LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 53, No 4 - Winter 2007
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
A Translator’s Reflections on Kazys Boruta’s Baltaragio malūnas (Whitehorn’s Windmill)
E. Novickas is a freelance translator and editor who obtained a master’s degree in Lithuanian language and literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2006.
[See also an excerpt of Whitehorn's Windmill]
Two men examining the same question proceed commonly like the physician and gardener in selecting herbs, or the farmer and hero looking on the plain; they bring minds impressed with different notions, and direct their inquiries to different ends; they form, therefore, contrary conclusions, and each wonders at the other’s absurdity.
Samuel Johnson, The Adventurer No. 107.
On the surface, Kazys Boruta’s most famous work would appear to be a simple throwback to the literature of an earlier time, thematically, stylistically, and structurally. Nyka-Niliūnas described this work as “a bygone, or maybe even a long bygone, phenomenon of literature.”1 Similarly, a friend asked why I was interested in translating the work – didn’t I think it a bit old-fashioned?
This might seem to be the case given a superficial reading, but on a closer look, the novel’s peculiar sense of time and place (or lack of it) actually tells us a great deal about both the times in which this book was written – times being used here in its literal sense, since the book was published in two different versions – as well as the effects those times and historical circumstances had upon the people of that place.
On the one hand, the story is very “European” in its outlook, building on European literary traditions of the fairy tale. At the same time, it is curiously different from mainstream European literature, and this difference isn’t made up merely of the uniquely Lithuanian courting rituals and folklore traditions that are so skillfully interwoven within the text. If every good writer’s job is to capture the spirit of his time and place, then I believe it could be argued that with this book (or these books), cast in a make-believe time and place, Boruta has done exactly that; and that the place this work occupies in the canon of Lithuanian literature, and its continuing popularity, is fully justified. The process of examining the uniquely Lithuanian aspects of this work, as well as its universal charms, will clarify why it seems to me that the translation of such a unique piece of art into English is long overdue.
Spiritual Aspects of Whitehorn’s Windmill
The sense of spirituality that permeates this work goes back to Lithuania’s pagan roots, roots that were overlaid with an occasionally over-zealous Catholicism not so very long ago. The pagan imagery is deeply embedded in this work: it is completely fitting within this cosmology that Whitehorn should turn into a rock, that horses speak, that a devil is Whitehorn’s nearest neighbor, and that Anupras Hearall, the prototypical wise old man or raganius of Lithuanian pagan cosmology, should own a magic tobacco horn and be able to understand the language of animals. Even Perkūnas, the ancient pagan god of thunder, puts in an appearance. At one point, Anupras expresses a particular oneness with the universe: “I’m old, and wherever I look, everything catches my eye, everything gladdens my heart, even that rock by the side of the road” (105).2 Whitehorn, when warned by his neighbor Blackpool that he should put up a lightning rod on his mill, protests that it’s not needed. Boruta explains: “... lightning was no enemy to him, but one of his own, like all of nature.” (127)
Boruta was first and foremost a poet, and in this work we see him put this sense of identification with nature to good use as a poetic device. From the “wings” of the mill (a more technical English translation would have rendered sparnas as vanes) that variously express themselves by raising themselves up “as if intending to rise up and fly from joy or set to dancing a bit with all the merrymakers” (35) or “upheld like arms awaiting help,” (172) to the surrounding forest where “in the glow of sunset the snowy caps of the pines around the lake smoldered like funeral candles” (43) as Marcela’s coffin is carried to the village cemetery, nature is used to mirror the human condition. This, of course, has been a tradition in Lithuanian literature since the days of the much-revered writer Žemaitė, whose portrait now appears on the Republic of Lithuania’s one-litas note, and certainly isn’t unique to Lithuanian literature. But it takes on added significance when it is placed within the context of paganism.
The overlay of Catholicism plays its part in the novel as well. Boruta was hardly kind to organized religion in his portrayal of the pastor Boniface Bobbin as a lazy buffoon, whose card games seem to take precedence over all other concerns except sleep, or in his portrayal of the davatkos (a word that, significantly, has no equivalent in the English language and could only be translated as “sanctimonious old biddies”), who constantly bicker and strive to outdo each other in their public displays of piety. This satire could hardly have made Boruta popular with the conservative Catholic element of Lithuania, but it is perhaps typical that the structured restrictions of an organized religion sit uneasily on such a foundation. It can readily be observed that the “born again” are frequently the most devoted of religious practitioners, which perhaps explains the cultural phenomenon of a davatka.
One of the most interesting spiritual elements in this work is the concept of the devil, reflecting a mixture of pagan and more recent Christian influences. Norbertas Vėlius, in his study of the devil in recorded Lithuanian folklore, makes a number of observations that testify to Boruta’s sources for his portrayal of Pinčukas, whose name is itself a traditional name for the devil. For example, Vėlius observes that “the devil in Lithuanian folklore is a mythological being very close to people, circling about them or sometimes living right nearby...”3 Boruta’s devil is said to be Whitehorn’s nearest neighbor (7). Vėlius’s table listing the physical characteristics of the devil lists the most common characteristics as horns, animal feet, and either one nostril or none at all.4 With his single nostril, cloven feet and horns, albeit one of which was twisted in his encounter with Uršulė, Pinčukas has all of these characteristics. In addition, Vėlius describes the common concept of the foolish devil, a being that can be duped by humans, and adds:
In Lithuanian legends and fairytales about the foolish devil they particularly like to portray the devil as a gentleman. [...] The devil in this form is so familiar that he is sometimes called just ponaitis (“little gentleman” ). [...] The devil envisioned as a gentleman is also called a vokietis (a German), in other words a person dressed differently than a Lithuanian peasant. Sometimes it’s also emphasized that he is wearing a hat.5
Boruta used all of these folklore elements in his portrayal of Pinčukas:
Whitehorn didn’t at all notice that someone had come along. It was only when he heard a voice that he raised his eyes, thinking that some neighbor had come by again to scold him that he was too long about grinding the grain, but behold – in front of him stands this itsy-bitsy, silly little gentleman, like a German, with a little hat on his head, and what’s more, with a rooster feather stuck into it. (33)
Still more intriguing, however, is the discovery that every positive male figure in the book has characteristics that tie him either to the devil or to witchcraft.
For example, Vėlius’s table of the devil’s characteristics lists blacksmith as a possible occupation of the devil. Algirdas Greimas also describes the connection between the devil and blacksmithing as “indisputable.”6 The blacksmith’s name itself (Juodvalkis in the original, “Blackpool” in translation) hints of a connection to the nether world.
Whitehorn (Baltaragis in Lithuanian) is suspected by the villagers of being a sorcerer with ties to the devil. From the storyteller’s perspective this is both true – he does make several deals with Pinčukas – and not true – Whitehorn is powerless against Pinčukas’s revenge. But one of the many names the devil is known by is “Baltrukas”7 (translated as Whitey), which is how Uršulė refers to the object of her affections. The name “Whitehorn” brings to mind the many magic qualities associated with animal horns in many different cultures.
Jurgutis is quite clearly tied to the devil; Boruta makes this connection clear by describing him several times as Pinčukas’s shadow. But it is worth mentioning that the proud suitor Girdvainis’s first name, Jurgis (mentioned only once in the course of the book), is echoed by the diminutive version of the name, Jurgutis, who in many ways acts as Girdvainis’s shadow as well.
Let us not overlook Anupras Hearall, who, unlike Whitehorn himself, is indeed capable of a bit of sorcery, enclosing Pinčukas in a magic tobacco horn. And then what are we to make of the last chapter, where Boruta confesses to his identification with all of the male characters in the book? A closer look at the context and circumstances under which Boruta created this work and how those circumstances weave themselves into the text, may answer this question.
Motive, Maneuvering and Metaphor
The circumstances under which these books were written – the first version mostly in a period of six weeks during the German occupation of Lithuania in 1941-44, the second seventeen years later, after Boruta’s imprisonment and a long period of “rehabilitation” under Soviet rule – find themselves quietly lurking in the corners, and provide us not just with clues about Boruta’s identification with his characters, but with something of a deeper understanding of why he chose to write such a novel.
There is no psychological depth here to the characters, contrary to the general tendency of modern novel writing in which, as Ian Watt observes, the movement is: “from the objective, social and public orientation of the classical world to the subjective, individualistic and private orientation of the last two hundred years.”8 Each of the characters is more of a prototype than a fully fleshed-out individual. To Nyka-Niliūnas “they are just actors, playing the roles assigned them by eternally abiding legends.” 9
In Boruta’s novel the movement is away from the city and its accompanying sense of a loss of values and community and back to a rural community setting in which the parish priest– or perhaps the devil? – is the ultimate authority. Boruta’s world is a world that is in retreat. Government, that bugbear of Boruta’s existence, is banished here, playing a strangely distant role; other than the ineffective police platoon summoned by Shaddon’s complaints, there is no mention of it. Even the sense of a time period is vague – Shaddon’s regrets about the passing of serfdom (1863) and Blackpool’s recollection of the gun hidden away since the time of the uprising (presumably the 1863 Polish-Lithuanian uprising against the Tsar) – provide the only clues to a time frame.
Would all of this lead us to believe that these works are merely an escapist fantasy? The Lithuanian critic Vytautas Kubilius, in his monograph on Boruta’s works, discerned a pervasive undercurrent of doom in the novel that he attributed to the experiences Boruta had been through:
Hitler’s occupation left no discernible marks in Whitehorn’s Windmill. The present seeped into the novel’s subsoil, without leaving an imprint in the plot or the details. Shoved out of the realms of sensation or memory, the present returned to the novel behind the scenes as an invisible ghost, spreading a mood of unreality, horror, and a threatening fate. [...] So the experience of occupation, pushed into the subconscious, traces the coordinates of sadness and insolubility in the fields of the land of Paudruve, where strange things are happening. There is no plane of hidden meanings or allegorical schemes...10
This statement is interesting given the historical perspective, still developing, on the effects of Soviet censorship on the writings of both critics and writers. Kubilius himself had a great deal of trouble with censorship: his monograph on Boruta, from which this quote is taken, was first submitted to a publisher in 1975 and took five years and four different edits before it was published.11 If we were to look at the statement “Hitler’s occupation,” which in the following references becomes simply “the occupation,” it’s merely a small leap to any (or all) of the three occupations (Soviet-Nazi-Soviet again) that Lithuania experienced during that period. His repeated use of the word “the present” subtly reinforces this doublespeak. Kubilius’s denial of the existence of an allegorical plane is almost a shout to be on the lookout for it.
Boruta himself denied all claims of writing to the censor. A fascinating example is a note Boruta wrote on a clipping from a 1957 article in an American-Lithuanian newspaper found in his personal archive. 12 Next to an article that made this claim, his hand-written note reads: nesąmonės, “nonsense!” The possibility of this evidencing the extent of Soviet intrusion into private lives is enough to make one shudder, but blissfully remains an ambiguous, double-edged sword, as much of the documentation of the history of the Soviet “satellites” of that time period will probably always be. Although this subject is obviously beyond the purview of this paper, the reader will kindly bear with me, while I nevertheless examine some of the possible maneuvering.
Violeta Kelertas outlines a number of possible techniques whereby Lithuanian authors and their readers were able to avoid censorship.13 The first technique she mentions is setting the action of a work into another time period; the second, ellipses and silences; the third, magical realism; the fourth, reducing the macrostructure to a microstructure, where a family can represent an entire nation. I think we can argue that Boruta effectively used all four of these techniques in both versions of the book. In the last chapter, Boruta tells the reader outright:
What sort of fairy tale is this,
then? Why, it’s life itself!
Looking at the story again from the perspective of reading into it a metaphor for the Lithuanian nation enables us to see a number of interesting parallels. First and most obvious is the sense of impending doom that Kubilius mentions, which holds true when we remember not just Boruta’s situation during his first writing, in 1942, in German-occupied Vilnius, but during its revision in the 1950s as well, when the Soviet occupation of Lithuania had become hard reality and the last remnants of the Lithuanian partisan resistance had crumbled. A happy ending isn’t an option for Boruta’s characters, for “if an unavoidable misfortune was coming, both of them knew very well that there was no getting around it, all there was left to do was to bear it” (118).
Many see Girdvainis as the incarnation of Boruta’s own ideals and pride, “a soul that cannot recognize compromise and beset by an uncontrollable restlessness.”15 We could read Girdvainis’s wanderings after his dapple gray’s neighing as a parallel for Boruta’s wanderings in search of an alternative to the injustices he perceived in independent Lithuania. (He was, quite ironically, imprisoned then, too, for his leftist leanings.) Certainly Boruta lived to see his mistakes, just as Girdvainis eventually realizes his. But it can be argued that Girdvainis represents all the Lithuanian people, who, despite fifty years of occupation, still yearned for freedom and were willing to stand unarmed in front of tanks to win that freedom. The tragic irony, of course, is that it is not just Girdvainis’s “unspeakable” pride that leads to his doom, but his doubts, as well. Boruta’s point – that in the end it was Girdvainis’s doubt that led to his ultimate downfall – is well taken.
We cannot, of course, forget the role that Pinčukas, Whitehorn’s nearest neighbor, plays as the devil who almost loses his devilish nature: Lithuania certainly had its share of trouble with neighbors! If Pinčukas represents the incarnation of all evil, then the curious distribution of devilish characteristics to nearly every other character in the novel is a tacit admission of the existence of evil within all of us. The linguist and semiotician Algirdas Greimas, in his review of the novel’s 1952 publication in Chicago, saw this universal theme in the work as well:
Ignoring the superficially tragic resolution of the plot, Boruta’s defeat isn’t the negation of the mission of the poet, nor is it a negation of him in the sense of a warrior-revolutionary. It’s the damning of his own devil. The bride was beautiful, and the steeds carried her off to announce the banns. It’s just that life, by reason of the devil, is impossible. But how does one fight with a devil, and who exactly is he?16
With age – wisdom?
Whereas Girdvainis in the early version can be interpreted as Boruta in his youth, the irrepressible flaming brand whose slogan was “either – or,” Jurgutis represents another side of Boruta’s experiences. At the time of the revision, Boruta was already in his fifties and ailing, bent by many years spent behind prison bars, but still unable to give up his ideals. In his autobiographical essay, included in the Tarybinių lietuvių rašytojų autobiografijos (written in 1959, two years after his release from prison, but revealingly only published in 1989, when perestroika was already in full swing), Boruta states:
The principles of soviet realism – although what kind of realist could be made of me? – were never foreign to me, perhaps I just didn’t always understand it properly and learn to adapt to it...17
Some have even disparaged the second version of the work because of the circumstances under which it was written: Kubilius, for example, cites only from the first edition. (The Lithuanian critic Dalia Striogaitė’s assertion, that they really must be considered two separate works of art, is perhaps the best way of looking at it.) Most remarkable is what Boruta himself says about Jurgutis in the last chapter:
But coming alive, Jurgutis stubbornly demanded his rights and forced his way into the book’s pages, even though he had been a forgotten legend, as frequently happens with true heroes. (194)
Similar observations made their way into Boruta’s journal and the letters he wrote at the time, where he remarks several times on his difficulties with this character who kept “sneaking into the book.”18 What are we to make of Boruta labeling a frightened, ineffectual half-wit as a “true hero”? Isn’t he perhaps an example of Homi Bhabha’s famous “cultural bomb,” the now well-established effect of a colonized people’s reaction to colonization, where they begin to doubt their own history, culture, achievements, and capabilities? Boruta’s explicit defense of Jurgutis with all of his sniffling, despite the many doubts he had about him, points to an undercurrent that perhaps even Boruta himself wasn’t fully aware of.
Girdvainis’s end is the second major difference between the two versions of this work. In the first version, he leaves the burning tavern, but never makes it to the windmill. His fate is summed up very simply: he was found in the morning on a hill by a maple, where he had hung himself. This in itself is an unusual ending: a search of suicides in literature turned up only one other well-known piece of European literature where a major male character commits suicide (Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther).19 Suicide is, of course, condemned by the Catholic Church, but it was also discouraged by the Soviet regime, where the proletariat’s role was to overcome all obstacles, not to submit to them. Could changing this in the second version have been a sell-out on Boruta’s part? Considering the emphasis on the role that doubt plays in Girdvainis’s downfall in the second version, the new ending gives considerably more depth to the work. The means of Girdvainis’s death in the second version – whether it be at the hands of Pinčukas throwing a noose around his neck or the result of Perkūnas’s attempt to punish Pinčukas – is irrelevant; what becomes significant is that “He went like a storm himself – spontaneous, blind, unstoppable” (182), and that it was only his doubt that allowed Pinčukas to catch up with him.
Boruta the Storyteller
Did Walter Benjamin predict the demise of the true storytelling tradition too soon? Boruta, crafting his tale from the fabric of folktales that every Lithuanian is familiar with, poured his poetic talents into crafting a story which through its carefully controlled transitions, climaxes, and pacing, gives us a true taste of the Lithuanian oral tradition. And it isn’t just the mass of detail of folk culture, from Uršulė’s spells to the details of courtship rituals; it’s in such details as the narrator’s commentaries on the action and the characters that are interjected throughout the text. “Not a bad-hearted woman, that Uršulė, in spite of it all,” (8) Boruta says, and instantly the storyteller himself comes into view.
Revealingly, in his autobiographical essay, Boruta relates his personal experience with the role of the storyteller in Lithuanian village life. These older people would be given a place for a week or two in each house in the village in turn, where they would earn their bread by entertaining the entire household with fairy tales. Boruta remembers a particular one, whom he listened to with fascination, who would sometimes use words no one had heard.20 Boruta’s language has its share of anachronisms, too, like kalamaška, (phaeton), chamas, (boor). Some of the older words (many of them not considered standard Lithuanian because they are loanwords from other languages) were changed between versions, so that čerkelė becomes taurelė (a glass) and uzbonas becomes ąsotis (a pitcher). Nyka-Niliūnas criticized Boruta’s language, stating that
Boruta doesn’t always maintain an artistic seriousness and, as we have said, slides into a grotesque and coarse Baurenschwanck humor, which considerably damages the work’s unity and destroys its poeticism.21
However, a coarse humor is certainly part of the oral folk tradition and is fully suited to a work that reflects these roots. That very coarseness was a defiant move on Boruta’s part, as Soviet censorship of that period was remarkably Victorian in its condemnation of the mention of bodily functions.22
The final piece of the jigsaw: genre
In the end, how do we characterize this work? It’s not really a fairy tale, although it does have elements of a fairy tale. Nyka-Niliūnas’s point, that it’s not what we would expect from a modern novel, is well taken. Here is what Boruta himself said about it:
Wise people say that folk art reflects a people’s strivings, battles and dreams, all that is needed is to thresh out the true grain of a work, separating it from the chaff. I certainly didn’t manage to do this, I just wrote an ordinary story, with the grain and the chaff, and not a heroic epic. [...] In the end “Whitehorn’s Windmill” is neither a fairy tale nor a legend – it appeared as my heart’s writing about myself and my country, which charms me like the most beautiful fairy tale.23
But if we take a look at what some critics have to say about the epic form, the argument could be made that Boruta did, indeed, create a modern epic.
One characteristic of the epic form as opposed to the novel is the sense of a world driven by forces outside of the realm of man. According to George Lukács: “the driving force of the action is not the epic hero, but the forces of necessity embodied in the gods.”24 Throughout Whitehorn’s Windmill the action is driven more by mythological and sometimes quite mysterious forces – Pinčukas, Perkūnas, and fate, the unavoidable that must be borne – rather than by the individual characters. Whitehorn is powerless to circumvent the revenge of the devil; even Uršulė’s unfortunate end is explained in a remarkably offhand manner, as “everything had started with her, so it had to end with her, too.” It isn’t just pride that drives Jurga and Girdvainis apart as much as Pinčukas’s evil revenge.
According to Ortega y Gasset, the epic “is not a remembered past, but an ideal past.” 25 The land of Paudruvė, totally detached from the modern world, is a place in a past that Boruta certainly hadn’t experienced himself, but formed instead out of collective memory. Greimas, observing the epic quality in Boruta’s tale, attributed the very lack of a time period as an essential ingredient of this quality:
Not being integrated into historical events, this life leans on its own mythological projection – on man’s invented world of gods and heroes. [...] The novel stops being a novel, that is, a story, if for only one reason, which is that it lacks the essential element of construction – Time.26
Marija Gimbutas, in her 1952 review, also remarked on this remembered past: “It’s therein that lies the value of Boruta’s book: it takes us to a place where reality hasn’t yet drowned out the fairy tale, where the past breathes with all of its mystical power.”27
Reminding us of Boruta’s disclaimer quoted above, Ortega asserts: “Homer does not claim to tell us anything new... what he tells, the audience already knows... His work is not really creative... it is simply an artistic rather than a poetic labor, a technical virtuosity.”28 And Lukács again: “The epic hero is, strictly speaking, never an individual.” 29 We are reminded of Nyka-Niliūnas’s criticism that characters appear to be actors playing a role. Whitehorn never grows much beyond the figure of the grieving widower with the “wreath of gray hairs around his head,” Jurga never becomes more than the carefree girl whose hopes are dashed. But it is with these very basic qualities, in simply writing “about myself and my country” that Boruta so touches the nerve of the Lithuanian gestalt.
There may be something particularly Lithuanian about the phenomenon that Ričardas Gavelis describes as “the Darius and Girėnas complex, originated by Vytautas the Great in losing the Lithuanian crown at the very last moment,”30 but there is a universality to this story too. The clash which goes on between Boruta’s unbelievably idealistic and romantic view of the world, his lyric soaring, his sometimes coarse humor, and the crushing sense of an unavoidable fate, stirred together with elements of folktales in a realistic setting, make for a uniquely Lithuanian story. One cannot wonder at the success of this book in Lithuania, or that it has been made into a play, a ballet and a musical film. Perhaps Whitehorn’s Windmill could be taken as another example of Arūnas Sverdiolas’s argument that a creative work needs to be examined from the viewpoint of what he calls substantive time, a time based upon the forging of cultural uniqueness according to a time and place.31 In any event, we must be thankful that Boruta left us such an interesting story, let it be called an epic, a novel, or simply a good story, one that tells us so much about a time and a place that is no more.
1. Nyka-Niliūnas, 1996, 275.
2. Citations, unless otherwise noted, are from the author’s translation of Whitehorn’s Windmill (forthcoming)
3. Vėlius, 1987, 200.
4. Ibid, 42.
5. Ibid, 41.
6. Greimas, 1979, 144.
7. Vėlius, 1987, 37.
8. Watt, 2000, 443.
9. Nyka-Niliūnas, 1996, 274.
10. Kubilius, 1985, 147-148.
11. See Sprindytė, 2005, for more on Kubulius’ troubles with the publication of this work and his personal sense of identification with Boruta.
12. Striogaitė, 2005, 288. Released on the 100th anniversary of Boruta’s birth, this book is a lovely retrospective; besides containing the original text of the work as it was published in 1945 and excerpts from Boruta’s diary and letters, it also contains photos from various dramatic productions and cover artwork as published in numerous translations.
13. Kelertienė, 2006, 290-304.
14. Boruta, forthcoming, 194.
15. Striogaitė, 2005, 225.
16. Greimas, 1952.
17. Boruta, 1989, 153.
18. Striogaitė, 2005, 284-286.
19. Obviously, other cultures – Japan’s foremost of all – view suicide very differently (see “Let’s Die Together” The Atlantic, May, 2007), but suicide in colonial/postcolonial cultures may reflect an ultimate act of resistance, as it perhaps does in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
20. Boruta, 1983, 150.
21. Miškinas [Nyka-Niliūnas], 1953, 34.
22. Ermoleav, Herman, 1997.
23. Striogaite, 2005, 304-315.
24. Lukács, 2000, 244.
25. Ortega y Gasset, 2000, 274.
26. Greimas, 1952, 6.
27. Gimbutienė, 1952, 6.
28. Ibid, 276.
29. Ibid, 192. 30 Gavelis, 1989, 155.
31. Sverdiolas, 2005, 236. 59
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