‘Tula’ by Jurgis Kuncinas

My rating: 4 stars

Tula by Jurgis Kuncinas is closer to be a fictional memoir than a clearly plotted novel. Taking place predominantly in Lithuania during the Soviet occupation, it is the story of a man struggling with an alcohol addiction and his love for Tula, whom he had an intense but short-lived relationship with. The unnamed narrator confirms early on that Tula is dead. Nevertheless, she is the reason behind some of his actions and is constantly in his thoughts, while he pictures a life of poverty and homelessness.

He recalls various moments from his life, particularly those connected with his deprived neighbourhood in Vilnius, frequently in a stream of consciousness style and, at first, in no specific chronological order. There he has known destitution and failure. Tula did not always live there, but she persistently makes up an appearance in his reminiscences anyway. He mentions various of his relatives and revives many episodes from the time of the Second World War and the 1950s, for example. He had various relationships with other women besides Tula, one of them was Aurelita.

Even before meeting Tula for the first time, he was homeless and wandered around the city looking for a place to sleep. That was particularly dangerous in that period, because there were groups of people keeping an eye on the streets whose sole purpose was to find vagrants and put them into “temporary arrest cells”. His addiction has had a huge impact on his life. He was a patient at the second section of a madhouse, which had the positive result of solving his vagrancy problem for a while.

For the majority of the book, it feels like we are being given access to the thoughts of a confused man who is remembering moments from his hard and complicated life without following a coherent order. Although this way of telling the story seems to render the book almost plotless, it helps us form a good idea about the narrator’s personality and struggles. Important facts from his life are, in certain occasions, mentioned unexpectedly, causing a sense of utter surprise.

However, more or less halfway through the book, events start to be presented in a more linear way. Some of the occurrences only briefly mentioned beforehand are further developed. Unfortunately, some of them are more interesting than others. When his various thoughts are mixed up together apparently in a rambling style, the book is impressively more fascinating and conveys deeper feelings. The more factual narration of events in a specific order tends to be blander. These different styles of narration seem to suggest whether the narrator is drunk or not.

“Wine is the friend of imagination and the companion of the dark.”

His encounters with Tula have a poetic essence to them. He constantly addresses her while telling the story, despite we knowing since early on that she is dead at the time of the narration. Almost fifteen years have passed since the day they first met. Tula was shy, sensitive and vulnerable. He was older than 30, and she was six years younger than him. When he focuses more on his relationship with her, they become truly real. They leave the pages and come to life, which is extraordinary considering that there isn’t a solid and linear plot. All the other people mentioned are forgettable in comparison, though.

The first chapter is a good example of the level of emotion the narrator can convey. It reads like a tormented declaration of love to Tula. I loved the rhythm of the sentences and could read it many times to uncover all hidden meanings. The narrator portrays himself as a bat, as if he is dreaming. He is observing Tula, while she lays in bed breathing quietly.

“All the words of love and despair hermetically sealed within the skull of a tiny, flying, nocturnal creature, careful not to scare off the other spirits waiting to seize your soul, body, mind, your most secret thoughts, your dignity and your tears, your small breasts trembling like a ripple in a stream, all of you, Tula.”

Various times throughout the book, his thoughts convey a feeling of misery about his life and the city he lives in, as if it has helped to destroy both his and Tula’s lives. Jurgis Kuncinas did a great job creating this tormented narrator, despite the book not being permanently engaging and lacking some details about his past.

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