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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Republic of Užupis


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Title: The Republic of Užupis
Author: Haïlji
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 149 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Republic of Užupis - US
The Republic of Užupis - UK
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The Republic of Užupis - India
  • Korean title: 우주피스 공화국
  • Translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton

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Our Assessment:

B : nice spin on the modern-personal-quest novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Republic of Užupis features an Asian man named Hal who travels to Lithuania in the hopes of reaching 'the Republic of Užupis' from there. Hal is from 'Han', but he was born in Užupis; his father was the ambassador to Han and had to take the family into exile there when Hal was a young child. Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union, with Užupis, like many other former Soviet states, newly independent, Hal wants to return to his homeland.
       Hal doesn't expect to spend much time in Lithuania: upon his arrival he assures the customs officials he wants to leave:

As soon as I can. By the end of the day, if possible.
       His quest proves more complicated than anticipated: few recognize the name Užupis -- or rather, the Užupis he's looking for. There is, in fact, a 'Republic of Užupis' in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, itself, and it is one of the first places Hal is taken to:
     The people of this city call this particular area Užupis -- it means 'the other side of the river.' It is the most run-down area in Vilnius. As a joke, struggling artists who live here began calling it the Republic of Užupis. They even wrote a Declaration of Independence and established April Fool's Day as their Independence Day. Every year they celebrate it -- the entire city knows about it -- the Lithuanian president himself takes part in the festivities.
       The lost land that is Hal's Republic of Užupis, however, is considerably more elusive. Few seem willing to even acknowledge such a country exists, and even among those who do they can't quite seem to be able to explain to him how to get there. Yet he comes across traces and hints of Užupis at many turns. Hal can't speak the Užupis language, but he understands it -- and he hears or overhears quite a revealing bit from the surprisingly many people who speak Užupis around him.
       In wintry, snowy Lithuania, Hal finds himself continuously lost and literally struggling to find his way. He also finds himself repeatedly encountering the same people, many of whom lead him on, one way or another. And he learns that he is not the first to go in search of Užupis -- and it becomes clear that destiny means he will follow all too closely in the footsteps of those who went before him.
       Hal's quest is Kafkaesque in its absurdity -- reminiscent of some of the struggles of the protagonist of Karinthy Ferenc's Metropole. Hal's communication skills complicate his situation: he can neither speak nor understand Lithuanian; he can speak and understand English, but many of the locals can't; and while he understands Užupis very well, he can't communicate at all in it. He thus learns a good amount about the Užupis he is looking for, but is unable to ask all the questions he wants answers to. Compounding his difficulties, not everyone is straightforward with him -- including in one very funny episode when he attempts to get his permission to stay in the country extended by the authorities, as a helpful employee has her own agenda when she translates for him (unnecessarily, since the official is speaking Užupis -- and saying something entirely different from what is related to Hal).
       Hal's quest is more than just a geographic one. 'Užupis' represents a kind of home(land) -- here even more explicitly vague than the concept of 'homeland' generally is, in how difficult it is for Hal to even just ascertain where and what exactly it is. Significantly: "Homesickness is supposed to be a killer of the Užupis -- it's in their blood". It certainly seems to be in Hal's blood, as he is focused entirely on his goal of reaching Užupis, a more-than-nostalgic homecoming for the man who carries with him a photograph of himself as a young boy there, and his father's possessions (and, in the form of his ashes, his father himself) he is bringing back to the fatherland
       The Republic of Užupis is a nice mix of dark, snowy, foreign atmosphere, mysterious strangers and coincidences, amusing absurdity, questions of national identity, and a more profound sense of longing to belong, to find one's place. Haïlji perhaps relies a bit too much on the anything-goes possibilities he allows -- while the absurdities of the larger strange picture are easy enough to accept, he occasionally gets lazy with detail, unrealistic coincidences coming to look just like him picking the easiest way to move the story along -- but on the whole the novel has a nice, zany coherence.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 November 2014

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The Republic of Užupis: Reviews: The Republic of Užupis: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Haïlji (하일지) was born in 1955.

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