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Review: The Ballads of Kukutis, by Marcelijus Martinaitis

Marcelijus Martinaitis, a writer, poet, translator and tutor at Vilnius University, who retired in 2002, is a brave man who dared to satirise the sovietisation of occupied Lithuania in the years after the Second World War. He achieved this in his ballads by creating the figure of Kukutis.

Kukutis is a Samogitian (zemaitis), one of the inhabitants of Western Lithuania who are known for their distinctive dialect and an acerbic and sometimes robust sense of humour. In Lithuanian vernacular the word Kukutis can mean just that - a Samogitian. The word Kukutis echoes the call of the cuckoo and is also the name of a beautiful and rare bird - the hoopoe (upapa epops). Kukutis of the ballads has only one leg. His wooden leg could be regarded as a sign of his astuteness and also as a messenger's staff. He speaks to and for the people.

Kukutis is in fact an innocent, a naive eccentric oddity, but one who transcends the limitations of time and distance and can participate in the events of the past and in remote places. In fact this deliberate vagueness in defining the times and locations may have helped the ballads to pass the scrutiny of the censors and be published (to some amazement of the author) in Soviet Lithuania. The Lithuanian public, however, was not slow to grasp the hidden meaning, the ballads became very popular and the crowds were chanting them as the end of the USSR approached. No doubt the easy style of the work and the simple vocabulary increased their popularity. The adoption of inexact rhyming, too, is similar to its use in folksongs and primitive poetry.

People in Soviet Lithuania reading between the lines of the ballads could certainly find much more information and allusions to the shortcomings of the regime than today's Lithuanians or readers abroad. The introduction by the translator and the translator's notes at the end are, therefore, most useful and very welcome. The book gives the reader a very interesting glimpse of life in the not too distant past and the trials and tribulations of people in totalitarian states.

The translator Laima Vince is a Lithuanian-American scholar, writer, poetess and has translated quite a few anthologies and books of contemporary Lithuanian literature. The Ballads of Kukutis, her latest publication is a neatly printed book of 155 pages presenting the Lithuanian and English texts on adjacent pages for easy comparison. Both versions are a pleasure to read although the odd transatlantic English expression can occasionally be noted. The book would, however, have benefited from stricter editing and proof-reading. There are some misprints (spelling errors) in both languages and some inaccuracies. In the introduction, for instance, it says 'the Soviet army occupied Lithuania in 1941 and 1944'. The first occupation took place in the spring of 1940.

The word slektos is translated as Polish lords where (landed) gentry would be more apposite with no mention of nationality. The word kirvarpa (a wood- beetle) is translated as carpenter ant that does not exist in Lithuania. With reference to
Zecpospolita It should perhaps be mentioned that it was a Polish Commonwealth. Translation of the common mild swear-word rupuze (toad) -into Holy toad is an Americanism and would definitely sound odd to an European ear.

The translation is quite well done but with one serious slip-up, a mistranslation on page 126. The Lithuanian word rausti can mean to blush; to redden or to dig untidily; to burrow. The words differ in the present tense (rausta and rausia) but in the past tense, as used in the verse, the form rausdavo is again identical in both cases. Unfortunately the wrong meaning was chosen and the phrase chattering nonstop while digging up the potato rows became until the potato rows turned red.

On page 17 the word zuvedai, i.e. Normans, Vikings, Scandinavians, is translated as Swedes(before their time) and it would be too pedantic to quibble about this. Poetic licence, however, can lead to factual inaccuracies. For example on page 90 there is a mention of the pairing of scythes and rake handles during hay-making (sienapjute). The rakes were used to spread and turn the cut grass to speed up its drying. In the English text instead of hay- making the word harvest (javapjute) is used but, when harvesting grain (rye, wheat etc), there is no need for rakes, so this is incorrect.

Marcelijus Martinaitis can claim the honour of being the Lithuanian poet with the greatest number of his books translated into other languages. They were published in fifteen countries including, unsurprisingly, most of the states in the former Soviet zone of influence. The claim of the blurb on The Ballads of Kukutis that this book had become the catalyst for revolution in the Baltics though is surely an exaggeration and must be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless the ballads had certainly contributed to it, helped to keep up the spirit of an oppressed nation and can be recommended to readers interested in that eventful period of history.