Vilnius Book Fair 2024

Tens of thousands crowded into the Litexpo conference centre for the Vilnius book fair, and a few hundred came into my interview with Jolanta Kryževičienė to hear about the translation of Some Unfinished Business, called  Nebaigti reikalai in Lithuanian.

The level of literary interest in this country is very high. Even a high school kid asked for help on how to work on one of my books.

I was asked by the Canadian embassy to interview Giller prize winner, Suzette Mayr as she passed through the book fair, and it was a great to talk to her about The Sleeping Car Porter.

Reading Anne Applebaum in the Time of Belarusian Protest

 

August 25, 2020

 

Anne Applebaum’s latest book is a study of her friends and acquaintances who turned over two decades from liberal-minded optimists to supporters of authoritarians such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jarolslaw Kaczynski in Poland, and one might say “aspiring” authoritarians such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

These authoritarians project messages of anxiety with the present. They look back to a past they claim to hope to recreate. Their stories deal in nostalgia, anger, resentment and a series of other sentiments that might make them veer into anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, and anti-democracy. Meanwhile, in the population there is a longing for the assuredness of authoritarianism that might lead into a condition named in Applebaum’s title: The Twilight of Democracy.

It struck me as I read this short book, a really personal account of the shifting zeitgeist, that it was a modern version of Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. In that book, Milosz described several writers who sold themselves to communism through a need to advance themselves, to seem important, to become public figures.

Aspiring authoritarians are always with us, but their influential supporters, whom Applebaum dubs as clercs, are the ones who take the message to the people and enable the strengthening of their leaders’ authoritarianism.

Of the Polish version she writes:

“Resentment, envy and above all the belief that the ‘system’ is unfair — not just to the country, but to you — these are important sentiments among the nativist ideologues of the Polish right, so much so that it is not easy to pick apart their personal and political motives.”

Varieties of these feelings can be found throughout the west.

All of this rings true to me, and it alerts me to another depressing characteristic among my Canadian and American friends and acquaintances in the time of protest in Belarus against the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko. Just a few days before this writing, he strutted with a rifle in his hand to show his resistance and disdain for the tens of thousands of anti-authoritarian protesters in Minsk.

How this will all play out in the long run is uncertain, and I am writing as these events unfold.

The situation in Belarus seems not to be all that important or interesting to them, in particular the ones with knowledge of the region.

Many of my friends were around at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We looked upon the future then with great hope.

Of course, most futures bring us mixed results, and the fall of the Soviet Union did not bring all the social and economic benefits many in Eastern Europe hoped for.

But it was better for that authoritarian regime to have fallen than for it to have stayed in place.

Yet I sense no swelling support for Belarus. Most people in the west would have a hard time finding it on the map and know even less of its history, even after Svetlana Aleksievich won the Nobel Prize in 2015.

That’s not surprising, because Belarus is “far away”, after all, in the sensibilities of most westerners.

What does surprise me, though, is the relative lack of interest or support for these protesters among some of my friends and acquaintances of East European background. They do know where Belarus is, and they do know what type of authoritarian Lukashenko is.

Is this blasé attitude due to the depression brought on by Covid-19? Is it skepticism due to the mixed results of the Ukrainian Orange Revolutions? Is it disappointment with the sad demographic decline in Eastern Europe three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

I’m not sure. But one thing is irrefutable – the fight has gone out of some people. The hope for a more democratic world has evaporated. Problems at home are serious, of course, but now they completely overshadow international concerns at a time when we cannot easily travel.

This is an old condition, recognized decades ago by William Butler Yeats in his now-famous lines from his poem. The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

If the best do indeed lack all conviction, then we are surely in the Twilight of Democracy that Anne Applebaum describes.

 

 

Provisionally Yours Launched in Canada

 

On March 19,  I officially launched my new novel, Provisionally Yours at Ben McNally’s book store in Toronto. The novel is now available in Canada and will be launched in the USA in June.

I’ll be reading from it at the GritLit festival in Hamilton, on April 13, at the Eden Mills literary festival in early September, as well as Windsor in May and other places to be announced.

Here is what the flaps have to say about the novel:

After World War I and the collapse of Czarist Russia, former counterintelligence officer Justas Adamonis returns to Lithuania, a fragment of the shattered Empire. He’s not entirely sure what he’ll find. His parents are dead, he hasn’t seen his sister since she was a teenager, and Kaunas has become the political center of the emerging state. He’s barely off the train when he’s recruited back into service, this time for the nascent government eager to secure his loyalty and experience. Though the administration may be new, its problems are familiar, and Adamonis quickly finds himself ensnared in a dangerous web of political corruption and personal betrayal. In its vivid rendering, Antanas Sileika’s Provisionally Yours  is an exploration of nationalism and realpolitik—as well as an unforgettable story about treachery and the enduring human capacity for love.

“A perfect calibration of pace and depth, a lucid, stylish and bittersweet chronicle of a country’s rebirth, and a thriller that is also a meditation. I loved this novel.”—Samantha Harvey, Man Booker-nominated author of The Wilderness and The Western Wind

“Sileika is a master at portraying moral ambiguity. Set in an overlooked corner of Eastern Europe, Provisionally Yours has the gritty realism of a noir and the pacing of an espionage thriller.”—Nino Ricci, author of theLives of the Saints trilogy

“Offers the delightful unearthing of a little-known corner of the world—post-war Lithuania. Espionage, illicit love, bureaucratic bungling, marvelous descriptions of food and drink, strong women, desperate men. And subtle humour. And ultimately sadness, brought on by amorality in the struggle for power. A fine read.”—David Bergen, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of The Time in Between

 

 

 

Two New Books on the Baltics

Siberian Exile – Blood, War, and Granddaughter’s Reckoning

Julija Sukys –

University of Nebraska Press

 

Toronto-born Julija Sukys is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri. Her excellent biography of Ona Simaite, Epistolophilia, was discussed in an earlier post. Here she is out rather quickly with another affecting book of nonfiction. This one has to do with her grandmother’s years in the gulag as well as her grandfather’s complicity in The Holocaust.

For much of her adult life, Sukys had wanted to write about her grandmother Ona, who was deported in the first wave of deportations in Soviet Lithuania in 1941. Ona was taken by chance, in place of her husband, who happened not be home at the time, and luckily enough for her, none of her three children were there either.

Husband Anthony was in hiding at the time, and once the Soviets returned in 1944, he fled with the children to the UK and eventually to Canada. Poor Ona spent twenty years in the gulag and another five years in Lithuania while trying to get permission to rejoin her family of adult children.

Not surprisingly, after Ona did manage to make it to Canada, there were difficulties for her and her husband and children because they had been apart so long and their life experiences had been so different.

The shock that befell Sukys lay in the story of her grandfather, a narrative which she had been unaware of and was not intending to tell. Sukys was profoundly traumatized by her grandfather’s guilt, so much so that she seems to take on responsibility for his crimes in the belief that every crime must be paid for in some fashion, even if it is not by the person who committed it.

The story of Ona and her quarter century of struggle were supposed to be the main part of Sukys’s book, and they are described with detail and intelligence here, but their impact on Sukys the author is lesser, although there are some dramatic moments in Ona’s life and a remarkable coincidence of discovery in a Kent State archive that helped to illuminate her story.

Sukys’s book is thus very much about the author as well as about her grandmother and grandfather. She is astonished and appalled as she looks at another version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and finds it much closer to home than she imagined.

 

AMONG THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe

By Inara Verzemnieks

A graduate of the nonfiction writing program at Iowa, and Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa, Verzemnieks’s memoir also addresses her grandparents, Latvians who raised her in America when her mother and father were unable to do so.

Hers is very much an immersive biography of her grandparents, and indeed a biography of Latvia in the twentieth century.

After the deaths of the grandparents, Verzemnieks returns repeatedly to Latvia to live and work in the home of her maternal great aunt, and during these stays she takes on histories both big and small.

She writes about her grandfather, who was an economist until drafted into the Wermacht where he lost an eye fighting the Soviets. How guilty is that man for the crimes of the Holocaust? She considers her great aunt, who suffered terribly as a deportee in Siberia, working twice as hard as anyone else because she had to support two family members there who were incapable of working at all. She witnesses life in the countryside of Latvia amid the ruin of what the twentieth century wrought on that place

Verzemnieks’s prose is frequently philosophical and lyrical and is remarkable for its ability to encompass so much of the story of Latvia, and by extension, although she never makes that claim, of Lithuania and Estonia as well.

Like Sukys, Verzemnieks is very much in the centre of this story, even more so than Sukys by virtue of the time spent on the ground there. Her sensibility is slightly melancholy and wistful, and entirely appropriate for the places and the lives she is describing.

No Ambiguity

 

 

Retired General Richard Shirreff’s novel title spells it out clearly enough: War With Russia, and anyone looking for literary value should look somewhere else, but the qualities of the novel that make it compelling are Shirreff’s pedigree and an adventure story set in an all-too plausible future.

 

Sherriff is a retired former second in command of NATO in Europe, so the threat he is warning us about is believable given the knowledge he has. In a world filled with tragic immigration stories in the Mediterranean and war in Iraq and Syria, the Russian threat has been flying somewhat low on the radar. Shirreff believes NATO is underprepared for a real threat of invasion of the Baltics, and to judge by the rearming of the Sweden’s island of Gotland and the placement of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, he is not misguided in raising the alarm.

 

As to the novel itself it is an action-filled imaginative version of what that war might look like. It has classic heroes and dastardly but clever villains, as well as mind-numbing technical details about warplanes, missiles, and communications systems. This may sound like faint praise, but the drive of an action story should not be underestimated. Despite the novel’s flaws, I could not put it down.

 

So how real is the Russian threat? I attended lectures at the Munk International Centre last summer just before the NATO summit in Poland. Canada’s ambassador to NATO as well as the former American ambassador to Ukraine were both convinced NATO has to rise its strength in order to meet a real Russian danger.

 

Given the American president-elect’s recent coolness toward NATO, it remains to be seen whether that will happen. The novel describes a situation that comes perilously close to nuclear war, and that’s a potential problem that should hold everyone’s attention.

 

 

 

Tim Judah on Ukraine

Judah

 

I have followed Tim Judah in the New York review of Books because he is a reporter who gets right down on the ground and speaks to ordinary people of various persuasions all across the vast geography of Ukraine.

Most of the intellectuals with whom I have contact in Canada have little knowledge and less interest in central and eastern Europe, and I find it useful to read writers such as Judah, Snyder, Satter and others because they give sharp insights into this complicated and unfortunate part of the world.

Ukraine remains a complicated place for westerners, who assume that nationality relies on language, but in this part of the world an ardent Ukrainian might speak Russian. The concerns of Bulgarians, Gaugaz  (Turkic speakers) Bulgarians and others in Bessarabia, to say nothing of Crimean Tatars, all remain opaque on this side of the Atlantic.

The book is excellent in describing the failed hopes, the geopolitical fantasies, and complete corruption  in a place that was unable to reform itself before falling under attack. The much-maligned Azov battalion  consisted of Ukrainian extremists much despised in the west, and yet their volunteers were the ones who defended Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists because the regular army was in disarray. Their actions don’t justify their beliefs, of course, but people looking for simple heroes and simple villains in this region will be disappointed.

Judah generally supports the Ukrainian national idea, and he is contemptuous of the lies coming out of Russia, but he does not deny that people living in Donetsk and other regions, the few who remain, would welcome any government that might improve their lives.

Judah gives a view from the street of people who never expected war to come, and were horrified when it did. Indeed, his experience in the former Yugoslavia taught him that the complacency of every life or the exhilaration of fresh, revolutionary ideas, might give way all too quickly to the horrors of war.

Fearful Symmetry

 

Satter

How is the new Russia like the old Soviet Union? Control is centralized, as David Satter points out in his study of the country under Yeltsin and Putin, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep.

 

And the title is accurate.

 

The book lays out how power no longer resides in the party, but rather in an interlocking system of corrupt government and oligarchs with complete penetration of the society right down to street level. Media, judiciary, police, and commerce are all under the thumb of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.

 

This message has been coming out for some time now, but Satter’s systematic demonstration is unsettling to say the least, especially at a time when the west is concerned primarily with the Middle East and now Europe ever since Brexit.

 

One of the happiest people on the subject of Britexit must be Vladimir Putin, because Europe has been weakened by the loss of a major contributor.

 

Paradoxically, this comes at a time when NATO is finally coming around to seeing the Russian threat. Angela Merkel, no warmonger, has said Russia is no longer an ally but a competitor. At this writing, four NATO battalions will be placed in Poland and the Baltics after a July 2016 NATO conference in Poland. Canada is considering participation, while three of the other four are to come from the USA, Britain, and Germany. But will Britain’s commitment to NATO slacken after the withdrawal from the EU? President Obama says we should not worry about it, and yet we should.

 

David Satter’s concerns with Russia are echoed in Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia, which is equally damming of the régime if not quite so bone-chilling.

 

I have skin in the game because I am in the Baltics often, doing research for my novels, and I have family living there. But coverage of this part of the world is slight in North America. At my regular poker game, attended by intellectuals of various stripes, I am considered an alarmist about Russia.

 

Maybe it’s because the more I know, the worse I sleep.

From Chekhov to the Arabian Nights

Two Weeks in Druskininkai, an Old-world Spa and Sanatorium

While the Lithuanian spa town of Druskininkai isn’t exactly Thomas Mann’s Davos, nor Germany’s Baden Baden, it has a surreal calmness to it, with many spas dotting the pine forest. During the second week of a heatwave, visitors walk with measured gait, staying in the shade as much as possible. The place attracts vacationers from Russia and Poland, so at least three languages are heard on the streets.

The architecture is a mix of old world resort, late Soviet concrete, and contemporary design, but the feel is completely retro – maybe Uncle Vanya came here for a vacation. The name of the town is based on the Lithuanian word for “salt”, and people used to come here to take the salt baths and calm their nerves. Some still do.

Old Architecture in Druskininkai

It is a slightly boring place in spite of its water park and theatre festival, but boring can be good. Doris Lessing said that one needs to be slightly bored to write. I am in a townhouse among the pines, an artists’ retreat, after two hectic and lovely weeks in Vilnius with my wife, children, and newborn grandchild. Now I am alone in a three-bedroom house with a merciless sun outside keeping me at my research and the computer.

The place is like a waiting room. But waiting for what?

Tomorrow I drive to Lynezeris, a tiny village of wooden houses, mostly depopulated first by the Soviets and then by the forces of modernization and emigration. My host there told me to rent a “high” car if possible, because the road to this isolated village is very poor. He also told me to wear long pants and long sleeves because the village borders on a vast bog, and the mosquitos and ticks can be bad.

My host wrote me a letter about a year ago, one that piqued my interest and brought me here. Kostas Kubilinskas, whom I have written about before, was the murderous KGB agent who went on to become one of Lithuania’s most popular children’s writers in the fifties and sixties. He was a teacher in Lynezeris, and I am going to that village partially to research his background.

But the stories my host has told me are at least as compelling as the biography of Kubilinskas. The village has variously been part of Czarist Russia, Poland, Belarus, and now Lithuania, although it was always ethnically Lithuania. Borders have been slippery in this part of the world.

It was one of those places where it was very easy to die, by the hand of German or Russian soldiers, Soviet or Lithuanian partisans, KGB collaborators, and others. If you were lucky, you might just end up in Siberia and survive. It was a place where it was best to know nothing and say nothing because one wrong word could bring down the wrath of some powerful party.

It is a place where the East European narrative irony is very strong. Of course the fates may conspire to kill you. Of course things will turn out badly in one way or another. But isn’t it funny how these malevolent fates can sometimes be overcome, or turned to one’s advantage?

As my host says, his uncle still doesn’t speak of the past because independence has only ben around for twenty-odd years, and that’s not a very long time. No one knows what will come next.

I am thinking of writing a nonfiction book about this place, not exactly a history book, though, because there are no sources beyond memories. I suspect it will be something like the Thousand and One Nights, although much shorter, and similar to the story of The Merchant and Jinni, in which a man brings down upon his head the wrath of a Jinni for inadvertently killing his son with a date pit.

Here’’s the opening of that story below:

IT has been related to me, O happy King, said Shahrazad, that there was a certain merchant who had great wealth, and traded extensively with surrounding countries; and one day he mounted his horse, and journeyed to a neighbouring country to collect what was due to him, and, the heat oppressing him, he sat under a tree, in a garden, and put his hand into his saddle-bag, and ate a morsel of bread and a date which were among his provisions. Having eaten the date, he threw aside the stone, and immediately there appeared before him an ‘Efrit, of enormous height, who, holding a drawn sword in his hand, approached him, and said, Rise, that I may kill thee, as thou hast killed my son. the merchant asked him, How have I killed thy son? He answered, When thou atest the date, and threwest aside the stone, it struck my son upon the chest, and, as fate had decreed against him, he instantly died.

That’s the plan, but I’m not exactly sure what I will find on my arrival tomorrow or on subsequent visits. But I’m a sucker for narratives with unexpected twists, and there seem to be a lot of them in this remote, Lithuanian village.

Many of the locals live by picking the plentiful berries and mushrooms in these forests. I’m hoping to come back to the spa town where I am now staying with a sack of narratives from Lynezeris. I hope to order them and write them down. If I’m lucky, I’ll publish them, and pass them on to you.

Writing Eastern Europe in Canada

In conversation with Canadian writers Eva Stachniak and Andrew Borokowski, we wondered why Canada has so few books by writers with Eastern European background. This seemed particularly odd because there are a million Canadians of Polish heritage and a similar number of those with Ukrainian background, to say nothing of Baltics and others.

Unknown Lands
Unknown Lands

These musings led to a talk we gave at a Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs conference and again at a University of Toronto Slavic Studies sminar. I then wrote up my musings and published them in the online journal, The Toronto Review of Books.

Here is a link to that article.

In particular, I was interested by one attack in the comments. Eastern Europe and history call forth many impassioned responses, not all of them informed or balanced.

A Nonfiction Book about a Village?

I am rewriting the Provisionally Yours manuscript, am consulting on the translation of 1997’s Buying on Time, and have assembled  a stack of research material for my next novel, so the last thing I need is a new idea.

Yet one has come at me, and I’m finding it very powerful.

I received a letter from a reader in Lithuania who had some information about Kostas Kubilinskas. I used this historical character as inspiration for one of my fictional characters. Kubilinskas was the most prominent postwar children’s writer who, it turns out, had a dark secret.  In order to ingratiate himself with the Soviet authorities, he infiltrated  the partisan movement, shot and killed a partisan and betrayed several others who were killed in ambush. Then he went on to write popular children’s ditties.

I thought I was done with him, but  my correspondent began to tell the story of Kubilinskas the year he worked as a teacher in 1944-1945 in the village of Lynezeris. My correspondent’s father was a boy then, and remembered the writer well. Each evening, Kubilinskas would take a half bottle of vodka and sit under the oldest oak in the area, and write poetry.

A Village House in Lynezeris

So far, so good – a little extra information about my past subject matter.

-But the more my correspondent wrote, and he wrote almost every day, the more interesting the place became to me. I encouraged him to keep sending me the strange and sad anecdotes of the war and the postwar in Lynezeris. Here are summaries of a few of them.

– The correspondent’s father, as a boy, stole a side of bacon and ran off into the woods to grease railway tracks because he’d heard you could stop a train that way. He tried it and it worked, but he and his friends were almost shot to pieces when the German guards fired at them in the woods.

– His grandfather found a German motorcycle in the forest. A retreating rider had run out of gas and fled. So the man hauled the motorcycle home and traded a Russian soldier a bucket of liquor for a bucket of gasoline. The farmer rode the motorcycle happily all through the  the forties until early in 1950, when he was deported to Siberia and his riding days were over.

– The villagers had managed to protect six Jews during the German occupation, but the Jews were betrayed for a reward by a farmer’s nephew who came in the fall to help with the harvest. After the Soviets came, they couldn’t find the nephew, so they deported to Siberia the family that had helped hide the Jews.

There are many more stories like this, all filled with poignant  detail, so I have arranged to meet my correspondent next summer and spend some time in the village.  In the past, it had hundreds of inhabitants and a school, but now it is down to twenty-seven year round inhabitants. Others come in the summer.

I think that the oak tree, the children’s writer, and the incidents of the villagers might make for a strong nonfiction book. I’ll find out.

The Devil in History

Communism, Facism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

Vladimir Tismaneanu

Hard on the heels of Anne Applebaum and Marci Shore, we find another reassessment of Europe in the twentieth century in Valdimir Tismaneanu’s The Devil in History, a book which is a theoretical study of the century’s two disastrous belief systems. If Applebaum looked at how the structures of civil society were destroyed in postwar Eastern Europe, and Shore looked at the personalities involved in the post-communist landscape, Tismaneanu studies the belief systems of Nazism and Communism that brought Eastern Europe to its present unsettled state.

The evolution of the whole idea of this comparison between nazism and communism is a study in the fast-changing understanding of the last century. For a long time, it was considered reprehensible to compare the two because it diminished the evil of the Nazis. Some thinkers believed every attempt to compare the two was a veiled project to diminish the significance of the Holocaust. The Prague Declaration, a resolution signed in 2008 to study the crimes of communism (Vaclav Havel was among the signatories), in particular has been singled out as just such an attempt to obfuscate history.

Yet when Timothy Snyder visited Toronto to speak about his history, “Bloodlands“, I asked him if it wasn’t unfair to compare these two systems and he responded that if you refuse to compare them, you already have. When I asked Anne Applebaum the same question after her talk in Toronto after the publication of Iron Curtain, she said that this position, the refusal to compare the two, had become marginal. Now, in 2013, the comparison in Tismaneanu’s book is public and most mainstream reviews I have seen of this study only mention the previous “interdiction” on comparison.

When I wrote my 2011 novel about the Lithuanian partisans, I was questioned pointedly by some of my friends about why the Holocaust in Lithuania was not given more space in my book. I thought I had written a story in the shadow of the Holocaust, but clearly some readers were uneasy. I insisted that there were multiple narratives about WW2, and now the subsequent rise in the number of books on the subject of Eastern Europe shows that the multiple narratives continue to appear without, I believe, diminishing the importance of the Holocaust story.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is interesting for his personal history as well as his writing. His parents were committed communists and he was an academic Romanian communist who emigrated to America and began to consider the dictatorships of the twentieth century.  His experience is clearly coloured by his past in Romania, where the communist regime devolved into one with strong fascist overtones.

So what does Tismaneanu say these two ideologies, communism and nazism shared? In his eyes, a willingness to purge societies of “former people”, to use the communist formulation. Humanistic values were abandoned in an attempt to build what Tismaneanu calls the City of God, a perverted version of St. Augustine’s idea of heavenly perfection. Thus Jews could be deprived of life and whole classes of people could be executed, imprisoned, or deported under communism.

The critical difference, of course, is that Nazism sought to destroy the lives of a category human beings, whereas communism was not bent on the necessary physical annihilation of the classes it sought to eliminate. Thus there were no ovens in communism.

Tismaneanu is bewildered by western fascination with communism and its apparent return in some places in Eastern Europe. He goes to great lengths to show communism was not merely an idealistic project that went off the rails. It was a murderous project from the very beginning. One of the further differences between communism and fascism is that the former can live on through the party (which is elevated to god-like status) whereas fascism’s appeal frequently lies in the deification of a leader, and once the leader dies, the system collapses.

Facism, Tismaneanu says, is a form of depraved romanticism whereas communism is a form of depraved enlightenment.

Tismaneanu lingers for some time in Eastern Europe, where he says there has been a great disappointment in the post-communist era. People have lost a belief system, and yet they long for one and their reflex is to yield either to embrace ethnic nationalism or revert to communism. What these places need, he says, is societal glue.

Tismaneanu’s book is not for the faint of heart. It is intended for those with knowledge of Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler and other thinkers on these matters. Those with less historical or philosophical background will find the going slow, as I did, but well worth the effort for the piercing insights that come out.

The theme I have seen running from Tony Judt to Timothy Snyder, Marci Shore, Anne Applebaum and now Vladimir Tismaneanu is empathy for the individuals who lived between the hammer and the anvil of communism and fascism. When Timothy Snyder was asked why the numbers of deaths he gave in his book were not rounded off, he answered that the death of every individual needed to be taken into account – to round off was to lose sight of the humanity of each person.

The humanity of individuals and the tragedy of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe continues to open up as more and more books are being written.

By coincidence, I was speaking to a group of Balts about my own novel two days ago at the Estonian Hall in Toronto, and I was asked by an audience member if the story of the Baltics was eventually going to come out in the west. I said it was indeed coming out, but perhaps not in the way the questioner expected or hoped. The subject of the history of the twentieth century, particularly in Eastern Europe, continues to be a minefield, but the unexploded bombs of the past are being dug up more and more often now. One thing is sure. On the way to broader understanding, there will be more explosions of controversy.

The Taste of Ashes

The Aftermath of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

Marci Shore

Marci Shore’s new analysis of Eastern Europe in the post communist era takes us into that territory through her personal journeys and the people she has known there for over twenty years. It is similar to Anna Porter’s The Ghosts of Europe (2011) but somewhat more intimate. Where Anna Porter went into Europe as an investigator, Marci Shore lived in Poland and Czechoslovakia and studied there and travelled throughout the region. Thus her analysis tells us from up close about the struggles we have read of elsewhere from a more distant perspective.

She deals with countries where there is no democracy after the Soviets (Romania) and where crime rises dramatically (Poland and Czechoslovakia). She is on the one hand investigating post-communist understanding of the holocaust though those who suffered from it, and showing some impatience for easy generalizations:

…Hundreds  of Jewish teenagers from the United States, from Israel, from dozens of other countries were coming to Poland. They came to Poland wearing stars of David….

The Jewish teenagers did not want to talk to Polish journalists – they did not want to talk to Poles at all…

When Poles tried to talk to them, these young Jews wanted to know how they could live there – in a land that was a cemetery. They wanted to know why the Poles had not saved the Jews Jews. They believed it was not by chance that the Germans had chosen Poland as the site of the death camps. They didn’t want to know about the heroic Polish underground. They didn’t want to know that Poles had also died at Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know.”

This anger and limited view is not limited to young Jews. It applies to many others who are aware of their own suffering only.

She discusses the impact of the book Neighbours, by Jan Gross, which described the destruction of the Jews of the Polish town of Jedwabne (there was also a play of this book, which ran in Toronto last year). A number of Poles did not want to know about this story either.

But The Taste of Ashes does not speak of Jewish relations only. It explores why things have not turned out as well as Eastern Europeans had hoped. It explores in particular the act of collaboration with the communist regime. What did it mean to agree to be an informer?

The book analyzes through an individual what Czeslaw Milosz called “ketman“, the ability to profess one thing publicly and believe another privately. Informers sometimes felt as if they were simply playing a game in which they gave the authorities insignificant bits of information. Yet this act split the personality, leaving neither one the possibility of being authentic.

It is a book about a seriously wounded place, part of the world which Timothy Snyder pointed out in Bloodlands, was the worst place to be in WW2. It is a place where people were often both victims and oppressors. It is arguably not an easy place to be in even today.

Marci Shore says she wanted to understand people and why they came to make the choices they did, among them parents who informed on their daughter to the secret police in an attempt to protect their other children. It is a book about people for whom things turned out, in her words, “really, really badly… This book – their story – is a tragedy.”

And yet the reading of this book was very easy because it was so intimate. I felt as if I were sitting in bars and cafes with Shore, talking with people who could only choose among bad choices, and suffered as the result of them. The book expands our understanding of people living in difficult places in difficult times rather than demonizing a new group.

Anne Applebaums’ Iron Curtain

The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944 – 1956

Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum was in Toronto recently to speak about her excellent new book in a Donner Lecture series. Keith Lowe, in his Savage Continent, predicted that there is far more to understand about the destruction in Eastern Europe, and now, months after that statement, we have Applebaum’s book, covering some of the same territory as Lowe and to a certain extent, that of Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt before her.

The great strength of this history is the detailed description of how the communists functioned to destroy civil society in the lands they occupied, flying in Soviet-trained specialists to take control of local radio stations first. Stalin had a sense that radio was the most important tool in taking control of a country, but it was only a first step.

The war had habituated the occupied territories to violence. In Poland, whole buildings of inhabitants were arrested. In Hungary, a man pulling his two children in a cart was arrested and the children left on the street.

Czeslaw Milosz is often quoted on this matter of violence: “The man in the East cannot take Americans (or other westerners) seriously because they have not undergone the same experiences. Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling.”

What Milosz meant was that in the East, one turned away from signs of violence and distress to preserve oneself, while those in the West could not understand the lack of empathy that might stop a man from going to the aid of another being treated unjustly.

The violence of the war had left a vacuum, and into this vacuum came the communists, first with their army and then control of the radio. Some enthusiasts saw this as a good thing, if only because it brought order.

But what order!

Applebaum says the red army’s arrival is rarely remembered as pure liberation  – it is remembered as the beginning of a new occupation. I imagine that could not have been true for Jews, for whom the Soviets were the only hope of liberation in the East, no matter how bad their regime. At least they were not bent on the annihilation of a whole people. The Reds also freed non-Jewish prisoners in camps such as Stutthof.

But the rapacity of the Red army has been documented thoroughly, and Alpplebaum reminds us that in the iconic photo of a Soviet soldier raising a red flag above the Berlin Reichstag, the photo needed to be doctored to hide the several watches the soldiers were wearing on their arms.

Chillingly, Moscow viewed all inhabitants of the new Western territories as potential subversives, so the vice of repression was applied slowly, but relentlessly.

Among banned groups were hiking clubs and charities. The intention was to create a new type of person who was not even capable of imagining alternatives to the Soviet model.

Interestingly, Applebaum raises the question of why more people did not resist. I do wonder if this isn’t a slight application of Milosz’s claim that Westerners cannot understand (although Applebaum is practically an Easterner). Of course one does not resist when the price of resistance is so high. She does mention that resistance (and repression) carried on more intensively in the Baltics and Ukraine, but these areas are outside the scope of her book, which focuses on Poland, East Germany, and Hungary.

Sadly, I might add. These forgotten Baltic and other countries were covered to a certain extent by Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands, but they are difficult for most Westerners to understand because they did not have country status after the war. They were absorbed right into the Soviet Union. Their histories remain absorbed to this day. The multilingual Timothy Snyder explained that Lithuanian is too hard to learn (to say nothing of Estonian and Latvian) and as a result, histories of these places have not been written from the point of view of the west.

Applebaum gives plenty of detail in her work about the erasure of civil society (and even the reduction of free time, which now had to be devoted to partry-approved lectures, memorials, and marches). But the happy ending, if one can call it that, is that resistance remained muted, but present, at least in people’s minds, and it became active as Soviet power began to diminish due to the failure of communist economics.

The reaction to Applebaum’s book has been interesting. Timothy Snyder was praised by most reviewers, but as Adam Gopnik pointed out in an article in The New Yorker, some people were offended by his book because it could be used by ultraconservatives to diminish the importance of the narrative of the Holocaust. Snyder has denied this and claimed he simply lays out the facts of what happened. But in extremist circles I have heard echoes from, Snyder’s work was called “disgraceful”.

I couldn’t agree less.

In these various blog posts, I have discussed the idea of multiple narratives coming out of WW2 and the postwar era, but instead a kind of war of narratives has gone on. I still see claims that attempts to document the crimes of the Soviets are a cover to mask the crimes of Nazis and their collaborators. But when I approached Applebaum after the talk, and asked her about this claim, she said it has now become a “fringe view”.

We do tend to look at these stories from a point of view or fixed position, if we have one. Most westerners do not because they are ignorant of what happened in the East, but even so, the New Yorker review of Applebaum’s book is an example of argument from a position.

One of reviewer Louis Menand’s main questions is whether the United States could have done something about the crimes of the Soviets.

Unrealistic though the proposition may have been, most in the East thought so. The lack of interest in the West is still known as “the great betrayal”.

Menand is interested in the belief that Stalin had no grand plans to invade the west and the Soviet military might was often exaggerated by the United States. A subtext here is that the right-wingers in the West were exaggerating for their own motives. He also ads that Soviets really believed in their ideology, but can that be any sort of excuse? The Nazis believed in their ideology too.

Menand also says that USA could not do anything in any case, and that its goal was to destroy Germany, not save Poland.

But Poland did have treaties with England and France. What were their responsibilities?

Menand writes: “What happened on one side of the wall stayed on that side of the wall. It had no effect on the other side of the wall. Few officials in the West really wanted to se the iron curtain lifted”

That sounds like betrayal to me.

To his credit, Menand adds that Alpplebaum has depicted the human price. And what a human price!

When it comes to history, God is in the details. Alpplebaum has laid out the details in a book less horrific than Timothy Snyder’s but no less illuminating.

A Diplomat’s Diary – Part 1

A Diplomat’s Diary – Part 1

Lithuanian in the 1920s

Robert W. Heingartner

If Jonas Budrys’s memoir of his directorship of counterintelligence in the 1920s forms the foreground of my next novel, the background is richly fleshed out by this quirky and insightful diary from the American consul to Kaunas from 1926-1928.

Heingartner was a scrupulous diarist with an eye for detail in the new country, which he called a “provisional” country because he doubted whether it could succeed. A cultured American who had been consul in Vienna for many years, he was disappointed by the “hardship” posting in a town with no coffee houses, hideous streets, and a single awful hotel where all the government receptions were held.

He said the houses were desolate, the people poor, and the roads disgraceful, although it hardly mattered because there were only 570 cars in the country of three million. However, there were many cows and many children.

Clearly disappointed not to be in Vienna any longer, he nevertheless comes around to reconciling himself to the place. He describes a lunch buffet with a Lithuanian minister that includes vodka, soup, boiled salmon, partridges, vegetables, and ices. At least he ate well.

He provides exquisite detail for a novelist searching for sources – for example, all houses were required by law to keep rain barrels to help fight fires. A Jewish painter would not work on the Sabbath but he would oversee and assistant who did. There is some casual anti-Semitism in his diary, but also interesting observations. Jews keep to their own restaurants and a Jewish girl will not walk on a street with a Christian for fear of reprimand from her people. Christians and Jews seem to belong to two solitudes, or rather, two of many solitudes, because Polish speakers and Orthodox Russians form separate coteries as well.

Heingartner comes to measure the quality of receptions by the amount of caviar, and French wines, champagne, and cognacs (krupnikas and vodka are always available). Of course, at the time, the USA was under prohibition, so the alcohol availability was welcome, although he came to moderate his intake because he found the locals drank far too much.

I’ll post a few more of his observations later, but I want to mention that Heingartner is practically a Dickensian character. He suffers from acute sinusitis, and so his nose is one of his primary concerns. His search for an appropriate nose doctor consumes him, and eventually leads him to go out of the country for a suitable one.

And he occasionally writes sentences worthy of a novelist. The city of Kaunas lies at the confluence of two rivers, so her refers to the place in winter as “A bottle of champagne on ice.”

A lovely memoir of her grandfather was told by Nancy Heingartner at the recent AABS conference in Chicago.

More later.

Sources

Lenin once said that power was lying in the streets, just waiting form someone to pick it up.

Memoir of a Provincial Counterintelligence Agent

I have been taken to task for quoting Lenin before, but the comparison I am trying to make is just too apt. The same is true of narratives, of stories which lie around us unnoticed until someone chooses to write about them.

The recent mania for the television series, Downton Abbey, led to a series of articles about its sources. Its primary one seems to have been a memoir by a kitchen maid named Margaret Powell.

Source Material for Downton Abbey

In 1968, she penned a memoir called Below Stairs, about what it was like to work in a great house in England before and after the First World War. Amazingly, almost no other source material for this world exists, but this nugget went on to become the inspiration not only for Downton Abbey but an earlier series, called Upstairs Downstairs.

The Lithuanian equivalents are lying around as well, and they are valuable because they give a picture of a little-know part of Europe in the last century.

As my parents’ generation has died out, its books have been tossed or found their way to church bazaars where I pick them up for a quarter. The same is somewhat true in Lithuania, where the table of the used bookseller on Laisves Aleja in Kaunas is one of my favourite haunts.

The books which interest me most are memoirs, often self-published. These are unvarnished and raw and all the better for it because the authors reveal themselves in ways that more practiced writers would not.

One of my most recent finds is a self-published memoir by the late Jonas Demereckis, called Savanorio ir Kontrazvalgybininko Atsiminimai (Memoirs of an Army Volunteer and Counterintelligence Agent).

Born in 1897 Demerckis was a barely lettered village youth who volunteered for the independence army in Jurbarkas. He paints a funny picture of young men in the winter of 1919, travelling out to Kaunas on horse-drawn wagons, accompanied by an accordionist whose bellows came apart due to the wet snow. They were periodically harassed by Bolshevik agitators who encouraged them to join the Red Army.

In Kaunas, during basic training, an officer called out for men who had completed elementary school (grade four) or even had some high school education. Demerckis was one of them. They were taken to a hall and made to write a dictation, and those who could write reasonably well were drifted into office work.

The book is full of colourful anecdotes, mostly having to do with the primitive conditions under which they lived and worked – a barracks without a kitchen – a mission with a wagon to Kybartas to pick up banknotes for a bank – the catching of a Czech spy (?) who had maps of the country rolled into the metal tubes of his bicycle.

Eventually Demereckis was assigned to counterintelligence and worked out of Musninkai, north-west of Vilnius, guarding the frontier with Poland’s closed border (the countries were in a state of war until 1938). There he dealt with Communists, Poles, and smugglers and had various adventures, including fighting off a pack of marauding wolves on winter’s night.

This view of everyday life is particularly valuable to me because it complements the memoirs of Jonas Budrys, who was head of Lithuanian counterintelligence in the early twenties.

But there is so much more good material like this out there, lying around, waiting for someone to pick it up.

Film Option

I am so pleased to have sold the option to Underground

to Tomas Donela of Donelos Studija.

I saw his film, Atsisveikinimas, in the European festival that played in Toronto last fall, and was particularly impressed by the cinematography.

It would be great to see this project come together.

 

Update: May 31, 2016:

The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture awarded twenty-eight thousand Euros for development, so a few years later, this project is still alive.

Two New Books

The fraught subject of the Holocaust in Lithuania is addressed and broadened by two new books from The University of Nebraska Press, a house that specializes in nonfiction and whose books are available in Canada.

The first is Epistolophilia, the second biography by Montreal writer Julija Sukys. The book traces the life of an uneasy heroine, Ona Simaite (1894-1970), a Vilnius librarian who gained access to the Jewish ghetto while claiming she was going in to retrieve overdue books. On at least one occasion, she smuggled a girl out of the ghetto in a book bag. On other occasions, she brought in food and medications.

Simaite was caught by the Germans, tortured, and imprisoned in a concentration camp, but managed to survive and lived the rest of her life in France as a stateless person, corresponding with a wide range of intellectuals. She never seemed bien dans sa peau, but her uneasiness led to a wealth of musings on books and life.

If the life of Simaite is incredible in itself, the writing in this book is exceptional as well. I first found chapters of it published in the Baltic journal, Lituanus, and was so taken by the quality and intelligence of the prose that I looked up the author to find out when the biography was coming out, and have been waiting expectantly ever since.

My own enthusiasm is echoed in Publisher’s Weekly, which gave the book a coveted starred review.

While looking through the catalogue of the press, I stumbled across another exceptional new book called We Are Here, Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, by Ellen Cassedy.

She is an American writer of mixed Jewish and gentile origins who went to Lithuania to study Yiddish and recover the history of her mother’s life, as well as that of an uncle who had been a Jewish policeman in the ghetto in Siauliai.

What’s so remarkable about Cassedy is that she is something of a detective, interviewing everyone she can about what happened to the Jews and to the Lithuanians as well. She meets an old man in Rokiskis, who feels a need to unburden himself by describing the murder of Jews, which he witnessed decades before, and she speaks to surviving Jews as well.

But she doesn’t stop there. She digs through archives herself and hires others to do so too. She explores the idea of the bystander, the Lithuanians’ grief of their losses under the Soviet period and above all the great tragedy of the Holocaust with a fine sifting of history, circumstance, ambiguous morals and selective forgetting.

What’s so satisfying about this book is that it declines to argue from a fixed position. If I can polarize the extremes of the discussions on the Holocaust in Lithuania (discussions, often heated, that I have had in Vilnius streets, bars, and restaurants), on the one hand I hear accusation against Lithuania as a criminal nation which refuses to acknowledge fully the crimes of its people in the Holocaust and to compensate justly, insofar as possible, those who suffered at the hands of Lithuanian murderers. On the other hand, the argument goes that nobody knows about Lithuania and what it went through in the Soviet period and Stalin’s crimes were as great as those of Hitler (the double genocide debate, which remains a fiery topic).

Ellen Cassedy keeps on asking questions of the past and of those who choose to remember it in a certain way. To summarize her point of view would do an injustice to a book that probes the uneasy subject of moral action in impossible situations.

As an aside, I should add that neither of these books bears directly on my next novel, set in Lithuania in the twenties, but that project is moving slowly while I prepare for a creative writing conference in Toronto in May, and so in snippets of time, I read about the place, and when I am lucky, I come upon books such as these.

Thinking the Twentieth Century – Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

This transcript of ruminations on the twentieth century by a pair of first-rate minds is not only a fascinating read but also a poignant document because Tony Judt was dying of ALS during the book’s composition and he was looking back on his life and ideas – it’s a kind of summing up by one brilliant and thorny historian as spurred into existence by another, younger one.

Tony Judt became prominent in the public mind for Postwar, a overview of that period after WW2. He subsequently became controversial for an article about Israel in the New York Review of Books. Timothy Snyder has become increasingly prominent over several books, and developed into a bestseller and game changer for Bloodlands, a history of the lands occupied by both Stalin and Hitler.

While there is much to say about each historian, my particular interest lies in their focus on central and Eastern Europe. I became interested in Judt because he wrote that Paris 1968 seemed to him to be the most important event of its time, and he only later came to realize it happened at the same time as the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which flew under the radar for most pubic intellectuals. The multilingual Timothy Snyder, of course, has focused on Central and Eastern Europe for a long time.

The book is courageous in many ways because it takes on topics that I never considered before, such as the ideas of fascist intellectuals. Fascism is so discredited (and rightly so), it barely occurred to me that were “intellectuals” in the camp. Who would dare to discuss Fascist intellectuals in Canada?

For that matter, who in Canada would come out swinging as much as Judt does, taking swipes at others such as Norman Davies, himself a great specialist on Central and Eastern Europe, for undue insistence on the importance of Poland in European history, and Michael Ignatieff, among others,  for his support of the Iraq war?

Part of the reader’s pleasure of reading this text is the pleasure Judt himself takes in attacking not only individuals but trends as well. He is particularly sharp on the practice of teaching history through focusing on discrete moments because the method creates students who have lost their grasp of basic content. There’s nothing like watching a good scrap.

Anyone who is not a historian will find the range of references hard to follow at times. But reading the book is like having two of the smartest people you know over to dinner, and listening with delight as their minds range across the century. You might want to take notes for names to look up later or you might just want to sit back and let the whole thing wash over you. One thing is certain – you will yourself be more intelligent after you finish the book than you were before you read it.  And even if that’s not really possible, at least you will be better informed.