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Undinė Radzevičiūtė (b. 1967) graduated from the Vilnius Academy of Arts with a degree in art history, theory, and criticism. She spent 10 years working in various advertising agencies and then began her career as a writer. Radzevičiūtė's books Strekaza, Frankburgas, Baden Badeno nebus, 180, Žuvys ir drakonai, and Kraujas mėlynas are written in a unique style that separates them from the traditional Lithuanian literary canon.

Her critically acclaimed works were included in the annual most creative list of Lithuanian books on four occasions and twice in the annual best book lists; the book Žuvys ir drakonai received the prestigious European Union Prize for Literature and was selected by the Lithuanian PEN Center as one of the best books of the decade in 2015. Foreign publishers have recently taken a great interest in Radzevičiūtė's books—they are currently being translated into more than 10 European languages. In Austria, Radzevičiūtė's novel Kraujas mėlynas was selected as the best book of June 2019. In 2022 the author also received Lithuanian Government Prize for Arts and Culture

In early February 2020, the Lithuanian Writers' Union Publishing House released Grožio ir blogio biblioteka, a novel written by Radzevičiūtė, which transports its readers to Weimar-era Berlin. The Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore have chosen this novel as the most creative book of the year 2020.

Her new novel Minaretas ir 7 was published in 2021.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Alois Erhardt, Leinritt, Bamberg, 1880. Scanned from book: Peter Moser: Das Album des Alois Erhardt. Bamberg: Babenberg Verlag GmbH, 2002. ISBN 3-933469-07-4

Excerpt from the novel Minaret and Seven

Translated by Rimas Uzgiris

 

***

When I saw the pink ceiling of my studio for the first time, I didn’t like it.
But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to ruin the mood of the Assistant Director.
At that moment, I thought it would be better if the color had been… even, well, turquoise. Or blue.
I have been lying in bed for three weeks, staring at the ceiling.
I lie there and can’t take any pleasure in the blooming of the trees, the avian cries of love, or in the joyful shouts of the citizens of Bamburg.
I spend hour upon hour each day staring at the ceiling. Eventually, I start to find something or other of interest up there.
The ceiling, as I said, is decorated with sgraffito and figures in relief.
And as I understand, it was probably decorated by not one master craftsman, but two.
They sat, or stood, on scaffolding, back to back, each with his own wall.
Their ornamentations were supposed to be identical and symmetrical, but weren’t.
Not having anything to do, I compare the the work of the two craftsmen, counting the differences between them. Like in some educational picture for children.
After thirty, I lose track.
One craftsman drew his corners sharply, his semi-circles gracefully, his lines and proportions elegantly, and the ornaments themselves are wound together with great complexity. The second did everything as if he were clumsily copying the first without understanding what he was doing. His corners are obtuse, the spaces between the ornamental lines are either too big or too small, his proportions are inexact, and the worst thing is that the second one didn’t seem to know how to count. There, where there should have been seven, he had only five.
Two craftsmen stood or sat on scaffolding back to back doing everything the same, except one did it divinely, and the other, humanly.

***

Above my bed, between sgraffito ornamentation, four naked boys prance in relief.
Babies.
My neighbor Nadjim, from the other side of the wall, listens to Arabic dance music at night and doesn’t let me sleep. When I meet him in the corridor, he says the palace is full of naked boys, but he can’t write about them. For he is a man of Iraq.
And I am of Lithuania. I can write about naked boys. As much as I want.
Yes, the place is full of naked boys. They’re all over the ceilings, and on the stone fence outside which hides the topiary from the curious eyes of those strolling and shouting on the other side of the canal.

While slinking on my way to the topiary along the turquoise wall of the downstairs palace hall, I saw some naked female allegorical figures as well. Next to them were satyrs with brown, hairy goat legs and little, golden hooves.
I compare that erotic hall with my studio: joyful satyrs vs. four innocent white boys. I suppose my studio was once a children's’ room.
Villa C., as I mentioned before, was built by a person who had twelve children. But I don’t think they all lived in my room. They wouldn’t fit.
Each of the four naked white boys above my bed is holding something in his hand.
One symbolic attribute for each.
One boy holds a golden bowl. Containing the water of life?
The second – a horn of plenty with a cornucopia spilling out.
The third – a bird preparing to fly.
And the fourth – a torch.
Probably the children's’ beds had once been placed in the spot under the ceiling where the white boys hold symbolic objects, where my bed is, and where I now lie.
Each object held by the boys is a symbol and a gift meant for the inhabitants of the room.
The water of life – so that the little owners of the room would live a long time and not get sick. But then, why have I been lying here sick for the last three weeks?
The horn of plenty – so they would never lack anything and there would always be too much.
The bird about to fly from the boy’s hand is to remind the little inhabitants of the room that they have souls.
And the torch – so that in the darkness of life they would always find their way and not lose hope.
I looked and looked at those four boys until I suddenly… understood… I solved the puzzle that had been hanging for three weeks above my sickly, prone body: it’s a version of the Biblical allegory of the Three Kings!
Just that, in this room, the children get gifts not from Three Kings but from four little white boys.

Hey, stop shouting on the other side of the wall, you hero of the thousand and one nights!
My legs are shaking from your shouting!
That’s what I’m thinking, but I don’t bang on the wall.
I’ll have to write a delicate email to Nadjim about the noise he makes every day and night.

***

I’m lying in bed, looking at the pink ceiling, coughing and thinking about the Three Kings and the four naked boys. What else should I think about?
The construction workers are on break now. It’s finally quiet.
I’m lying there, lying there, looking, looking and while lying there I remember all kinds of stories.
Maybe because I’m lying down and was told those stories in a similar position.
No, not by men.
I’m talking about childhood.
As a child, my favorite story was this Scottish one.
In that story, a faery blacksmith is forging a sword for the hero. When it’s finished, the hero buries the sword to the hilt in the faery’s chest. You ask – why?
Well, in order to temper the sword with the blood of the faery smithy, thereby making the sword invincible.
What does it mean? That to achieve a grand and noble goal one can use any means available?
A very fitting story for little kids.

At that time, when I still didn’t know how to read, I loved stories with swords. I especially liked it when the hero went to bed with a beautiful maiden and put a sword between them. Back then, I imagined that he put the sword down on the flat side, but now, while lying here I have suddenly come to understand that he must have put it on its edge. So he would feel the cold steel with his thighs.
At this revelation I leap up out of bed. Like Archimedes.
But I shouldn’t get excited. I need to lie around and lie around some more and not get excited.
I lie and I lie, I look and I look at that pink ceiling, I cough and I cough, I think and I think about the Three Kings and the four naked boys.
Nadjim yells out on the other side of the wall like some mullah, and at that moment I remember the Minaret.
I had forgotten about it for so long!

I was born in Kedainiai, the very center of Lithuania. There was a Turkish minaret not far from our home. Not at all like the Arabic ones, or the ones from Central Asia – which are covered in blue-green glazed tiles. The Minaret by our house was all white. You can see such in Turkey and Crimea. It’s still white to this day, with a high, pointed roof of red tin like a gnome’s hat. Minarets have a penchant for leaning to one side, like the Tower of Pisa, but my childhood Minaret wasn’t tall, and on top of that, it was held up on the side by a small watchman’s house. That’s why it didn’t lean anywhere.
The builder had fixed two flat, white, marble slabs with Arabic writing to the white-plastered pediment. Those in the know said that those slabs had nothing to do with the Minaret or it’s construction. The Minaret was built by Count Tottleben after he returned from the Russian war with the Turks. Like a memorial.
He brought back the marble slabs as a trophy.
The count’s surname is made out of the words for Death and Life.
At the same time.
He was a German military engineer who worked for the Russians.
We had a large watercolor painting of the Minaret hanging on our wall at home.
The park and the Minaret were very important to my grandmother because she grew up in the park. She lived there in a Dutch-style house which was not far from the Minaret.
How did my grandmother end up in the park?
It’s a complicated story, and I would say, full of adventure.
My great-grandfather, who was living in what were then the duchies of Courland and Semigallia, occupied by the German Reich, married a nobleman’s widow in a fraudulent scheme, a Polish-Baltic German from Mitau (now Jelgava), and didn’t know what to do in 1919 after the revolution. He decided to run with a wagon-full of furniture and seven children to Lithuania, and occupied an empty manor near Kedainiai. Two weeks later they were kicked out… My great-grandmother was already sick with tuberculosis and died quickly from all those upheavels. My grandmother was the youngest of the family, pretty, with a good character, and my great-grandfather’s brother asked my great-grandfather to give her to him and his wife to raise.
They didn’t have any children of their own.
My great-grandfather’s brother was the one who lived in that Dutch-style house in Count Tottleben’s park.
Historians write that the park had several Balkan-style houses, and it is entirely possible that that house was Balkan-style, but everyone called it Dutch.
They would have continued to live in that Balkan or Dutch style house, but at the end of the Second World War it was bombed by the retreating Germans, along with Count Tottleben’s manor.
For that reason, my family lived close to the park, but not in the park itself.
The primary story of my childhood was the one about the Minaret.

***

My grandmother only told the story of the Minaret on Sunday mornings.
It was a morning story.
If my grandmother had told the story of the Minaret in the evening, then I might have become over-excited and not fallen asleep, because in listening to that story you had to do a lot of thinking.
The story was not about the past, as most stories are.
It was a story about the present and the future.
Grandmother would tell me that seven gnomes live in the Minaret. And I have to go to them and ask for gifts. Each one will give me a gift. Whatever I can think of and whatever I ask for. You just have to think of it.
I would lie there and lie there, and think with my eyes open and with my eyes closed, thinking – tormenting myself with thinking.
As far as I can remember – I always asked for binoculars.
Now, it seems to me I also wanted a torch, but Grandmother would try to convince me while lying there that maybe I need a book or a fountain pen as well? Maybe I didn’t really want that book or fountain pen, but in the end I would agree with her that maybe I do. Maybe I do.
To think of all seven gifts at once without Grandmother’s help was very difficult.
I was only five years old.
In reality, I never got those imagined gifts, except for books and fountain pens, but just assumed that that’s how it had to be.
So that’s the story.
Although… they did buy me binoculars, and even a sword. A replica of one from the early 20th century.

Later, I forgot completely about that story of the gnomes and Minaret. Even when I encountered other children’s stories I wouldn’t remember it.
Maybe because it seemed so make-believe? You know, no ancient times, no miracles, no dragons or three-headed hydras or four-toothed witches or talking dogs. Probably it was just made up by my grandmother.
For all those years, I never saw any magic or wisdom in it.

***

Some artists, bouncing from one residency to another, from one festival to another, all have one superstition that unites them across the world: that they ended up in that place for a reason.
That in all that wandering there is, even if it’s not apparent at first glance, real meaning.
In other words, a certain percentage of artists look for meanings everywhere and then succeed in finding them everywhere.
Once, at a festival in Tallinn, a crow landed on my head. This forced me to write a book about my grandmother’s grandmother’s family, because their coat-of-arms had three crows. But I consider that a coincidence.
Creative types can be divided into those who believe that they are led by an invisible hand, and those who believe that everything is controlled by chance. Though you can also meet hybrid varieties.
Then there are artists who just don’t think about anything.

I cough upwards towards that pink ceiling and towards those four naked boys with their symbolic gifts and I think about my seven gnomes and their gifts.
There are only two differences!
First: the four naked boys, or the Three Kings, brought their gifts of their own volition.
But in Grandmother’s story, I had to go to them and ask.
And I had to think of what to ask for.
But maybe that’s better?
The second difference: my gifts were not three or four, but seven!
Lying there and coughing, I had time to think about my whole life and count: have I already asked for all seven of my gifts? Have I gotten them all?
Yes, all of them.

I lie there in bed, looking at the ceiling: I’m already fifty-one, and I still haven’t written a thing.

 

 

 

 

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