Tuesday, 7 October 2014

From Vilnius 4: Frank Zappa's
Republic of Letters

Poet Kerry Shawn Keys at the door of the Republic of Uzipis

Apparently it started with Frank Zappa. Or maybe it didn't.
‘Okay, so Zappa never visited Lithuania and had absolutely no connection with the country, but as far as I was concerned, this was a test of our new-found freedom. Lithuania had just proclaimed itself to be a democratic country. I wanted to test it and see if I would be able to realize my ideas.’
King Zappa, President Zappa, Prime Minister Zappa, Foreign Secretary Zappa, His Excellency Frank Zappa, His Holy Highness Frank Zappa, Zappa the Bridge, Zappa the River, Zappa the Horse (why not?). It is April the 1st and we have a new state titled, Uzupis, meaning 'the other side of the river', the river in this case being the River Vilnia, after which the city of Vilnius is named. After the melancholy of Vilnius, the gaiety of the bohemian republic within the Vilnian heart of the republic.

I won't describe it here: the links will do that. It exists in a perfectly serious albeit internationally unrecognised Zappanian way.

These eruptions of the spirit have happened before and will happen again whenever the bounds of some particularly stern and oppressive authority are - however briefly - broken. It is the immediate and direct product of the breaking. If I can't quite imagine it in England it is partly because England has a very different history and because here it would be regarded as something 'silly' like the Ministry of Silly Walks in Monty Python. Something of a lark, something rather Pythonesque in fact.

Such are the paradoxes of history that now and then they have to be turned upside down so we can see them at all. Uzupis is carnival in the Bakhtinian sense in that it is a complete parody of the apparatus of state with its own constitution. It has statues and flags and speeches and state occasions. It is and yet not quite a joke. This is the land of the Zappatistas.

If eras had a distinct smell I would say Uzupis smelled of the Sixties; to be more specific of the years from 1964-1969. It is heady with Haight Ashbury and Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra and Ken Kesey. I wouldn't say it smelled exactly  of Woodstock, nor, on the other hand, did it have the 'characteristic sweet, thick and dark character of the balsamic' occasionally inflammable notes  of Berkeley 1969Grosvenor Square, Les Evenements de Mai or Altamont. The basenote is, and must course, be Prague Spring. Vaclav Havel would have worn it as aftershave on the day Uzupis was founded.

But this is reinvention, revival, rediscovery, revenge. It has had time to build its own characteristic architecture of flavours and scents in the twenty or more years since Prague. I can't hope to characterise it in a visit, but there is probably more alcohol in the mixture than there might have been back then. It seems more like a masked ball for poetes maudits than a political ideal.

Not a Utopia then, nor (thank heaven!) a boho Disneyworld. Artists continue to live, work and meet there. It is not Zappa on a chocolate box or even on an artily reconstructed box of 1960s cigarettes.

I can't tell what it was or is, but I do think about what it means to me. What does it mean?

I can imagine such a place without wanting to live in it. I am not really a communal creature but I can imagine becoming fond of people there, of the bars and streets and studios and the river, as well as the 'occasions of state'. I can imagine admiring it. If I were there it would be churlish not to join in and celebrate its entirely improbable existence. I am pretty sure I could approve and abide by much of the constitution.

I don't suppose I have ever been a political idealist and can't imagine myself on Kesey's magic bus. I was shyer, more remote, more lost, more wary than that. And yet there is something about circus and street theatre that seems vital not only to my own well-being but the world's. I think Marcel Carné's film, Les Enfants du Paradis offers a perfectly real understanding of the world, my own world. I think the film presents us with most conditions of the world.

And Uzipis is, in its own rusty way, just that kind of paradis. I feel an immediate affection for it without wanting to be swallowed up by it. I never wanted to join the scouts either of course but, given a choice between clowns and scouts, I would pick the clowns.

And these are the clowns of a bitter history. They have made their own licence and their own carnival.  So now I have the visa in my passport. Here it is. As official as the nose on my face.

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