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Review: The Ballads of Kukutis, by Marcelijus Martinaitis

These books have set me wondering whether anyone has written an account of poets' lives under Communism and other totalitarian twentieth century regimes. Perhaps a single book would generalise too much, not have the local particulars of the tricks poets played - or didn't, those who fell in with what the state bureaucracy expected.

The prankster, trickster, clown character Kukutis, dreamed up by Marcelijus Martinaitis, is surfacing now in English in this one book, having been published as and when,chanted as well, given crowd voice in Lithuania at rallies in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The book arrives here in English in 2011, the English is not handed around as samizdat, not chorused in the streets. Voice and context matter so much.

The book is dual-language and, even at my distance from the originals, I can 'hear voices', the author's and as taken up by others, and in print - the voice in print - so that the vigour of the English does seem to convey at least a clear echo.

It is of the essence of the trickster that he is playful and seems to be talking - whispering, acting - about something else, and that this something else has an innocence about it, a lack of central concern. No politics here! It worked, we are told; of the few books that got through the layers of official censorship, this one - or in its separate publications - did.

Here is the poem, Kukutis teaches a child how to pet a moose:

You must wait until winter
when there will be a lot of snow
and hungry moose
will roam the forests...

Then may I pet one?

Not yet. You must
spread out the hay,
set up a trap,
and wait -
patiently, for a long time.

Then may I pet one?

Not yet. You must
wait until the moose
is trapped...

Now may I pet it?

It's still dangerous.
A moose, after all, is a wild animal -
he will thrash about covered in his own blood.
You must push his head securely to the ground
and tie up his legs with ropes.
Once he is exhausted, once he sighs heavily,
then even a child can come near
and gently pet him...

Even the three dots have meaning, and the censors must have been cloth-brained not to sniff a trick.

In the current (June 15th, 2011) New York Review of Books, Tim Parks has an interesting essay on the current translation of novels, and I wonder if what he says might apply also to poems. His starting point is to suggest a first stage, in which novels in other languages are translated into current standard English; nothing especially new here, the most significant novels need re-translating into the current equivalent; but then he takes this further by saying that those original writers may have already performed a translation within their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things.

One might link this with the observation that many writers become international by way of having learned English, they might work with their book translator, they give readings at festivals, they are interviewed in English, may even have posts in (usually American?) universities.

Tim Parks writes of novelists - and we might say poets - seeking maximum communicability... that has fastened onto the world's present lingua franca as something that can be absorbed and built into other vernaculars so that they can continue to exist while becoming more easily translated into each other.