism. What is patriotism? Are our loyalties to a nation, just another place on the planet, simply a misguided trick of the brain? Have we been hoodwinked, by ourselves, into believing we have a homeland?

Hal sees the same photograph over and over (he even carries a copy), it is shown to him by different people, but each time he doesn’t realise he’s seen it before. The same occurs with marble busts, postcards. There is no reality to Hal’s time and place

“Memories are like fields at dusk: the ones in the distance are the first to disappear.”

As Hal says the above the memory by older version of Jurgita (another female character) starts to reappear and she can remember the English language.

What is language? Is it like patriotism?

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1 comment:

Tony Malone said...

This'll probably be the next one I try - lots of good things said about it from all corners :)