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Saulius Kondrotas: Žalčio žvilgsnis [The Gaze of the Snake]

This novel is told in two parts. The first part sees the early life of Kristupas Meižis, his growing up, his early career and his marriage. In the second part, however, he is in jail, awaiting execution the next day and telling a fellow prisoner, also to be executed the next day, about what led him to jail. His father is a carpenter and he is destined for the same trade. Life is fairly hard. This is the end of the nineteenth century and Lithuania is under ruthless Russian domination. However, though this is mentioned more than once, it never seems to be an issue and we never meet a Russian during the book. Kristupas goes through his childhood as others did, with incident such as the death of his grandfather, where the grandfather announces his imminent death and a great feast is held while the grandfather is still alive. The only real menace is the woodcutter, Lizanas, who will haunt Kristupas later on.

However, though there are no Russians to abuse the people of the village, there is the local count, Emilis. He lives with his grandmother, Emmanuelle, and is universally known as Pipiras, which means little pepper, because he is small. He hates the nickname. When a villager calls him the name, he strikes the villager down and his grandmother has to pay compensation. However, Pipiras still feels that he has the right to take what he wants. When he wants Pime, the prettiest girl in the village, he is determined to have her. Unfortunately, she is engaged to Kristupas. The wedding proceeds but Pipiras is determined to have his own way.

The second part sees Kristupas in jail awaiting execution and, from the story he tells the other prisoner (whom he calls only little father), he has led a wicked life since we last saw him. In short, he has belonged to a band of brigands who have robbed, pillaged and raped around the countryside. Coupled with Kristupas’ story, we learn of the expedition by a Lithuanian (not Russian) troop to capture Kristupas and his band, who have taken over a castle called Belvedere. The army troop is led by Captain Uozolas and he is accompanied not only by his soldiers but by his sixteen year old son, through whose eyes we see much of the action. Kristupas is captured but is given a chance to get off, by escorting another prisoner to jail, where he will be executed. As we know that Kristupas is in jail awaiting his own execution, clearly this goes wrong in some way. Finally, at the end, we are faced with the fact that we may have an unreliable narrator as, much later, the now older and wiser son of Captain Uozolas does some investigation into the events and learns that Kristupas was alone in jail the night before his execution. So are all the stories he tells (which involve his parents, foster parents and others) untrue?

Kondrotas keeps us somewhat confused. There seems to be little connection between the tale of Kristupas in the first part and the one he tells (or does not tell) in the second part. And who is he? The band of brigands is led by someone called Kristupas Gontas while our story teller is called Meižis but with no first name. And why does the judge let a major criminal, wanted for many crimes, get away with an amnesty for merely escorting a prisoner? But Kondrotas does keep the action going and it is an interesting story of a brutal period.

Publishing history

First published by Vaga in 1981
No English translation
Published in Catalan as Els ulls de la serp by Columna in 1992
Translated by Miquel-Lluís Muntané
Published in Dutch as De schaduw van de slang by J. M. Meulenhoff in 1994
Translated by Ellen Beek
Published in French as L’ombre du serpent by Albin Michel in 1991
Translated by Ugné Karvelis
Published in German as Der Schlangenblick by Arcadia in 1990
Translated by Irene Brewing
Published in Italian as La solitudine dell’acqua by Mondadori in 1993
Translated by Marianna Basile
Published in Portuguese as A Sombra da Serpente by Editora Record in 1994
Published in Spanish as El Ojo de la serpiente by Seix Barral in 1992
Translated by Pilar Giralt Gorina
Also translated into Hungarian, Polish and Slovenian