‘The Republic of Užupis’ by Haïlji (Review)

This year has seen a fair bit of Korean literature reviewed on Tony’s Reading List, and the instigator for this was definitely the Library of Korean Literature project brought about by Dalkey Archive Press and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.  The number of K-Lit reviews has already passed twenty-five for the year (fairly impressive when you think that prior to 2014 I’d only read and reviewed one…), but today is a landmark day anyway.  You see, this post is my tenth review from the Dalkey series – and, luckily enough, it turns out to be on my favourite book from the series so far 🙂

*****
Haïlji’s The Republic of Užupis (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of the publisher and Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a wonderful addition to my burgeoning K-Lit library, a novel much more experimental and western-influenced than most of what I’ve read before.  The novel begins with an Asian man arriving in Lithuania, attempting to get past the rather tall guards at immigration.  When asked if he plans to stay long in the country, his reply is rather unusual – he intends to depart within a day or so, as soon as he has worked out how to get to his intended destination.

So, where is he off to?  Russia?  Poland?  Belarus?  No…  Hal, our inscrutable Oriental, is actually a native of a land which has just reclaimed its independence after decades under foreign control.  His goal is the Republic of Užupis, the land of his birth, the home of the language he understands but can no longer speak.  If only he could find someone who knows where his country is actually located…

The Republic of Užupis is a superb book, one-hundred-and-fifty pages of inventiveness, the story of a man trying to find a country which may not exist.  It’s full of a deliberately confusing series of events including encounters with strangers, beautiful women, tall men and lots of snow, geese and grandfather clocks (really).  Trust me, it all makes some kind of sense (to the author, at least).

In Vilnius, there is a real Užupis (a semi-official micro-state), a place which inspires jokes from the locals, and the book acknowledges the real-life situation:

“The people of this city call this particular area Užupis – 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 Užupis.  They even wrote a Declaration of Independence and established April Fool’s Day as their Independence Day.
pp.19/20 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014)

This mock republic, however, is not the place Hal is looking for:

“That’s interesting – a bogus Republic of Užupis.  But where I’m going is not a joke, it’s the actual Republic of Užupis.”  With that, Hal pulled the postcard from his pocket and displayed it.  “This was mailed from the actual Republic of Užupis.” (p.20)

Exiled for most of his life in the land of Han (a thinly-concealed Korea), where his father was an ambassador, all Hal has to guide him on his way is a suitcase with photos showing people and flags.  Oh, and memories of the haunting anthem…

On the search for his elusive homeland, he heads onto the streets of Vilnius and is thrown straight into a whirlwind of parties and chance encounters.  Just who are these 6′ 6” men he encounters (and seriously, what’s with the obsession with the grandfather clocks…)?  Eventually, he catches up with a woman he spotted during his first hours in Lithuania, the beautiful Jurgita, and hears about her involvement in the past with an Užupis man of Asian appearance.  With time running out, will this chance connection show him the way home?

The Republic of Užupis  is a short book, but it’s one which throws up a million questions.  Time loops around (this isn’t a book to follow the laws of time and space), and over the course of his constant encounters with his new friends, the reader begins to suspect that they might actually be old ones.  Everywhere Hal goes, he sees places he vaguely remembers, photos that look oddly familiar:

“In another photograph, taken in a study, people sat around a huge table engaged in conversation.  The walls were lined with bookshelves packed with ancient tomes in ornate bindings.  The walls to the right, as you looked at the photo, bore windows, the source of light for the scene.  Prominent in the photo was the marble sculpture set between the windows, a bust of a man whose agonized face was cupped in his hands.  The study was virtually identical to the room in which Hal now sat with Vladimir.  But the three men failed to notice this.” (p.38)

It’s almost as if he keeps walking into another time, his memory failing to remind him that he’s seen these things before…

The book is a superb look at the importance of home and the impossibility of reaching that different country, the past, and while Haïlji is a writer with his own style, a western reader would be hard pressed to read this novel without being reminded of Kafka.  There’s the snowy beginning, the aimless wandering through menacing streets, the large ramshackle houses, the cafés, the meandering corridors in government offices – all recounted in the writer’s own calm, casual voice.  The reader is never quite sure exactly what’s happening – they’re sure to enjoy it, nonetheless.

One of the keys to the novel is language.  The Republic of Užupis is set in Lithuania, but as Hal doesn’t know the language, much of the dialogue takes place in English (a story of our times…).  However, as the book progresses, there are more occasions when Hal suddenly hears Užupis being spoken.  He knows what’s being said, but, having lost the ability to communicate in the language, he finds himself in the frustrating position of being unable to make himself understood.  This miscommunication only adds to the difficulty of finally getting home…

All of the above makes for a clever, mind-bending book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys novels which require more than simple page-turning.  It’s superbly translated by the Fultons (which goes without saying), catching the slightly off-kilter tone and the unnatural conversations which often occur between people communicating in a third language.  The Republic of Užupis is a book I want to reread when I find a few spare hours, and it’s one I hope will get some decent recognition.  Just as is the case with No One Writes Back and Pavane for a Dead Princess, this is a book which deserves to rise above the status of merely one work in the Library collection.  Here’s hoping it finds the audience it deserves 🙂

*****
Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website 🙂

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5 thoughts on “‘The Republic of Užupis’ by Haïlji (Review)

  1. This sounds like a fascinating read! A great review, held me riveted right to the end and reminded me I've never read Kafka. Well done on reading so much K-Lit and having such a wide appreciation you are beginning to to find a preference. Imagine someone who has never ever read something in the English language and then reads one book. I feel like this with my attempt to read from more countries, it's such a small sample and hard to imagine that we gain much of an appreciation of the work, however you are making great progress, bonne continuation!

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  2. Claire – Thanks 🙂 I've enjoyed my reading this year, and it's been a project that gives more as it goes on. The more you read from a culture, the better your understanding of the writing and the way people behave. It's definitely worth having a go at immersion reading 😉

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