Imagine what Haruki Murakami might come up with in a collaboration with David Lynch, after watching a few monster-free episodes of Doctor Who, and you might get an inkling of what to expect from Haïlji’s The Republic of Užupis.
An Asian man, Hal, arrives at Vilnius Airport carrying the ashes and other mementos of his father, who was an ambassador of the Republic of Užupis to the country of Han. He wants to scatter the ashes in his father’s home country, which he understands is not far from Vilnius. But the Republic seems to have a number of possible identities: a sprawling empire that once extended from the Baltic to Ukraine; a small county on the border of Lithuania and Belarus; or a self-proclaimed independent state created by a bunch of anarchist artists who declared independence in a run down part of Vilnius one April Fools Day. No-one seems to know of its real location (if not the district on the wrong side of the river), though one character somewhat unkindly points out that it sounds like the French ou je pis.
Hal’s present seems inexorably to be intertwined with his past, and history seems to be repeating itself in this moebius-strip of a narrative. But each time there is a chance to connect the different strands in his timeline, Hal has an inexplicable lapse in memory. He has just shown a family photograph to someone, and then when someone else shows him the very same picture it’s as if he’s seeing it for the first time. He meets a beautiful woman who was once married to someone surprisingly similar to Hal; he journeys across Lithuania to discover her again as an old woman; and at every point he seems to come across a man carrying a grandfather clock on his back or a farmer clutching a goose to his chest. Hal himself is an equally remarkable character, lugging with him a large suitcase containing his father’s ashes and other memorabilia wherever he goes.
What is one to make of it all? What is this strange Shangri-la of Užupis meant to represent? On a serious level, the novel is about a search for nationality and nationhood: the Užupis that Hal is looking for was once colonised and is now said to be free. One parallel with Korea under colonial rule is explicitly drawn: a national hero of the Republic is Zamaitias, an athlete who won the Olympic marathon while Užupis was under foreign control. But if we are to equate Zamaitias with Sohn Kee-Chung, what are we to make of the fact that later in life the Užupis athlete was to become the same goose-carrying yokel who recurs throughout the narrative? Is Haïlji suggesting that it is futile to set up national heroes, and that the idea of nationhood is some sort of mirage?
The story is probably not to be analysed too deeply. Haïlji claims not to have a story in mind when he starts a book, relying on alcoholic inspiration to guide him as he writes. His technique for writing a novel is to write the first sentence, then write the second sentence, and repeat. “I commit my destiny to Scotch,” he said at a book launch event at the Korean Cultural Centre on 4 November 2014, admitting that he felt ashamed about his approach to work. “I’m not a very serious man,” he confessed, but he said he felt better about himself when he discovered that Picasso had a similar working style.
Although according to Haïlji the story in Užupis, just like those of all his novels, arrived “by accident”, it’s a fun reads with some entertaining, quirky features and some wonderfully eccentric characters. You’ll enjoy trying to figure out the time warps in the narrative even if at the end of the day you probably won’t succeed. Like Hal’s search for the country of his birth, the message is elusive, if it is there at all.