Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from Silva Rerum by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė

"There was a desperate need for faith so that all this activity would really have some meaning."

For the second Translation Tuesday in a row, we are proudly featuring an author from Lithuania—not just for their excellent writers, but because the Baltic countries are is this year’s Market Focus at this year’s London Book Fair.

This excerpt is by one of the country’s most lauded authors, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, from her four-part historical novel, Silva Rerum. The novel gives us a panoramic sweep of history from 1659 to 1795 in narrating the generations of a noble family, the Narwoyszes. In Lithuania, the series has been a literary sensation on the level of Knausgaard in Norway or Ferrante in Italy. This excerpt, a seriocomic episode about the death of a beloved cat, provides us with a taste of what Sabaliauskaitė’s talent has in store for the world. 

This showcase is made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.

On that hot July in the year of Our Lord 1659 Kazimierz and Urszula Narwoysz saw death for the first time. Even though death was all around them, the twins in the tenth year of their lives looked directly into its grey mutable face for the first time and that confrontation which lasted but a few moments, it could be said, decided their fate.

Everything had started several weeks before, when their beloved tabby Maurycy died, a well-fed creature, their companion from the cradle who, keeping his claws retracted, like a Stoic, suffered all their pranks with patience. Even their favourite prank where one of the twins would hold it tight, while the other pulled on its tail. Caught unawares, Maurycy obeyed nature and, forgetting the forgiveness of felines to small children, struggling fiercely, would scratch the one holding it. Most often it was Kazimierz who would feel the brunt, since it was Urszula who had the miraculous ability to put on an angelic face and ambush the cat by pulling on its tail; sometimes, amusing themselves, they would tie something that made a noise to its tail and wrap the unfortunate pet like a babe in swaddling clothes. The last time was when they took things too far: without anyone seeing them and exercising great caution they wrapped Maurycy up and changed their newborn sister lying in her cradle with him. The wet nurse, on seeing the cat wrapped up, began to scream in a voice not her own, while the twins fell around and shrieked with laughter, and later they themselves were screaming in voices not their own while being thrashed, this dangerous prank causing even Jan Maciej Narwoysz to lose his normally unshakeable patience.

One morning Maurycy did not respond with his usual purring to being called and did not slowly emerge from some unexpected corner with his tail raised. The twins, who had spent the better part of half of the day looking for Maurycy all over the estate mansion, finally found their tabby friend behind the kitchen building to where the village elder’s Little Jan or Jonelis, to give him his name in the local tongue, had called them. The three of them crouched down, examined him carefully and prodded Maurycy’s stiff body, locked in death, all hard and unrecognizable, with his mouth slightly agape and in which his sharp teeth were showing eerily. This was not the first time the twins had seen dead animals, not to mention Jonelis, well-known for his loops to catch birds and for all kinds of traps to ensnare small creatures, but it is one thing to see a dead mole or a waxwing which had flown into a window, but it was something else entirely to see dear Maurycy who used to curl up on their blanket to warm their feet, and to see this cold, rigid and unfriendly thing which had come from the world of dead things. From a completely foreign world made up of horrible smells and cold wax-like surfaces, to which belonged the horror-inducing withered finger of an unknown martyr from Jerusalem with a cracked yellow fingernail, kept in a beautiful gilded and glazed reliquary in the home chapel. Even though the acquired holy relic was cloaked in holiness and respect, as soon as Urszula and Kazimierz saw that yellowed and cracked fingernail, a wave of nausea would wrack their bodies, threatening to make them bring up their porridge from breakfast. Now Maurycy also belonged to that world of dead horrors. None of the three children wanted to take Maurycy into their arms so they had to find some suitable rag to wrap the dead cat’s body in. Finally, wrapping him in a remnant of a sack, taking turns, they carried the strangely heavy and rigid creature home, and went directly to the book room, knowing that was where they would find Jan Maciej Narwoysz at this time of day.

The maid, who was sweeping the corners of the antechamber, on seeing the dead cat, predictably began to admonish the children and drive them out, but the voice of their father who had heard the commotion spoke over hers. ‘Come in, you little fools,’ he lovingly invited the despondent trio in and temporarily placed the quill in the ink bottle which stood on the table covered with stacks of ledgers and letters. Listening to the account given by the children, interrupting one another, of the cat’s sad end and the circumstances surrounding his discovery, and stroking his short beard which was becoming white and in the middle of which ran a tuft of dark hair like a badger’s stripe, Jan Maciej Narwoysz paid no attention to a large part of the children’s chattering and looked at the consolation of the sunset of his life—the brown-eyed, full-cheeked prankster twins, healthy and firm like two ripe cherries. Because of their age, they were more suited to be his grandchildren rather than his children, and Jan Maciej Narwoysz would often think that it was only him coming late to fatherhood that had taught him the patience of the old in responding to the endless questions put him by the twins, and his own days that were numbered and dwindling allowed him to find time for the joys and disappointments of childish discoveries.

‘But why is he so hard now?’ persisted little Urszula, in whose face, framed by a bonnet, could be seen how fear and curiosity were battling within her. Jan Maciej Narwoysz explained that Maurycy was locked by the stiffness of death, which in science and in Latin is called rigor mortis. No, that stiffness of death locks without a key, Maurycy is stiff because the blood, which the heart circulates around the body, has stopped flowing through his veins, in the heart there are valves which by opening and closing push the flow of blood in one direction. This is a great scientific mystery, the traces of which were detected by wise men in the East and the existence of which was suspected by a certain Spaniard by the name of Michael Servetus but he was a reprobate heretic and ended his days on a bonfire, and one had to wait another hundred years until the English king’s physician William Harvey who had done research on all living creatures wrote a large treatise and showed how things really were. Jan Maciej Narwoysz himself still remembers how he travelled as a young man to Italy and heard learned men arguing in Padua if the heart could really push and make blood circulate like the bellows of a blacksmith and whether that was the secret of human motion, warmth and life. ‘So perhaps it might somehow be possible for Maurycy’s blood to flow again?’ said Jonelis interrupting Jan Maciej. The father of the twins had to explain that it was one thing to describe the law of life but to change it is something completely different: ‘Even Harvey himself could do nothing when the time came for James, the King of England, to die.’ Besides that, Maurycy’s feline soul had already left his body and nothing could make it return. Urszula was curious to know if life depended on the heart beating or on the fact that a soul resides in the body, while Kazimierz was interested in knowing if Maurycy’s soul had flown up to paradise. The father wriggled out of answering Urszula’s question which also frequently caused him disquiet but confirmed that, bearing in mind how the cat always patiently put up with being handled without pity, he was a real martyr and certainly deserving of paradise. Then the question occurred to Little Jan as to whether Maurycy would be going to the same paradise about which the rector spoke and where all good people end up or whether perhaps cats have their own separate paradise with sun bunnies, newly born hairless mice and featherless baby birds, with cream, the Samogitian sausage skilandis, and hard-boiled eggs, while Kazimierz was interested in knowing if perhaps it might be possible to dissect Maurycy, since he was after all already dead, and see how everything was arranged inside him, how those arteries and the heart looked and where those valves that open and close are.

Jan Maciej Narwoysz, himself consumed by scientific curiosity, not one wit less strong than the thirst for knowledge of a ten-year-old which admitted of no borders, would himself have gladly dissected the cat, but managed to stop himself in time after seeing Urszula’s eyes full of horror and the long face of the Tarwid family’s Jonelis in reaction to his friend Kazimierz’s words. And so, it was finally decided to show all due respect to the remains of the cat and to bury him at the edge of the herb garden by a large raspberry bush. Even though the twin’s mother had indulged them with an old ragged strip of velvet upholstery material for the shroud, only Jan Maciej out of all the adults in the household was invited to the cat’s funeral and it was he who was invited to give the funereal oration. Giving a short but impressive eulogy, in keeping with all the rules of rhetoric, in which he praised Maurycy’s abilities as a mouse catcher, his loyalty and good nature, Jan Maciej, later observing the children, standing by the small hole in the earth, around the wooden box with a sliding lid, in which rested Maurycy, giving their funereal orations one after the other, throwing earth on the hole and decorating it with the wild flowers they had collected, allowed himself some not entirely Christian thoughts that perhaps paradise was only a beautiful invention, intended to hide the ugly truth that the body was only a machine made up of meat, bones and blood, deteriorating and wearing out, as if it were the gears of a mill or something irreparably damaged as a result of some misfortune or illness like an expensive clock that has fallen out of someone’s hands onto a marble floor. Therefore this machine of meat and bones, comprehending the nature of its limits and endurance, is in desperate need of consolation and belief in the eternal soul, paradise and resurrection, so that it would have even the slightest reason to arise every morning and carry out a host of meaningless things that will change nothing, things like, for example, eating, lovemaking, giving birth, sowing and harvest, making war and politicking, felling trees and weaving velvet, writing scholarly treatises, building cities, constructing ships and sailing on them to distant lands . . . There was a desperate need for faith so that all this activity would really have some meaning, which would miraculously become clear when the hour of death comes to end it all, and the clever have thought up all manner of rituals and customs supposedly to convince people that the falling apart of this machine of meat and bones is not the end but on the contrary only the beginning of everything . . . A fairy tale, intended only for people to forget that they are all played out, like those children who were now burying the cat, and would not grieve so greatly for the meaninglessness of their own existence.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka

© Kristina Sabaliauskaitė and Romas Kinka

Kristina Sabaliauskaitė is currently the most widely read and internationally best-selling living Lithuanian fiction author with six number one bestsellers, massive print runs and such avid reader admiration that the Vilnius Tourism Information Center has introduced guided tours following the paths of her historical novels, Silva Rerum and its sequels Silva Rerum II and Silva Rerum III. She has an academic background (with a PhD in History of Art) but also honed her skills as a writer for a number of years working as a foreign correspondent in London.

Romas Kinka works as a forensic linguist and a literary translator and finds that both disciplines complement one another. In the first case, a person’s liberty may be at stake due to a mistake in translation, while in the second, an inadequate translation may undeservedly harm a writer’s reputation outside of his or her own country. Apart from a translated collection of Kristina Sabaliauskaitė’s short stories, Vilnius Wilno Vilna (2015), the prestigious annual anthology Best European Fiction has published excerpts he has translated from novels by Lithuanian writers for two years running (BEF 2016 and 2017).


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