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Valdas Papievis (born in 1962 in Anykščiai) is a prose writer and translator. In 1985 he graduated from Vilnius University in Lithuanian literature, and worked at Vilnius University in the Rector’s Office from 1985 until 1990. In 1990-1992 he was an adviser for Darius Kuolys, the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania at the time. From 1988 to 1990 he, together with others, was publishing a notable cultural magazine, “Sietynas,” independent from Soviet censorship. He also worked at Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty until 2004. Papievis collaborates with Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT). He has been living in Paris since 1992.

Papievis is the author of eight prose books. He debuted in 1989 with the novel “Ruduo provincijoje” (Autumn in the provinces). Among his many prizes, his novel “Eiti” (To go) was awarded a prize as the most creative book of the year in 2011. His novel “Odilė, arba oro uostų vienatvė” (Odile, or the solitude of airports) was nominated for Book of the year and was selected as the most creative books of the year in 2015. In 2016 he received the prestigious National Award for Culture and Arts in Lithuania. Two of his translated novels have been published, both in 2020: “Eiti”, renamed “Un morceau de ciel sur terre,” translated by Caroline Paliulis, appeared in French by Editions Le Soupirail, and in German his novel, “Odile oder die Einsamkeit der Flughäfen,” translated by Markus Roduner, was published by KLAK Verlag. His short story, “Echo, or the Sieve of Time,” translated by Violeta Kelertas into English, appeared in The Kenyon Review, July/August in 2019.  Valdas Papievis has continued the story in Lithuanian, turning it into a novel, published as “Ėko” in 2021 by the Vilnius publisher, Odilė. It is being translated into English by the same translator.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Eugène Atget, Pond and statues in St. Cloud, a suburb of Paris, France, 1898. Public domain, Library of Congress

Translated by Violeta Kelertas

 

ECHO

(an excerpt) 

 

 ...That August I would go out into the city with no expectations at all. I roamed around it as though I were saying farewell for all time. In the evenings you no longer had to hunt for a space on the lower banks of the Seine; after the earlier throngs during the summer holidays the people scattered here and there seemed kilometers apart. I felt as if I had wandered out to some wild beaches where you meet only a passerby or two, whom, if you greet them at all, you greet only with your eyes. I felt the ache of the solitude of the sea, a sea unable to defend itself from people and floating ships, but one indifferent to people and ships, closed off inside itself. I no longer heard any voices, nor did I hear the sounds of the city, I only heard the plane trees rustling as the gusts of wind made them dance; the rippling Seine repeated the rhythm of their dance. At times the waves surged when the Bateaux Mouches went by, but they were scarcer; every day there were fewer tourists on them—the joyful cries coming from the decks of the boats only served to cut the veil of dreariness shrouding the city, the same way seagulls slice the sky above the sea, announcing the power and eternity of nature.

And indeed, the more the people in the city dwindled, the more it seemed that the city was returning to nature, or perhaps more precisely, nature was returning to it. Listening to the plane trees soughing, watching the waters of the Seine ruffling, I would easily surrender to the distractions of my imagination: in my eyes the vines were already spreading, twining, clinging to the walls of the buildings, they were ruining them bit by bit, grass was working its way around the sidewalk pavers and slowly covering them, and the ironwork balconies, the gates of the overgrown parks with their lonely ponds, and the railroad tracks leading to other cities were rusting. My eyes closed, I envisioned the roof tiles, beaten by rain and sleet, warping, shifting from their settings and falling to earth, antennas swaying and breaking, bay windows, capitals, and pediments crumbling, the columns leaning and collapsing. Lying stretched out on the pavement stones, I heard the winds howling through the broken windows of apartments, in the elevator shafts, in the métro tunnels and platforms, I shuddered from the sounds of cracking and breaking wood—ceiling beams and doors falling from their hinges. I noticed smells. No, not smells, it was just one smell, that of rotting leaves and stagnant water, an open quagmire attracting suicides, perhaps the smell of the Marie de Medici fountain starting to stagnate. The Luxembourg Gardens had begun to go wild.

I saw the city being abandoned by people, moribund and dying, as if tribes of nomads had sped by.

I didn’t believe what I saw, I doubted my vision, my hearing and sense of smell, I told myself that these were just the spells of my imagination, that this could not be happening, but remembering my history lessons about the collapse of civilizations, I again hesitated: hadn’t they all been certain they had been created for eternity? Just as most of us assume we are unique and unrepeatable and wouldn’t want to to find out otherwise. Or if ruination was in fact unavoidable, at least we would want to choose its time and place.

It seemed that life, like the sea receding from its former shore during an ebb tide, was gradually withdrawing from us, leaving only random signs of a vanishing civilization.

I saw how every day, inch by inch, patch by patch, nature was taking the city back from man. Wandering around it, I would sometimes think that it must hurt, just as it hurts a dying man tormented by illnesses, but when we see with what an unemotional face the man surrenders to his fate, it looked like nothing was really hurting him, that he regretted nothing, that now he wanted only one thing—for everything to end quickly. But what do we really know about that? Do we know what a person experiences when the doctors claim that his consciousness is extinguished, and he no longer feels anything? Can we penetrate the senses and feelings of a collapsing city or of the rock from which it is built?

The city collapsed gradually but unavoidably: the dividing line when it could have been saved had already passed. There were fewer and fewer people, as those who had left it weren’t returning, and others also retreated. August of that year grew longer, or perhaps the dying city slowed down time, entangling it in its decline? I repeated to myself that this can’t be, that concrete does not fracture in the course of a few days, that groundwater doesn’t wash away foundations so quickly, that gardens don’t turn into wilderness in a matter of weeks or months, but, glancing at the lower banks of the river turning into swamps and at the disintegrating pilings of the bridges, I’d start pondering: perhaps, like a clairvoyant, this August had taken possession of the Augusts of the next years, the next decades, the next centuries for itself, and that which was supposed to be accomplished after many centuries is being fulfilled in accelerated time now? After all, they say the passage of time is only a sensation; sometimes it passes more quickly, at other times more slowly. Perhaps it had passed me by? I don’t know.

And as I wandered lost in this dying, decaying city, the further I went the more the idea took hold of me that in fact I had never known anything. From my schooling I remembered mathematical equations, some chemistry formulas, the most important laws of physics; associating with people, reading books, attending exhibits, listening to music, I thought I was acquiring what we call spiritual experiences that enrich our everyday life, but on the days when everything around me was crumbling and disintegrating, I looked around with the eyes of a blind man: why were there such equations, why such formulas, and such laws—why is everything that is born dooming us to death? And everything that is created to neglect and annihilation? Where did it come from, who thought it all up? And sometimes spending the night in ever-different abandoned apartments with broken windows, I would wake from sleep and think: these apartments with broken windows, with things of no use to anyone anymore—these are our lives; sometimes they become boring even to ourselves, until in the end they are submerged in total oblivion.

I remember one very early morning, when, waking up abruptly in one of those homes of temporary lodging and being certain I wouldn’t go back to sleep, I started meandering around the apartment—it was huge; I wouldn’t even call it an apartment, I should say that that night I happened upon an aristocratic palace with endless rooms extending into ever more rooms. I was followed by Echo, I don’t know myself why I baptized him with that name—as soon as I laid eyes on him the name Echo came into my head. This dog was sitting by the door; as soon as I broke it down, he rushed over to me, and I jumped back from him. But Echo was friendly, he appeared to have been waiting for me.
For me?
Most likely he was waiting for just anybody: he needed someone human.

But where did this anxiety come from? Not the the big one, encircling the city with a ragged shawl, being extinguished gradually; it seemed as if it would totally die out—not the crumbling and its increasing speed that we had already gotten resigned to, we couldn’t change anything – but something entirely different, it appeared, stinging you from your very fingernails for no reason, sometimes it would abate, afterwards it would grip you even more painfully. Looking at Echo’s eyes, at times I would ask perhaps him, perhaps myself, whether the anxiety, piercing me from inside, wasn’t the price for what I hadn’t done or what I was afraid of doing? Just so I would bring everything up from the dregs.

Like sandpaper that anxiety scrapes my skin, the way a light breeze on an early summer morning ruffles the silvering leaves of grass, catching at the dawning day’s light. Without regard to the season, nor what the weather was like, in those days it often seemed to me that the day, having gone to sleep yesterday would never again get up—the way it might appear to a child who didn’t want to open his eyes and go to school. And what were those daily lessons for anyway, if the blackboard, studded with white numbers and letters, would never teach that which was most important? But is it easy to confess that you’re an eternal second grader? And on top of that to be stubbornly determined that you will never yield to any formulas?

Echo, I knew that you were both the blackboard and the chalk, crumbling between my fingers. As if you were the sore and the guide to my knowledge, you raised my glance to where the grains of the period of chalk sprinkled. From my school days all I remembered was that time, counting millions of years, at its end the dinosaurs became extinct, while at its beginning flowers bloomed. And the continents distanced from each other like right now, dispersed by the wind, the clouds above our heads separate from each other. But looking around it appears that it’s not only the clouds, but everything is receding from us. Or we are—from this city, and from each other, and from ourselves. Like boats leaving harbors.

I play with words, sometimes words capture me, sometimes they deceive me; it happens that words are the last defense. Hugging you with both arms, sometimes snuggling up to you, sometimes  pulling away, I talk to you, I think you hear me and understand, other times—that the words crash into the abyss of your pupils from which no echo returns.
And sometimes it seems that even without words you know everything.

As the city disintegrated, time, too, grew more shallow and flat. Raising white flags, the mornings dawned like a duty to suffer a day without adventures, without discoveries, the hours of those days were long and dreary, but when it started to get dark, the feeling grew that one more day  was ending without having managed to begin. A bit like our lives—at first they are long, suddenly they are near their end.
August, then September.

II

Now I tell myself that I shouldn’t have approached you. And that the pity I felt on seeing you probably was a mistake. If I had passed by, more than likely it would have been better for both of us.
That day, when I woke up after an overcast, foggy week it seemed that morning would never break, suddenly the sun flared, even if it was deceptively promising that summer was returning.

And when unexpectedly intoxicated by the bright sky turning toward us, we scudded down rue de  Rivoli, straight like an arrow, while in the little mirrors of your bicycle Paris collapsed in sparks of sun.
Hugging you, sometimes glancing at Echo scampering at our heels, I no longer felt any regret for the clogged Hôtel de Ville fountains, or the Goddess of Victory’s drooping arms with her laurel wreath in Châtelet square, or the deserted Louvre, going to ruin more and more. Perhaps you have to expect nothing more for something to happen? And lose everything to feel completely free?

To feel exactly as free as Odile felt during the war, when she pedaled her bicycle down the streets of German-occupied Paris, also almost empty, while the city’s neighborhoods flew backward as if saying good-bye to her for all time. I’m not making it up, she herself told me about it. Or the way every night Nathalie created new homes for herself by the Seine, for her and Jean, the waif she accidentally came across. Or like that nameless, middle-aged man, who once upon a time wandered around Provence; in his water colors people’s faces and feelings faded like the colors of the landscape as the day ends. What was he afraid of? Or maybe he was only anxious? But then too—why?

When we rode into La Place de Concorde and you began to count the circles, memories started to spin like in a carousel—you counted those circles, even though you knew that numbers already meant nothing. And among those memories—real, dreamed, invented – no boundaries remained, it seemed to me that like a spinning top you want to release yourself from time past. Having devotedly sped at our heels, Echo finally came to a stop—no matter how much we circled, we returned to the same spot in any case.

And how could I, who rely only on my feelings, have called the feeling I experienced when I saw you, a mistake? And in any case can you call a feeling a mistake? And why did I identify it as pity? Maybe it was because I had that feeling scarcely having caught sight of you, pumping up your bicycle tire? But after all it wasn’t from pity that I went up to you. I hope you also felt this way. That day in the middle of October, when summer having unexpectedly returned for a brief moment, every day the lowering sunlight filtered the brown-edged chestnut tree leaves, while their withering green was so translucent that the sky’s infinitude broke into our eyes through them, to call that feeling pity wasn’t a mistake, it was just sheer foolishness.

“Get on, we’re off!” And there was no way you’d want me to do the pedaling.

Echo waited for us faithfully—where else were we going to come to a stop, if it wasn’t by him.

Getting off your bike, you petted him—both of you needed this. Maybe I needed it more. And I stroked him, too. As our glances crossed I noticed that in his eyes the square with the women’s sculptures, symbolizing the largest cities of France, was still turning in backward acceleration, even if it was slowing down—around the obelisk laced with hieroglyphs that in olden times Egypt had made a gift of  to France. But is this important? In that instant only one thing was of much greater concern to me, and that was the single hieroglyph of Echo’s glance.

In that instant, when the square stopped turning in Echo’s eyes, and between us a three-vaulted silence fell: Echo, me and ?..

“Emilie,” you said, “but everyone calls me Emi.”

“Let’s go.”

The silence of time falling between people is often oppressive, but on the day of our meeting, when we climbed down to the lower banks, and we stepped along the buckled cobblestones, I was not in a mood to talk, I felt you weren’t either. Maybe by some unspoken agreement we extended the time, when we knew nothing about each other? Together we were pushing away from us the inevitably approaching mundane life, which could destroy everything. It was both sad and joyful for me to walk with you: the silence that afternoon appeared to be stagnant for ages like the stream of the Seine; it emanated a romantic vision. Just think: a random meeting, a bicycle, silence, stepping along the Seine’s banks, however, at that point I had no desire to treat it ironically. The greatest irony was the surrounding action. And who knows why it struck me that the silence was a wordless letter, written to one another. Although I had no clue whether when we ascended from the lower banks to one of the upper ones, you wouldn’t take over the bicycle I was pushing, and wouldn’t say good-bye as if nothing had happened. And I myself couldn’t vouch for anything either: maybe I would say to myself that this was a one-day game, whose haphazard beginning marked nothing at all.

When we laid down the bicycle, and sat on the cobblestones and focused our eyes on the Seine’s stream, for some reason it came to me that that letter of silence I was writing to you was like a letter being written by a soldier from the front to his girl, and that your silence was an answer to him.

Without knowing, if they would ever meet again. Sometimes I imagine that cities perpetuate people, and people extend them with their lives. If it really is this way, crumbling stucco, a splitting tree, rusting metal were a double loss. The loss of a protracted and silent war, having taken place and still going on, with no one sketching the lines of the front.

Finally I dared to touch your hand, you turned to me, and snuggled up to me. And I, whose only home now were these banks of the Seine —after all, I had taken leave of my garret for all time—I began to talk about my ostensible homes—the apartments I had broken into. I started with the very large ones, where Echo had waited for me by the threshold. How, when looking over the Louis the XVI style furniture, drawing back the velvet drapes—beyond them stretched a view to the Luxembourg Gardens, growing ever more lush without the touch of a human hand—I felt like a servant whose master was forced to hurriedly bid farewell to luxury, leaving the obligation to his servant to lock the secrétaires  and the doors to the rooms. Only I had no keys, nor anyone to lock them for, or to start to feel like the master and settle into these properties.

I smiled.

“Continue,” you said, “I like the way you create.”

And I began talking about the other dwellings, that weren’t so luxurious, some of the ones we happened on were modest or even quite poor. Abodes, in which at first alone, later with Echo, I spent the nights. Yes, they were just lodgings, I never stayed in any of them for long—even though houses are built, so people would live in them, I couldn’t have made myself at home in those dwellings. In order to settle in them it would have been necessary to remove all the furniture and ramshackle things, and throw them all away. And bring in my own. Only I no longer had anything that would have been mine.

I told you about the apartments, large ones and small ones, left with unmade beds, sinks full of dishes, clothes scattered where they fell and about unusually tidy ones, the way people before leaving on a long journey sometimes take care of everything or have it taken care of, with the expectation that while they were away, neither dust, or the oppressive air of closed off rooms will overcome this order, and they will find everything the way they left it. I spoke of dwellings belonging to newly marrieds, families with many children, singles,widowers, rich and poor, all kinds of people—young and old, convinced that they will achieve what they want, and those expecting nothing more out of this life, selfish ones and open-hearted ones, some angry at the entire world, and others living with the idea that this world is the best of all possible worlds, I can list them into infinity. I said to you, just as you won’t find people with the same exact face, so our lives, too, though most of them are similar, yet they will differ in hues and tones; I always thought—when I start to expand, I can’t stop anymore—that a room or the rooms in which we live, are really mirrors of our inner lives, and when you see so many mirrors, breaking at the same moment, how can you settle down in a place where there’s nothing more, only the shards of the lives of others?

“Stop here,” she said, pressing on my wrist very firmly.

“Don’t pay any attention,” I replied, “ Sometimes I like to chatter nonsense.”

“You talked to me about many apartments, but differently from you, I will never set foot into this kind of dwelling even for one night.” And she let go of my wrist.

And suddenly les feuilles mortes started swirling around us. Some rose upwards in whirls, others flew away—in yellow, in red, in the colors of the summer ending, set alight so brightly probably for the last time by the flash of sun. After a brief life they danced a dance, already their dying one—the man, who had been blowing them into a pile in order to shove them into bins, looked very preoccupied as if he were carrying out his life’s most important mission.

“Monsieur,” I asked him, “Why are you doing this, can’t you see that the cobblestones are all twisted by rickets, and anyway all around...”

Before turning around and going off, he answered in a listless voice: “That’s the way my job is. Haven’t you read Will and Representation?”

You probably remember how right after that we got on the bicycle—this time you let me steer. And it was no longer houses that flew backward past my eyes—in my eyes turned leaves, blown by the artificial wind. That day in Paris wasn’t windy, flown at first by the artificial wind, then by the one we imagined, they still danced the last dance for the life around us. Pedaling with all  my might, making the spokes crumble the streets and houses, I wished this dance would never end, because I felt your breasts, nestling up to my back, and your arms hugging me. Imaginary winds can fly you far. When I turned around and said this to you, you shouted out loud, laughing: I knew right away that you’re a poet. I also laughed boisterously and started to pedal even harder.

I don’t remember anything more of what I talked about partly to myself, my eyes glued to the street, nor turning around, what I said to you. Only I still hear your voice, whispering to me where to turn the steering wheel. I liked riding into the unknown—I obeyed your will. Maybe just out of curiosity as to what more we can find in this collapsing city.

“We’re here,” you said, and I pushed down the footbrake; the bicycle was falling apart, the handbrake didn’t work anymore.

My ears buzzed from the silence, the same strange way the surf of the sea rings, when you lie on your back and surrender to the waves. Going from hall to hall, the doors separating them for centuries opened in front of me on their own, while the light, sensing motion, turned on by itself. As in the city, here everything was splintering and falling: the walls grew moldy and cracked, the marble tiles under my feet fractured, but the pictures, sculptures and mosaics hadn’t been touched by the destruction, or it hadn’t wanted to touch them,  or its solidity frightened off its fingers at once.  It came back to me that once long ago I had wanted to get a job there as a night watchman, but there were too many contenders, I didn’t succeed, while that night I went without any guards, here I was utterly alone. I climbed and descended stairs, almost running I dashed down corridors, I crossed enormous halls almost without looking at them—I needed only the one picture. The picture, which I remembered from when you stopped me and said: Here. Echo was panting with his tongue out. Jumping off the bicycle, I hugged him. He licked my hand. The bellows of his lungs were collapsing  just like this city was collapsing, this aroused pity in me for the entire world. I won’t deny it, I am emotional, sometimes too much so, what can you do with your inborn nature?

Maybe it really was that way, maybe I imagine it only now: it took some time before I found that little picture, even though I knew where it was located. It felt as if I was flying along a sea that echoed time past. Pictures changed other pictures, sculptures one another: now it’s Classical time, now—still Egypt, suddenly already it’s the Baroque, the Middle Ages, and then the era of the Renaissance: the night extends epochs and countries into a labyrinth, weaving into the longest of corridors, at the end of this labyrinth six of Bruegel’s poor creatures awaited me. Although in reality they weren’t waiting for anything: with their wooden canes they were frozen in their poses for the ages, these cripples had already solved the equation of the time period—what was I to them? Although I did feel like one of them.

And at that point came a glance stabbing my back. The same one, which many years before I had felt penetrating me, when in the Curonian Spit I had I fled along the seashore like an injured seagull, helplessly clawing at the sand with its skinny legs and completely unable to take off for the sky, finally I’d stopped. Back then I also imagined that I was running over the ruins of fallen civilizations, covered over by sand: sundials, temples, windmills, fields that had been worked once upon a time, but now abandoned. And that I was all alone with the sea and the sky.

I turned around. And having turned around, I caught sight of the Commandant from the sand dune, the same one as in times long ago had pierced me in secret in exactly the same way. His face was faceless, distant and without qualities. I didn’t say anything to that man, he too said nothing to me – what can faceless people, crossing gazes from the distances of space and time, say to one another?

And unaccompanied by any glance, very slowly I took the route back, dragged myself along corridors, and descended stairs, without looking around at anything, I crept through the halls, the pictures and sculptures no longer concerned me.  I wanted only one thing—to get to the river as quickly as possible. But I couldn’t hurry: after so many days, months and years spent on the banks of the Seine, I took into account that the water was fragile and brittle, so that some careless movement could frighten the river.

But scarcely having sat down on the cobblestones, I was enveloped by the vault of peace as if I had found myself in a church: no one would frighten the river, no one would upset it. Majestic and modest in its quiet essence, it streamed as it had streamed just now, as it will stream when we aren’t here. The cities and the people past which it flowed, it seemed, did not concern it—absorbing everything and at the same time forgetting everything, it floated us to the seas, spilling into the oceans, where from all that we love, what we hate, for which we grieve, rejoice, and get angry, all that will remain will be the eternally repeating surf.

When toward morning I returned to the campsite, you asked me not to do this ever again. Echo had howled at the sky all night, you didn’t know how to calm him, nor what to say to those who asked you to subdue him. I didn’t know what to say to your Anne, to Elisabeth, or Do, or Melanie, or to Nathalie... Nor the others.

“Don’t do that,” you begged, “or next time take both of us along.”

And as on the day of our meeting you added: ”I like the way you create.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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