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Review: The Ballads of Kukutis, by Marcelijus Martinaitis

It is easy to delight in Kukutis, whose wooden leg apparently designates his craftiness and wisdom, as he elides the rules until contradictions fall and he slips effortlessly through the barriers, becoming, as his creator points out, the first to evade the soviet efforts to contain Lithuanian nationalism (in the widest sense) and show his ageless face to the world outside. But that face is resolutely that of a rural Lithuania which has survived the German and Soviet war machines by clinging to its traditional peasant ways. When Kukutis visits Vilnius his experience quickly crystallises the two phases of the simple country boy facing the city:

Packed in from all sides
Kukutis thinks happily to himself
what a pleasant thing
it is to ride a trolleybus.
You ride along and no one cares
why you are riding.
No one asks
if you've said too much

*

No one will notice
if one day
you didn't ride at all.
And no one will come running
to your home
demanding to know:
why weren't you riding
the trolleybus?

To describe these poems as ballads is not to say they are written in regular verse or have recourse to narrative structures punctuated by refrains, but they nonetheless penetrated the consciousness of the people of Lithuania to the extent that they were chanted by crowds demonstrating as the Soviet grip on the country was released. Kukutis is clearly of those characters who escape from their creator and belong to all.