Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Sun-Tzu’s Life in the Holy City of Vilnius by Ričardas Gavelis

It goes without saying that among the general company there was a dissected frog trumpeting the end of the world.

This week’s Translation Tuesday sees Elizabeth Novickas render Ričardas Gavelis’ hallucinogenic modernism at its most intense and challenging. In this short extract, we follow the stray dogs, rubbish-tip flies, and neighbourhood drunks of Vilnius as the everydayness of their actions is transformed into something altogether stranger. 

The most important musical happening in Vilnius—and therefore the Universe—is the brilliant concert of the flies over Karoliniškės’ garbage containers. It is considerably deeper and metaphysically purer than Tarasov’s famous fly-sound installation. It’s a true live concert brimming with improvisation; its sounds determine the movement of the stars, the smells of Vilnius’s streets, and Vilniutians’ sexual mores.

Those flies buzzing above the new gray containers are numberless, but only a complete idiot would say they’re identical, or more or less identical. If that was all they were, they certainly wouldn’t determine either the movement of the stars or Vilniutians’ sexual moods. Those flies are much more varied than humans: from the tiny Drosphila to the impressive horse shit fly. When Apples Petriukas went looking for the meaning of life in the garbage dumps, he counted one thousand seven hundred thirteen varieties of flies. I go up to Korals’ reeking garbage containers and simply wave to that surreal orchestra with my hand—I don’t even need a baton. The domain of the flies greets me with a majestic fortissimo, in which individual musical themes diverge only later: humming, whining, buzzing, as well as all the other fly sounds. But this is merely the beginning of the beginning—the buzzings will out-buzz one another; primary and secondary motifs will be born, as well as fly self-disclosures and leaps into infinity toward the Absolute of the flies. And on top of all of that, you need to add the smell! Only the concerto grosso of Vilnius’s flies synthesizes a flawless musical sound and an artistic smell. The reek of that concert is simply unmatched—almost as amazing as that of my attire.

The sounds and smells of that fly concert rule the city of Vilnius. Vilnius essentially is also a gray garbage container, beset with an enormous variety of whining and reeking human flies. That is this city’s incomparable beauty. Vilnius is a godly city, and God’s beauty is never sweet or glossy. God created Vilnius the way it is, and designated me as its only Sun-Tzu.

That morning I, as usual, savored Karoliniškės’ fly symphony, but I was slowly overtaken by an unpleasant premonition. Neither good nor bad premonitions ever deceive me, because I am Vilnius’s Sun-Tzu. I wouldn’t have won a single battle if intuition were to deceive me, and so far I’ve won them all. And that time I instantly understood that danger was hiding in the hatch for the drunkards’ fountain. That fountain is peculiar in that water never spurts out of it, but drunkards are always swarming around it. They take care of their drunkards’ business and guzzle beer, mash, or surrogate booze. They live there. It was empty that morning by the drunkards’ fountain; only a lone lame dog wandered about. Lone like a sad dream, like an alcoholic’s painful morning hallucination. He was all by himself, but he treacherously pretended he was wagging his tail for others, ingratiating himself in a friendly manner with a world that despised him. That pretense of his instantly attracted my attention. At that time I had already discovered one basic rule of the world: pretense means camouflage, and all pretenders inevitably have evil intentions.

It’s entirely irrelevant who is pretending in front of you: a human, a lame dog, or a withered plant. After the fall of the free dog republic of Karoliniškės, the dogs of Korals turned into liars, just like this wretched neighborhood itself. All of Karoliniškės’ dogs are quietly insane, and so unpredictably dangerous. They’re murderous dogs with poisonous teeth and eyeballs that hypnotize their victims-to-be. That lame morning hallucination was from that wretched tribe of pretenders, too.

I instantly named that dog Hephaestus; even from a distance he looked like a real blacksmith of hell. Imagine a nearly meter-high monster with prickly, coarse bristles and a crookedly healed right hind leg. Imagine that monster constantly sniffing the ground, wetting the bushes, and then scurrying around again in nervous zigzags; the broken leg didn’t allow him to run straight for even one tiny step. That dog of hell was obviously investigating enemy territory. He was a scout of the satanic powers, an advance combat soldier of the gray emptiness, or maybe even a saboteur.

That dog immediately reminded me of Minister Mureika; he was equally as huge, equally as scruffy—but even more lame. A spiritually lame cockle—I hope you understand what I want to say by that. Mureika used to scurry around enemy territory in the exact same way, sniffing everything and mercilessly urinating on everything. The whole world seemed like enemy territory to him, so in passing he would piss all over absolutely everything. Once Patris and I, after careful consideration, shoved him into a ring to box with an entire detachment of communists. We were delighted that the communists, without exception, were left covered in pee.

I didn’t doubt in the least that the lame morning dog of Korals was Mureika’s after-death reincarnation. I recognized him—it’s not that easy to hide from me. I just couldn’t understand what he was after in this dilapidated district. Minister Mureika always loved luxury; when driving through grim high-rise districts he would demonstratively hold his nose and screw up his face. Apparently everything there was already pissed on without his assistance. But that morning he stubbornly scurried around the bushes of the drunkards’ fountain and kept marking territory like a madman. He was preparing the ground for a dangerous landing party of hellish powers.

Even now that soul-crushing sight keeps appearing before my eyes. I expected a great deal, but all the same I wasn’t expecting that the emissaries of the gray emptiness would open a hatch straight into our exhausted world. Reality always exceeds the capabilities of even a painfully experienced person’s imagination. The lame hallucinatory dog of the morning finished examining and marking his territory. He froze like some scruffy disheveled statue; even his constantly wagging tail was still. Turned to stone, he sent secret signs to his co-conspirators. Korals’ murky air trembled and thickened, but people walked or stood about the drunkards’ fountain without suspecting or feeling anything. They missed probably the most important event of their lives. They neither smelled nor heard that event. I alone understood every last bit of it.

Unfortunately, it’s my fate to fully perceive things others cannot even see. It would be better if I didn’t have those mysterious abilities. This occurred to me at the time, too, as the stream of hideousness emerging from underground was most certainly not a pleasant sight. The lame dog Mureika clandestinely opened the cover of the dismal hole, letting the conspirators out. They climbed into the light of day straight out of the opening to the drunkards’ fountain—without trying to hurry or hide themselves. The appalling little monsters surged over the frozen landscape of Karoliniškės like ghastly little beetles: from afar they didn’t seem at all that big to me. To this day I cannot understand how, at a distance of several dozen steps, I could make out all the details—unless I’d say that for a short period a third eye had opened on my forehead.

My third eye saw quite a spectral sight. The procession of little monsters was led into this world by a legless World War II invalid on a cart. He came straight from Vilnius’s Old Town of ‘53 into gaping Karoliniškės and blinked sluggishly, searching with his eyes for his beloved runaway legs. He was the same height as the Hephaestus-Mureika dog. Except that the dog wasn’t rolling on a rattling bed; he limped along in front of the line, constantly turning back and with a nervous movement of the head inviting them all to conquer the world. Behind Minister Mureika the sad prostheses horrors of the Universe hobbled, stumped, and tottered. I particularly liked the reduced-size copy of Patris with a gigantic head tormented by hydrocephaly. The resurrected skulls from old Mejerovič’s painting lent a macabre mood: two larger ones of adults and one of a child. It seemed to me that even from a distance I could count every remaining tooth: the adults had fourteen and eleven, the child seven. The worst of it was that they were absolutely, perfectly alive, and there was no way they had come into the world to sow good. It goes without saying that among the general company there was a dissected frog trumpeting the end of the world. And the disgusting rebellious snails boiled in wine—they were nearly a meter in height, too. I was driven to complete disgust by a yellow leg prosthesis in the shape of a hyena constantly biting at its companions. The entire procession was accompanied by the ass-faced security agents surrounding them. Even I, Vilnius’s Sun-Tzu, couldn’t entirely understand whether they were guarding that band of freaks from running away, or just shielding them from possible attacks on their flanks.

However, I was perfectly well aware of something else: if all kinds of apocalyptic horrors were now starting to gather in Vilnius, the end of the world was not far off.


In a 1989 interview, Ričardas Gavelis (1950-2002), whose disturbing and notorious novel Vilniaus pokeris had just been published, claimed that “I’m not going to submerge myself in any more hells like that, my nerves can’t take it.” And although his next novel, Vilniaus džiazas, was quite possibly the most optimistic of his seven novels and five short story collections, he returned to the topic of good and evil again and again, culminating in his last work, Sun-Tzu gyvenimas šventame Vilniaus mieste, which is excerpted here. Vilnius, the city where Gavelis was born and buried, as always plays an outsized role.

Elizabeth Novickas was born in Chicago to parents who were displaced persons from Lithuania. Feeling rather displaced herself, she worked at several different jobs before Lithuania regained its freedom in 1991 and she was free to explore her heritage. Since obtaining a master’s degree in Lithuanian language and literature at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2006, she has been working as a literary translator. Her translation of Gavelis’s Sun-Tzu’s Life in the Holy City of Vilnius will be published by Pica Pica Press in May.


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