The Republic of Uzupis : A Novel by Hailji
Sometimes a book will just sneak up and catch you unawares; you think you have the measure of it, that you know what it’s about and where it’s going, and then it wrong-foots you completely and ends up being completely brilliant. And that’s exactly what happened with this book…
I first stumbled across it after reading an excellent review on the Reading Matters website here. The book sounded like the sort of thing I’d read; a novel by a Korean writer, and featuring a middle-aged man named Hal who goes in search of his lost homeland, but finds that he is told it does not exist… So when I had some spare capacity on a gift card, this was what I bought.
The book opens with Hal arriving at an airport on his way to the Republic of Uzupis. He is in Lithuania, its capital Vilnius, and a taxi whisks him off in the snow in search of the Republic. Hal has a postcard of the place to guide him, but no-one seems sure where the Republic is, and Hal is eventually deposited at the Hotel Uzupis. As Hal attempts to find the lost Republic he stumbles across a number of people in this post-Soviet world, some of whom seem to speak the language of Uzupis (which Hal can understand but not speak), some of whom claim to have connections with the place and some of whom know its national anthem and have one of its flags.
What’s strange is that Uzupis (which means “the other side of the river”) does exist – Vilnius is a real place and there *is* an area of the city called Uzupis which bizarrely enough declared itself a republic in 1997. However, the homeland that Hal is searching for is a republic that’s existed for years, in his memories and his relics – but is it real and what relation does it bear to the *real Uzupis? As Hal flits through the fog and the snow and the shadows, a huge suitcase full of relics always in his hand, in search of his heritage, the reader begins to wonder what is real and what is not.
Memories are likes fields at dusk: the ones in the distance are the first to disappear.
“The Uzupis Republic” is a remarkable novel, and not like anything I’ve read before. Initially it appears deceptively simple, but it’s not until you reach the end that you realise what a complex structure it has and how brilliantly conceived and executed the book is. The hypnotic, dreamy prose creates the surreal atmosphere of being lost in a snow foggy city, unsure of your bearings and unable to speak the language.The are strange portents and recurring imagery; characters appear in different locations and at different ages, almost as though Hal is moving through time as well as physical locations. The author flags up that he and other characters don’t notice similarities in events, names and relics but it is not until the climax of the novel that the real significance of these is revealed. And the ending sneaks up and slaps you when you’re not expecting it, leaving you quite breathless.
Throughout, there is the phantom presence of the elusive Republic, the ghostly presence of the national poet Urbonas, and that sense that the truth you’re seeking is just round the corner or visible out of the corner of your eye if you can just catch it. I said earlier that the novel was not like anything I’d previously read, but thinking about it, while reading I kept getting little frissons that reminded me of Calvino. Nothing I could put a finger on specifically, but he’s the only author I can think of that produces anything like the effect of this book.
“The Uzupis Republic” is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s complex and clever, utterly absorbing, unusual and thought-provoking and completely unputdownable. Reading anything after this is going to be very, very difficult, and I only wish that there was more of Hailji’s work available in the English language.