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.

Interview with MicroMega Edizioni on the subject of the novel Underground

 The interview was published in translation in Italy in December of 2023. Here are the questions and answers in the original English version:

 

  1. The title of the novel, ‘Underground,’ is quite evocative, especially considering your exploration of the underground resistance of the Lithuanian partisans against the Soviet occupation. What inspired you to delve into this often overlooked part of history?

For many decades, in North Americas the story of the second world war focused on  the fight against Nazi Germany on the western side of Europe, and to a certain extent North Africa. I grew up with films and television programs about Americans in combat, Britain under the Blitz, the Canadians in the Netherlands and in Italy, especially at Monte Casino, as well as stories of French resistance. These were scenes from the story of a more or less “good war” that ended in May of 1945. What happened in the east, in the territory historian Timothy Snyder called “Bloodlands”, places occupied first by the Soviets, then the Germans, and then the Soviets again, cannot be called simply a “good war.” It was far more complicated than that, with massive repression against civilian populations yet simultaneously the liberation of what remained of Europe’s Jews. And the war continued there, underground, for over another half dozen years until local armed resistance was crushed. I knew about this story for all of my adult life, and I knew about the partisan resistance as well but I needed to reach a point in my writing life where I felt I could manage to tell this story, and I needed to wait for a time in history when the story could be received in the west. For a long time, the story of the long war in the east without a “happy” ending, was of little interest in the west. But that has changed, and more recently interest has been amplified since the war between Russia and Ukraine. The zeitgeist now permits us to look again at the stories that were not told in the past.

  1. Rather than focusing on grand historical narratives, your novel delves into the story of a small country caught between two superpowers, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, during WWII. You chose to portray this through the perspective of partisans who, despite being heroes, are primarily ordinary individuals. While your Lithuanian heritage likely influenced the setting, how significant is it to adopt the viewpoint of smaller nations and everyday people in accurately depicting the brutal impact of power and violence?”

There is a kind of Great Power provincialism that believes important places are New York, London, Paris, etc. and their outlying provinces. Every beach is vast, but the universe is contained in every grain of sand on that beach, so I go looking for universal humanity in that tiny grain of sand. The smaller the stage, the greater the drama. The story of  war is on one hand grand, but on the other hand very personal; on one hand perpetually unchanging in history as men go to war and women weep, and on the other hand particular in different places. The detail of a particular place and time awakens in me awareness of the deeper universality of the human condition. If the purpose of literature is to make fresh the human condition, for example to tell a love story that is familiar and yet new, then my attempt is a version of this too, to show big events on a small stage, what it’s like to lie, for example, between the hammer of wartime Germany and the anvil of the Soviet Union.

  1. At the conclusion of the novel, the main character Lukas, residing in Canada and sharing similarities with your own biography, receives a letter from Lithuania, prompting him to retrace the threads of his story—the narrative depicted in the novel. To what extent do the character and the novel draw from autobiographical elements?”

My novel set in Lithuania is a form of imaginary autobiography. My eldest brother was born in Lithuania in 1943. When my parents fled in 1944, they thought they were departing for a short time and would have left my brother behind if his grandmother had not been away. Many other parents did this, and ended up with children left behind, children who could not get out of the Soviet Union for many, many years. My second brother was born in Germany and I was born in Canada. What would it have been like for me to meet my eldest brother decades later if he had been left behind in Lithuania? Would he resent my relative richness and freedom in the west, or would he be eager see if our shared blood brought us together? Or, alternatively, what would have happened to me if I had been there? One of my uncles lost all his teeth to Soviet interrogators in 1940, and another died in the gulag in 1955 for the crime of having been a successful farmer. One of my cousins was terrorized his entire life because he had relatives abroad. These are lives I did not live, but they are lives I can imagine and I have written about them.

  1. The novel extensively relies on deep archival research, yet in one of its initial chapters, characters Lukas and Rimantas destroy an archive containing their student records. Does this juxtaposition suggest an ambiguity in your relationship with memory? Moreover, does the narrative imply an inherent ambiguity within memory itself?

Memory is a mixed blessing. In the Soviet period the past was a dangerous place. A brother living abroad, an article one might have written in a student newspaper, clothes that betrayed previous bourgeois habits, a father deported to the gulag – any of these could imperil you. Young women whose parents or previous husbands shared “suspicious” last names were in a hurry to get married in order to get new last names, to disguise the past. As the Soviet Union collapsed, these various secrets were uncovered in a burst of exhilaration. But not all of them. There were guilty secrets too, of collaboration with one regime or another, with crimes in the Holocaust and other circumstances. Now, we have moved from simply hiding secrets, or simply revealing them, to look for nuance where in the past we saw only heroes and villains. But the past remains a dangerous place, if only because a writer like me can get stuck in one of the eddies in the current of history, obsessing on actions that cannot be changed. Also, I find an exasperating tendency in people to do one of two things: know little or nothing of the past yet have an opinion about it, often based on simplistic movies or TV shows, or simply condemn the past as if it were stupid and ignorant because we know more than people did in the past and we are more virtuous than those who lived in the past. But if the past is always guilty, we in the present will soon be guilty too, probably for crimes we didn’t think of, such as wearing clothes or electronic devices made by repressed people or children.

  1. Beyond its historical context, the main theme of the book revolves around a love story. Love has the power to unite, separate, save, and endanger. How significant, in your opinion, is the importance of this emotion in human experiences, both on an individual level and within collective contexts?

One of my other novels is called “Provisionally Yours”, a kind of joke on the phrases such as “Your Truly” or “Yours Forever”. Is this a cynical evaluation of romantic love? I don’t think so. I know the story of a man who built a kind of altar in his Canadian home in honour of the wife and daughter he left behind when he fled Lithuania. His love was steadfast and permanent. On the other hand, my aunt married a  man in Canada who “forgot” to tell her he had another wife in Lithuania who was still alive. His love was temporary. The characters in my novels feel the pressure of history upon them in a manner more pronounced than in North American stories where characters have greater agency. I would like to think that romantic love is strong enough to withstand the pressure of cataclysmic world events, but I am afraid I cherish this thought more as hope than as a certainty. Another kind love, one for place or tradition, is considered a bit old-fashioned now, even suspicious, but this love for home or country, childhood time or family tradition is very strong in me and in others, but too often now dismissed as nostalgic or nationalistic.

  1. In the initial sections of the novel, Lithuanian partisans hold firm belief in assistance from the Americans and Western nations, yet this hope gradually diminishes. Lukas, too, discovers no promised refuge in France and Canada. Does the novel not only condemn Soviet oppression but also critique the Western world for its reconciliation with the USSR?

I understand that among Poles there is something known as “The Great Betrayal” by the western powers, who went to war because of the invasion of Poland and then declined to finish the job they had started. Lithuanians and the Baltics “felt” western to themselves, and these places were considered “almost western” by Russia and other regions in the Soviet period. The Baltics adhered to an idea of the west as a place of rule of law, of liberal values, whereas the Soviet Union represented tyranny and lies. So yes, people who feel they “belong” to the west will wonder why they have not been granted membership to the club. But this desire to be western has to take into account the cost it would have required for western powers to continue the war. Even now, we seem to be entering a period when the cost of the war in Ukraine seems too high to some Americans and others. I suspect that Ukraine too “feels” itself to belong to the west, and hopes to be helped to become more so while fighting a tyrannical east. It is interesting to me that people in Poland and the Baltics and other places do not even want to be referred to as “East Europeans” because this title is somehow demeaning.

  1. The novel was initially published in 2011, well before the onset of the war in Ukraine. In light of the events unfolding over the past two years, has the narrative taken on new or altered significance for you?

Some historical tendencies seem to be true over time, but then get forgotten. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baltics and Poles remained wary of Russia, which has historically been expansionist, a colonial power exerting itself over nearby countries and territories. Generally speaking, western powers and intellectuals imagined that particular historical remnant of Russia’s foreign relations had passed. Then came wars in Chechnya, and Georgia, but those places seemed so far way. Even the invasion of Crimea seemed somehow unimportant. Eastern European nations rang alarm bells, but European Union members still did not see the threat from Russia as real. Then came the invasion and war in Ukraine. In Lithuania, members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tell me western European politicians and government functionaries now say, “You easterners were right all along”. I have noticed a tendency not to take easterners seriously even among my friends, who thought of me as a “typical” East European obsessed with Russia and Putin. It is only after Finland and Sweden recognized the threat of Russia and joined NATO that my friends began to nod their heads. In other words, some westerners only take other westerners seriously. It’s a little frustrating. Even now, I see traces of a sort of double standard as regards the actions of East Europeans. When Belarus, in the pocket of Russia, flies in migrants from Syria and Libya and then escorts them to the Polish and Lithuanian borders in an effort to wage a hybrid sort of war, I read in western newspapers that these poor unfortunate migrants lured in by Belarus should be treated more kindly by Lithuania an Poland. It’s as if the Baltics and Poles are at fault for the actions of Belarus. Interestingly, I have not heard the same response since Finland closed its border with Russia after the same sort of thing happened there.

  1. Vincentas, Lukas’ brother, turns to religion as a means to resist the atheist invader in the narrative. However, today, the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the war in Ukraine showcases that religion can serve both as a tool for liberation and for perpetuating violence. In your opinion, despite these conflicting roles of religion, where do you believe humans will consistently find motivations to fight for their freedom?

 

While the Catholic church has not recently been perceived as a political force in the west, in Lithuania and Poland it was the sole source of organized resistance during the middle and late Soviet period. It was the vehicle of resistance. But we know religions have been used in various ways,  including to support tyrannical regimes. In other words, religion in and of itself can be either a force for resistance or a collaborator in the apparatus of repression. Humans will fight for freedom as long as they can find the means to do it, but we know resistance can be crushed and ground down over time if the regime is brutal enough and willing to keep up the pressure. Resistance can also evolve. After the suppression of the Lithuanian partisans by the late fifties, Lithuanians practiced a form of resistance by acting deliberately through culture, in song and poetry, theatre and even academic pursuits, these in addition to acting through secret religious structures. The desire for freedom is very strong among those who are not willing to accept whatever a regime dictates to them, but the courage to fight is limited to a few, and the power to persist can sadly be ground down over time. Still, resistance can spring up again. Poland and Lithuania disappeared from the maps after their partitions among Prussia, Austria Hungary, and  Russia in 1795. But rebellion rose up a generation later, in 1830, only to be crushed. Then it arose again in 1863, only to be crushed again. But both Poland and Lithuania reappeared on the maps after the first world war, over 120 years later. These actions give me hope for political resistance over longer periods of time, even after a situation looks doomed. I just hope that Ukraine will get the help it needs to assert its right to existence now, rather than later, that it will not fall under the current tyranny of Putin’s Russia.

During an interview at the Rome Book Fair in December of 2023

Movie Poster

Here is the poster for the Lithuanian movie adaptation of my novel, Provisionally Yours known as Laikinai jūsų in translation. And below that you’ll find a link to the trailer as well as a few pics. The premiere in Vilnius on November 23, 2023 was a blast!  We’ll see if it can get over here next year.

 

The trailer is here:

 

Standing on a Vilnius street by an ad for the film.

 

On the red carpet at the premiere with lead actress Justina Nemanytė.

 

The audience for the premiere

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Provisionally Yours,  will also be adapted in an  8-part TV serial in the spring of 2024. Here is a Lithuanian language newspaper article about it.

Below is a photo of me with the actors and crew on location in the spring of 2023. The director in white is Ramūnas Rudokas and the lead, Simonas Storpirštis, stands beside me. I wish I’d thought to ask after the other names, but it was all in a whirl. See a few more photos on the photos page.

 

 

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In December of 2023 I spent a week in Rome helping my publisher, Del Vecchio Editore, to promote the Italian translation of my 2011 novel, Underground, about anti-Soviet resistance in postwat Lithuania. Becauae of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, interest was intense and the questions at various  events were piecing both in Italian and in English, in Rome and in Naples.

 

A strange and dramatic cover for the Italian translation of Underground.

 

A wonderful event hosted by Anne Giardini in Rome, and supported by two embassies.

 

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My latest novel, Some Unfinished Business was published by Cormorant Books  in February of 2023. I am very pleased indeed.

I received a wonderfully supportive description of the work in the introduction to an interview I did with Open Book.

Some Unfinished Business is a novel based on historical events that tell the story of a rhyming assassin, underground resistance, and precarious love in the Soviet Union of the postwar era

The Book Launch of Some Unfinished Business

 

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Here is a link to my most  recent audio book review on Shelagh Rogers’s CBC Radio 1 show, The Next Chapter.  I have reviewed Marius Kociejowski before, and I thought I’d had enough, but this erudite bookseller with a love for culture has an eye for eccentrics who are more interesting than the mainstream.

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A Chinese translation of Woman in Bronze,  originally published in 2011, has just appeared .

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I was in Europe for much of the spring and summer of 2022. I had a few literary readings in Lithuania and in May I  toured the translation of Buying on Time in Italy, translated as Tempus Fugit. Here is a link to some of the events.

I have just signed with the wonderful Italian house that did Tempus Fugit, Del Vecchio Editore, in order to have them bring out a translation of Underground in 2023.

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And in the meantime, here is a nice Lithuanian language profile of me that just ran on LRT TV. I’m on at about minute 2:20 and you may need to turn on sound.

A Visual Walk through a Few Scenes in Some Unfinished Business

The novel is set in rural and urban Lithuania in the Soviet postwar era, and as a friend said to me, “Why don’t you show some of those sites?”

So here are visuals of some of the settings in the novel.

 

1) My young Martin, the protagonist of the novel, is a youth living in a remote village called Lynežeris in 1947, in the south of the country, not far from the Byelorussian border. It’s a poor place where people live by subsistence farming. Here is a photo of one of the finer houses, taken a few years ago.

 

2) After years in the Gulag, in 1956, Martin finds himself in the city of Vilnius, where he goes looking for a job while walking down a major thoroughfare, called Vilnius Street. Here’s a modern picture of that street, all touristy now, but rather crumbling back then.

 

3) Martin applies for a job in a strange place, St. George’s church, which had been turned into a book depository for rare and forbidden books in the Soviet period. Here are a few photos. First the exterior, and then three interior shots of the bookshelves.

 

 

 

 

4) Kostas, the former village teacher in Martin’s youth, later becomes a famous writer who has an office in the fine Writers’ Union building. It was a former urban mansion with a modest exterior, but with some opulent decorations in the interior, including a grand staircase which Kristina will mount with complicating outcomes.

 

5) Kristina was adopted as a girl after being found shell-shocked in the Rasu cemetery, a short distance outside the city gate of Vilnius. It is a rambling old cemetery that runs over a couple of hills and a valley. It’s a place that comes alive on All Souls’ eve when people light candles and visit the graves of their dead.

 

6) Martin will  have a basement apartment very close to the old food market, which continues to function to this day.

 

7) The Dawn Gate in the remnants of the old wall of Vilnius gets mentioned twice in the novel. First Martin and Kristina will simply go for a walk through the opening. Of the two photos, one shows the exterior and the other shows the interior, with the painting of Mary Mother of God behind a window on the second floor. Originally, another building stood outside the gate. Kostas describes this place going up in flames, as it really did near the end of  the second world war.

 

8) Martin and Kristina will go for a walk down to what used to be called the Youth Park in the Soviet era. It’s a place where he will reveal some of his past. They walk by a fountain with elephants, but this fountain no longer exists in what is now called the Bernardinų Park.

 

9) Feeling burdened by the past, Martin and Kristina will go to an illegal bar for drinks in the old Užupis neighbourhood. This place is now very fashionable, but it was run down in the Soviet period.

 

And here’s a shout-out to Richard Martin-Nielsen, the former attaché at the Canadian embassy office in Vilnius. He suggested I do this last spring, before he moved on to another posting in Belgium. It only took me six months or so to get to it! Thanks, Richard, and good luck with the new assignment.

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.

 

 

European Homelands of the Imagination: A Personal Account

A Talk Given for the Goethe Institut at the Thomas Mann Festival in Nida, Lithuania,

July 13, 2019

 

Let me begin my consideration of European homelands of the imagination from afar both in geography and in time.

I wish to take you to the edge of Weston, a small town in Canada in the nineteen fifties and sixties. This town is expanding into the farm fields around it, fields which have been bought but not yet developed – within these unplanted fields stand a few abandoned farm houses with broken windows, and on the ground lie ponds slick with slime; the untended vegetation is beginning to include Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed, and poplar seedlings.

If Weston is about to consume the countryside with new suburbs, then the town itself, a main street with shops, is being eaten by the expanding city of Toronto, which will finally take it in one bite in 1967, when the place will lose its own mayor and police force. But Weston will sit inside Toronto for a very long time, like the undigested body of a frog inside a snake.

This is where I was born in 1953.

In this suburb-to-be, not yet a suburb, lived a scattering of working-class and middle-class families, all products of the war and then the postwar boom. In North America we remember this time fondly as one of wealth and growth and slow enlightenment about civil rights, but it had had its horrors. My friend of Japanese heritage, Mike Adachi, had parents who were interned as aliens during the war, and lost all of their property. My friend Allen Jamieson’s father had been a Canadian soldier in Hong Kong when it fell to the invading Japanese army, and he spent the war in a prisoner of war camp where he lost most of his sight due to malnutrition.

And then there was my family, Lithuanian immigrants who had fled the Red Army with their baby in 1944, and lived in a Displaced Persons’ camp in Oldenburg where they had another baby, before emigrating to Canada in 1948 and eventually giving birth to me.

If I sat in the kitchen with my mother and father as they were drinking tea after dinner, and if they were not rushed, they might tell me the story of their last home in the Lithuanian city of Alytus, which they had fled in the summer of 1944. I  possess one of the few family photos of that time, taken about a week before the arrival of the Red Army. My mother smiles innocently in the garden and holds the hand of my toddler brother, not quite a year old. On the other hand, my troubled father looks down, a briefcase in his hand, his mind clearly elsewhere.

My naïve mother had said to the maid they would need to clean the upstairs windows soon, but the maid replied the Soviets would be there within a week, so there was no point. When my mother asked my father about this, he explained he had a horse and wagon ready, a store of food, maps and currency and they would leave within a few days, as soon as they could hear the sound of the Soviet artillery. After all, his brother had spent a year in prison under the first Soviet occupation, and was lucky enough to escape alive, but lost all his teeth during beatings under interrogation by the communists.

Ever more successful in Canada with the passage of time, my mother and father bought a new car in 1958, as well as a lot near a beach where they intended to build a summer cottage. But for all his success, my father had a farmer’s distrust of extravagance and refused to buy a radio for the car. Instead, he and my mother talked, as we three boys in the back seat leaned forward to hear the story of fleeing Lithuania. My mother learned to recognize the sound of airplane engines because the Soviet planes strafed the columns of refugees. If she did hear a Soviet plane, she ran for the ditch with her sister, and my father took the baby to join them. Their little horse was forever calm, and stood waiting on the road as the bullets flew all around.  My mother and father remembered that horse fondly. A kind German officer told them one night to hurry across a bridge before it was blown to slow the advancing enemy, and the exhausted horse managed the job, bringing them eventually all the way to Oldenburg and safety. There they hunkered for a few years in a DP camp, gave birth to another of my brothers, and eventually came to Canada where I was born.

We grew up in perhaps the best place and time for people like us, when the economy was expanding and no wars were being fought on our land. We were like survivors of a shipwreck, people who landed on a paradisiacal shore, the Swiss Family Robinson with a refrigerator and a car. We were foreigners, but unremarkable among many other European immigrants. Millions died and millions fled; millions were displaced like pieces recut to form a new jigsaw puzzle.

But for all of its wonders, for all of its wealth, Weston was not my homeland, even though it is where  I grew up, a place which I remember so fondly to this day – outside the smell of cut grass lawns and the sound of young men washing their cars for Saturday night dates; inside the sound of the vacuum cleaner bumping against the baseboards by the carpet and the smell of bacon and eggs being fried for lazy weekend boys.

The immigrants of that time were called Displaced Persons, or DP’s for short, and I somehow remained profoundly displaced in the land of my birth.

Consider the work of Salman Rushdie, who  has written about imaginary homelands too, although his book of essays has to do mostly with post-colonialism and Britain.  I take an important observation from Salman Rushdie. In his view, the migrant is the central or defining figure of the twentieth century. Tantilizingly, Rushdie also writes that we live in ideas and through images we seek to comprehend the world. That is precisely what I am doing here.

I focus on European homelands. Partially this is a reflex, an unthinking action.  But beyond that, as a man of European heritage, I feel I have some right to this enquiry in a ways I would not have elsewhere.

So we should agree with Rushdie that there is nothing remarkable about emigrants of that period. Many if not most of their children managed to assimilate in the places where they landed, often retaining some fondness for their heritage such as a taste for the food of their parents and grandparents. Provided they were safe, some might even have gone back to the places their parents came from, such as Ireland or the United Kingdom.

But the fact of the iron curtain made going back to Lithuania impossible. It was not merely a question of the iron curtain. Other countries lay behind it too, but the Baltic States, Lithuania among them,  had been incorporated into the Soviet Union and thus disappeared from the map.

Imagine, a whole country disappearing! Parts of other countries disappeared, such as the land we stand on in Nida now, but Lithuania’s vanishing was total. At first, people in the west might have remembered its name, but as time passed, they forgot all about it.

Let me return for a moment to Weston, Ontario, the place where I was born. We children felt displaced there, not only because we came from Lithuania, but because in the dawn of the television era, Weston was so remote from the centres of the world as to have no meaning in and of itself. For children of the era, television and comic books were our true homes, and the places depicted there were American. Our true homelands lay in the exciting places of adventure like the western ranch on Bonanza, or the funny and urbane New York of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Honeymooners, and I Love Lucy, or the Hollywood of The Steve Allen Show. In comics it was Gotham City for Batman or Metropolis for Superman, or again, New York City for The Fantastic Four.

I lived with so many levels of exile, I barely existed, indeed felt as if I did not exist at all. A young man with parents from nowhere, a place that literally did not exist on the map, lived in a place that was almost nowhere. I was not alone of course, because the Estonians, Latvians, and Ukrainians felt the same way. We even had our own basketball league, which might as well have been called “The Vanished Nations League.”

Everyone needs to be someone, and every someone needs to be someplace.  I could solve the problem of my nonexistence by becoming a writer. Proof of my existence would then lie on the page. But I could not easily solve the problem of being some place. I have been searching for homeland for most of my life, and frequently it has been a homeland of the imagination.

My first homeland of the imagination lay in the ruins of the British Empire, called in my time The Commonwealth. Every Canadian elementary school room had a map in it, and on every map the countries that belonged to The Commonwealth were coloured pink. Weston was farther from London than it was from New York, but it was closer to my childish heart because I felt that everything within the vast pink expanse belonged to me. My homeland was England, but I might find echoes of this homeland in India, Australia, or South Africa if I so chose. As I began to turn into a compulsive reader, I read the story of this imaginary homeland again and again, through Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Nesbitt, and H. G. Wells. Their home was my home, and their language was my language, even though the writer I most admired, the poet Dylan Thomas, was actually Welsh.

If a homeland is a place that brings you comfort and security, this imaginary European homeland of England and by extension The Commonwealth, consoled me for many things – for being a failure at sports, for living in the godforsaken emptiness of Weston, and for having a father who never really adapted to Canada, and a mother who was often very sad. My one homeland of the imagination, the English one, was full of bravado and empire. My other one, my Lithuanian potential one, was full of melancholy. These homelands were like two angels on my shoulders, or  to be Freudian, my English homeland was my childish superego, and my Lithuanian homeland was my id.

But the English homeland did not last. It was destroyed by the offhand comment of my friend Vaughan’s grandmother. He was an English boy and when his grandmother came to Canada to visit him, I stood in the corner of the room, filled with admiration for her very English Englishness. When I was introduced to her, she said: “What a pretty boy. Such a shame he’s a foreigner.”

Such a fragile homeland this Commonwealth was! So easy to destroy with an offhand comment! And I should not wring my hands about this comment because it awoke me to the reality of my condition. The Commonwealth was not my homeland, imagined or otherwise. I would need to go looking for my homeland, but from the ruined British homeland I took one prize – namely the English language. It was the tool I would use to forge myself and to find my own homelands as well.

Well then, what about the homeland my parents had left behind? My mother had bouts of gloom for the loss of it. She spoke repeatedly about the place where her own mother lived until she died in the late fifties. This very same grandmother once wrote to say how sad she was that she could never meet me because she wished to buy me a bag of candies. To a child, a bag of candies represented a fortune as well as love, great wealth when candies were sold by the pound, but no one ever bought them for me because my grandmother lived in a land that did not exist.

This homeland of my parents therefore existed for them, but it did not exist outside the walls of our house or the walls of our Lithuanian church, or the yard of our Saturday morning Lithuanian school. If my Commonwealth English homeland came to me through its authors, my parents’ Lithuanian homeland came to me through the oral recounting of my their childhoods. These stories recounted a life in the equivalent of the city of Troy before it was destroyed, and their great migration was the Aeneid. Once Troy has been sacked, there is no going back.

One  of my lost European homelands, the Commonwealth one, was written, and the other homeland, the Lithuanian one, was spoken, but both were imaginary.

I should add that my mother did read me a few stories from Lithuanian books. Two of the stories were by Jonas Biliūnas. The first  was called Brisiaus galas, about an old dog who dreams of adventures with his master, only to be shot by this master when the dog  is too old. The other story, Kliūdžiau, was about a boy who takes his bow and arrow and in a moment of bravado shoots and kills a neighbourhood cat, after which he is filled with remorse. The third memorable story was Grybų karas, in which the mushrooms decide to go to war, but die of rot before they can execute their plan.

My Canadian friends laugh merrily when I tell them of these Lithuanian children’s stories, so dark and so pessimistic compared to the happy tales of Disney.

So what about my parents’ homeland? It could not be mine. Their homelands were both their childhood homes and family, and  their youths as well, when they were young and easy and green and carefree. In my own cocky youth, I considered my parents to be nostalgic, and there was no more dismissive term in my adolescent vocabulary. Their memories were not my memories and I was casually cruel about their irrelevance. I would find a homeland, perhaps, but I would find it myself.

If I did not feel Canada was my homeland, and if the Commonwealth would not have me, and the dismal Lithuania was not for me either, what was I to do?

My search for homeland went into the university library where I spent many days and nights when I was a student and the place where I wandered the stacks of the European history section, searching for the word “Lithuania” in the indexes of European history books. Often I did not find the word and even when I did, the entries were always brief and sometimes dismissive, as in a leftist history which referred to interwar Lithuania as worthy of a “comic opera.” Disturbed and wounded, I would return to a carrel where I was studying English literature and might be writing a paper on Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner.

So the language of my abandoned Commonwealth homeland took me to other ones, the Northern Michigan landscape of Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories, or the YoknapatawphaCounty of Faulkner. Theses were homelands I occupied for a while, though not European ones, unless perhaps the Italy of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a novel whose hopelessness appealed to my youthful nihilism.

That library was a kind of refuge – bookish men, women and children have found asylum in libraries ever since wars, competitive sports, fractious parents, whining children, moronic television shows, leaf blowers, motorcycles, food processors and other dangers or irritants have driven them away from the rest of life. Libraries have been celebrated often, most notably by Alberto Manguel, who spoke of sitting in his French provincial private library, listening to how the books connected to one another at night.

But the library is not the destination of this voyage of European homelands of the imagination. It is instead a point of transit, a portal. It is the place that takes you to the homelands, whether in fiction or nonfiction because both are imaginary once they are in books and no longer concrete.

Through it, I might have entered one of Ray Bradbury’s homelands, which sounds so warm and so strange in The Martian Chronicles:

It was quiet in the deep morning of Mars, as quiet as a cool black well, with stars shining in the canal waters, and, breathing in every room, the children curled with their spiders in closed hands, the lovers arm in arm, the moons gone, the torches cold, the stone amphitheaters deserted.

Through that same portal, with so many choices,  I might have entered into one of Norman Davies’s histories  – because Lithuania was not the only place that had disappeared over time. This very fine historian, the author of many volumes but for us most pointedly of Vanished Kingdoms, says of the ancient Prussians of the tenth century, that they lived on the Amber Coast and  their name might mean something like “Water Tribes” of “People of the Lagoons.” Such potential romance in this sort of naming! Such potential for a homeland, but perhaps a little too far back in history.

What need for all this going into fantasy or ancient history through libraries when Lithuania gained its independence decades ago, and thus I could have found it to be my homeland? My son lives there and so does my grandson, but the land of Lithuania is more often the land of the supermarket called Maxima for me now when I am on the street, or other stores where I go to buy snacks for an overactive five year-old. But my imagination does not inhabit this world. It does not provide me comfort or space for roving in the way my imagination seeks.

Umberto Ecco says we know perfectly well the real world exists, but we decide to take the fictional one seriously – let me modify that to say we take the imaginary world seriously.

I have taken you on a rambling journey and it wouldn’t be fair to leave you without reaching my goal. Through this library portal I have indeed found my European homeland, and it remains an imaginary one, an evocative one as strange as the Mars of Ray Bradbury, but so close I feel I inhabit it in my mind if not in my body.

I am speaking of another writer I found long ago, namely Czeslaw Milosz, who in his Issa Valley and Native Realm wrote with great love and detail of his childhood home in a crumbling Lithuanian manor house where everyone spoke Polish, the language of his writing too. This landscape of creaking wagons and birdsong among the trees is alive to me. I can smell it and feel it and find comfort in it.

But it is only one part of my European homeland of the imagination. I don’t inhabit the world solely of Milosz because others have evoked this world as well. I think of Tadas Ivanauskas, the great naturalist of Lithuania, the founder of the Kaunas zoo. In his Aš Apsisprendžiu, he writes of a childhood in a manor house where the hunting dogs sprawled wherever they liked, the lamp oil was measured out each evening, and a barrel of vinegar stood in the living room forever because no one knew how it got there, but since it had stood there since the beginning of time, it might as well continue.

There are others who have written well to evoke their landscapes, not just the inhabitants of manor houses – the former officer of independent Lithuania, Konstantinas Žukas, in his Žvilgsnis į praeitį or the head of Lithuanian counterintelligence, Jonas Budrys in his Kontražvalgyba Lietuvoje, and many other less celebrated, but equally engaging writers who have created the atmosphere of their Lithuanian homelands.

Their homelands have become mine.

These homelands, like those of my parents, are gone from everywhere but the imagination. Czeslaw Milosz himself said upon revisiting his childhood home, that not one stone stood upon another in any recognizable way after the passage of a few disastrous decades. Yet Milosz in most of his later prose works returned again and again to this place because it was the place that had formed him. I who sneered at the nostalgia of my parents learned to respect their views through Milosz.

But critically, both my parents and Milosz spoke of memories, whereas I speak of imaginary European places, imaginary in the sense that I never inhabited them in my childhood and they no longer exist now.

These homelands of the imagination are richly described and welcoming, waiting for me and others like me as if they were chairs by the fire on a cold and windy evening. I enter these homelands in my writing and I live in them in my mind. My novels are nothing more than extensions of these memoirs,  but my work is written in English. I step into these worlds and I rearrange the furniture to suit my story, and I add or remove characters as I might invite or not invite guests to a party.

The European homeland of the imagination has certain advantages over a physical homeland. One need not spill blood for it. The imaginary homeland is a danger to no one else. It is a private refuge unless I use it to ask readers to join me. As the American historian Kate Brown says in her Biography of No Place, she writes of a place that no longer exists and the people who no longer inhabit it. I once felt as if I did not exist, and to find my imaginary homeland, I similarly had to go to a place that did not exist anywhere but in books.

I have written here about one of my own European homelands of the imagination, but there are other potential ones. When I am in the Lithuanian village of Lynezeris near the border and my mobile phone registers Belarus, I think of the homeland evoked by Alexandra Alexievich. Here in Nida when I am out on the Baltic beach, my phone picks up Kaliningrad and I think of a long-gone colleague of mine in Canada, Margitta Dinzl, who was carried out of East Prussia on the arms of her mother at the  end of the second word war. She spoke so vividly to me of this place, one she had never seen in adulthood, over forty years ago, that I can practically smell it, yet it exists nowhere else but in her mind and now seeded in mine. And when I say seeded I mean exactly that. My imagination begins to work on these places, to make them potential zones of comfort for me and the places begin to grow if I let them.

In her old age, my mother-in-law began to suffer from dementia. She saw ghosts: her dead friend from down the road knocked on her door. What surprised me was another change that came upon her.

She could no longer feel at home. When I rose from her kitchen table in a house she had inhabited for fifty years, she would say to me, “Are you going my way? Do you think you could take me home?” She had begun to disassociate herself from her surroundings. She no longer felt their comfort, their reassuring warmth.

She too had an imaginary home, one that was elsewhere, but she could no longer enter into it. She was looking for it because the search for a homeland is a lifelong quest. Home evolves and shifts.

European Homelands, even imaginary ones, can slip away. We leave them by choice or memory loss, or the world of politics and economics erupts and forces us to leave them. But they are not in one fixed place. We want them because their comfort is as welcome as birdsong in spring,  yet this wellbeing can vanish as quickly as a season’s end, and we need to migrate with our imagination to find our homelands again. I am a writer who lives in his imagination and one who has found his true European homeland there, at least for now.

Antanas Šileika

 Writers and Some of their Works that Have Been Cited in this Essay in the Order in Which They Appear

 

Johann Wyss  – The Swiss Family Robinson

Salman Rushdie  – Imaginary Homelands

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Conan Doyle

Elizabeth Nesbitt

H G Wells

Dylan Thomas

Jonas Biliūnas – Brisiaus galas, Kliūdžiau

Justinas Marcinkevičius – Grybų karas

Ernest Hemingway –  The Nick Adams Stories, A Farewell to Arms

William Faulkner

Alberto Manguel – The Library at Night

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles

Norman Davies – Vanished Kingdoms

Umberto Eco – The Book of Legendary Lands

Czeslaw Milosz – Native Realm, Issa Valley

Tadas Ivanauskas – Aš Apsisprendžiu

Konstantinas Žukas – Žvilksnis į praeitį

Jonas Budrys – Kontražvalgyba Lietuvoje

Kate Brown – A Biography of No Place

Alexandra Alexievich

Biographical Note:

Antanas Sileika is the author of six books of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent novel published in Lithuania and Canada is Provisionally Yours, and its subject, among other things, has to do with the annexation of the Klaipeda region by Lithuania in 1923.

 

 

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

 

 

 

The Barefoot Bingo Caller Wins Book of the Year in Translation in Lithuania

I was at the Vilnius book fair again this year to launch my new novel, called Provisionally Yours in English and translated as Laikinai jūsų by the publisher, Baltos Lankos. It was a wonderful time as usual there. See the cover below:

 

But my memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller in English, and Basakojis bingo pranešėjas in Lithuanian, also published by Baltos Lankos, had been short-listed for book of the year there in the adult category. And it won! Here is  a photo, of my receiving that award.

 

And finally, I launch my new novel in English in Toronto on March 19. Here is some news about that:

 

Fall 2018 Update

Here are a few upcoming events:

My next novel , Provisionally Yours, an espionage novel set in Kaunas in 1921, has a publication date of March 19, 2019. There is a little bit of information and a tentative cover below.

The Lithuanian translation will actually show up a month earlier at the Vilnius Book Fair.

Here are some of the events that I’ll be taking part in through fall of 2018.

September 21, 7 PM. Interview with author Dubravka Ugresic on the occasion of her new novel, Fox.

September 23, I’ll be speaking at Word on The Street on the subject of creative writing.

October 27, I’ll be speaking at Guernica Press at the International Festival of Authors.

.November – December 2018 – I’ll try to stay in as much as possible to do a second draft of a novel in progress, whose working title is Skylark and Badger. I do some of my best concentrated work at the Toronto Writers’ Centre.

 

 

 

 

 

Vilnius Book Fair 2018

The Translation of my memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, has just been published in Lithuania and I will be presenting it at the February 2018 Vilnius Book Fair, 

ž

If you happen to be there and have the language, come out and see me interviewed on stage by  Lithuanian television (LRT) on Friday, February 23 at 7 PM. Jolanta Kryževičiene has been interviewing me for years and she knows my work well, so I am looking forward to this talk. The interview will also run subsequently on television as will a couple of other interviews I will do both on TV and radio.

 

 

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.

Imagining Lyn Lake (Lynežeris)

 

 

Lyn Lake is far from everywhere, deep in the forest in a place with no cell phone reception and very close to the Belarus border.

 

Lyn Lake House

Many unusual things have happened in this place, and my correspondent, Eirimas Martunass, whose father grew up here, has told me about some of them. I am drawn to this remote village because Kostas Kubilinskas, the Dr. Seuss of postwar Lithuania, taught in the elementary school while on an undercover mission to penetrate and betray the underground anti-Soviet resistance. Once he succeeded and murdered at least one man, he went on to write rhyming children’s poetry to great success.

Stories from this place are often tragic, but with a ironic twists of the kind Rod Serling might have imagined on The Twilight Zone.

I’m working on a new novel inspired by those events, with a working title of  Skylark and Badger, the code names of the two protagonists..

But as I work toward the story, I discard my earlier versions of it. Here is one version, which introduces us to the rhyming assassin, and then goes back to tell a story of three boys stopping a Nazi transport train inspired by an incident that Eirimas told me. The photo below is of the house that served as a schoolhouse in Lyn Lake almost seventy years ago. The barely visible star of David suggests that Jews once lived in this house, but they were long gone from living memory well before The Holocaust.

 

Lyn Lake Window

 

 

 

Chapter Two – The Secret – 1947

 

 

A man with a terrible secret sat under a broad old oak tree overlooking Lyn Lake. The village lay behind him. He had thick, wavy hair and a widow’s peak over a high forehead, and he wore a very long, thin raincoat, even though it was only September and the weather was still fine. He was always conscious of his effect, even here in this godforsaken village where the locals considered him peculiar rather than artistic, as he intended. Beside him were a pipe and a half bottle of homemade vodka, namine in the local language, which he sipped on regularly throughout the late afternoon and into the evening. He had a bad relationship with alcohol, but it was unclear if he drank because of his problems, or if his drinking was just one of the many threads that would snare him.

He sat with his back against the tree and a scribbler on his knees. He wrote lines tightly packed together because there was a shortage of paper after the war, and just about everything else. But what was he writing on those pages? Poetry, he said to anyone who asked, and he occasionally amused the children in the country school where he worked as a teacher by reading them rhyming children’s stories. Those stories would make him famous one day, but at a price.

His name was Kostas Kubilinskas, and Kostas did not like teaching. He was made for better things, but he needed to survive somehow and for the time being he taught all four grades in a one-room village school.

The village might as well have been nowhere for its remoteness.

The nationality of the village and its surroundings depended on the decade. Lyn Lake lay on shifting ground, like those small floating islands that drift from one bank to another in marshy waters. Different rulers called it by different names. Within the last fifty years, it had been part of Czarist Russia, then Germany, then Poland, then Germany again, then Belarus, then Lithuania and finally now, in 1947, the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. The villagers spoke Lithuanian among themselves, and reluctantly learned whatever language the current government used to rule them.

The closest town of Marcinkonys was twelve kilometers away over a forest lane. The villagers were very far from all governments and wished to be left alone, but the governments and their armies came to them, whether the villagers liked them or not. Usually not.

The earth was terribly sandy and had a tendency to blow away before the miserable harvests of rye, buckwheat, potatoes and other vegetables could be gathered, and the cows were thin from eating poor grass in the forest meadows. The pine forests around the village were massive in this part of Europe. Most of the land was not worth farming, yet some kind of living could be made by gathering the meager harvests, picking berries or mushrooms, selling wood, and catching fish from Lyn Lake. But only if the government requisitions were not too high – if the men were not taken away for forced labour by the various passing armies – or if the men and women were not imprisoned, deported, or killed in any of the ingenious ways that fate had of bringing misfortune to the village.

Before the latest war, there had not been any Jews in the village for a long, long time, and that was another sign of the poverty of the place because the Jews were the ones who ran the stores in this part of the world. Reportedly, the one Jewish family that had tried to live in the place in the previous century left because they could not make a living by running a tavern. The village schoolhouse, just one end of a log house considered big by local standards, had carved wooden decorations along the lintels above the windows, and among them, if one looked carefully, one could see small stars of David. Perhaps the schoolhouse had once been the Jewish tavern. No one was sure any more. Many things were forgotten.

The villagers had rights to certain parts of the lake, where they set their nets for fish. Only children ever tried to fish with rods, which could bring in one fish at a time, but a net, if you were lucky, could bring in many. Lyn was the local name for the most abundant fish, otherwise called Tench in English, cousins of the homely carp. Slippery as eels, they seemed to repopulate the lake for all the intensive fishing, so there was always hope of catching more.

 

Chapter Three – A Side of Bacon – 1943

 Lyn Lake Cemetery

Three of boys crouched behind a bush on the far side of Lyn Lake, hiding from their parents, who had no patience for the indolence of their sons. Parents would force the boys to hoe gardens, or drive the geese away from planted fields, or labour at the practically endless chore of chopping wood for the winter. Their parents were merciless taskmasters, driving all the children to make themselves useful. But for the boys, it was a summer’s day that deserved devotion to the promise it held.

They were barefoot and dressed in homespun linen shirts and pants. In the midday heat, the mosquitos were too sluggish to attack, but the flies buzzed about their ears and bit them furiously. Young Vladas wished he had a long tail so he could swat them without using his hands.

“You’re a liar,” said Vladas.

“It’s true, I tell you. I read it in a book.”

“What book?”

“I don’t have it anymore.”

Books were not exactly rare in the village, but they weren’t common either, and Vladas was sure he would have seen the book if it was around. He was skeptical of his friend, Almis, who spoke so confidently that half the time you believed his lies. Squatting with them was Dovas, who said nothing, and didn’t even swat at the fly on his ear. Dovas rarely said anything of interest and half the time you didn’t know if he understood what you were saying, but he had a knack for finding good fishing spots and he would defend you in a fight, so he was not much trouble to have around. He was almost as good as a dog, but he wouldn’t fetch.

“You get me some grease, and I’ll prove it,” said Almis.

“Where am I going to get grease?”

“Butter, then.”

“It’s hot. The butter would melt.”

Almis had read that if you greased the rails of train tracks, the engine wheels would spin uselessly and the train would be halted. Vladas loved the idea of stopping a locomotive with a handful of grease. He wanted to test the proposition.

“Wait here,” said Vladas.

The boy went back to his parents’ house.

The village had not changed much in a hundred years. It was made up of three dozen wooden houses on either side of a sandy road, and the fields that belonged to those houses were scattered across a few kilometers, a field here, a meadow there. If Vladas was in luck, his parents and older brothers and sister would be out in the fields with only his grandmother in the house, watching his younger brother. He found her alone by the window, stitching a shirt as the little boy played out front in the yard.

Valdas’s grandmother wore a kerchief over her hair and the shapeless uniform of old women, a sweater even in the heat of the day and a long, dark dress and wooden clogs on her feet. She seemed very old to him. She looked at him with her pale eyes.

“Why aren’t you out with your parents?” she asked.

She expected him to be working.

“The boys told me about a lake a few kilometers away. They said you can see the fish jumping there. I want to put in a line.”

She sighed for the sake of his parents, who needed all the help they could get, but nodded. She understood boys were not like horses that could be worked all day long.

“Take something to eat,” she said, and she didn’t seem to notice when he cut a very thick piece of smoked bacon off one of the sides hanging in the larder, as well as two thick slices of black bread. He wrapped them both in a linen tea towel.

“Bring home a lot of fish,” she said, and she muttered a few words and waved her fingers at him. He wasn’t sure if she had said a prayer or cast a spell. There didn’t seem to be much difference between the two of them anyway.

He ran back to where the other two boys waited for him and showed them what he had in the towel.

“Let’s go.”

The closest train tracks ran past Marcikonys, a real town of over a thousand people, and twelve kilometers away by the forest road, but if they cut through the forest they could lose a few kilometers. They knew all the forest paths because villagers fanned out after rainfalls to gather mushrooms, which could be dried and sold, or to gather blueberries, lingonberries or cranberries. These were not exactly recreational activities because their families depended on these foods to survive, but it was the kind of work that came close to play. In the forest, they would sometimes see hare or deer or wild boar. They occasionally found beehives and smoked them to steal the honey.

Now, in the intense heat of the summer, the forest was practically silent except for the buzz of flies that followed them from home. The trees were very tall and the branches very high and there was little underbrush. They walked among these columns as though through a cathedral with a green canopy. You could see a long way into the forest until the trees seemed to move together in the distance and became a wall. The threesome walked across gray mosses that crunched under their feet and they sometimes stooped to pick a few lingonberries hanging under the green, leathery leaves on low stems. Without sugar, the lingonberries were tart, but they helped to take off the boys’ thirst because they had left without thinking of taking a bottle of water.

Then Dovas found a rivulet without being asked, and they stooped and drank some water with cupped hands, and splashed their hair and shirts to keep themselves cool. The pound of bacon was slippery and sweating and it leaked through the cloth Vladas had wrapped around it. They ate a little of the bread, which had absorbed some of the fat, and then drank more water and went on.

The Germans had ruled the country for two years, but there were not many of them on the ground except at the infirmary back at the village. Lyn Lake was so far off the beaten track that there was not much danger to the Germans, not yet, and so their wounded rested there behind a palisade until they were well enough to go back into battle. There were more Germans at Marcinkonys because the railway ran through there, and the town had once held many Jews until they were rounded up. A couple of years earlier, when the Germans and their local helpers began to shoot them, many of the Jews had escaped and wandered through these woods, some to be recaptured, some to join the Red Partisans, and a very few to be hidden away for a while.

The boys picked their way through the green and grey mosses. The grey ones crumbled underfoot in the heat of the day, but in the morning and by night they were soft. Shoes were expensive, bast slippers too fragile, and clogs unwieldy in the forest. They walked barefoot on soles hardened by rubbing up against the earth, but the boys still needed to be watchful of what they were stepping on. A sharp, upturned branch could pierce their flesh and a bad cut was dangerous for a countryside without medicine for any but soldiers in the army.

Their shirts were wet with sweat by the time they reached the track on a gentle rise outside the Marcinkonys. It was dangerous to be seen near the rail bed because Red partisans out of nearby Byelorussia sometimes blew up the rails or fired on the trains. But there weren’t enough German soldiers to guard all the lines and the boys saw no railway workers, or indeed any other suspicious adults.

The rails were hot to the touch in the afternoon sun. The bacon itself, mostly fat and very little lean, was sweating as hard as the boys, and it bled fat easily as the threesome worked along one hundred meters of rise, rubbing and rubbing the bacon on the hot rail. Then they stopped to look back. One rail now glistened more than the other, and so Almis took over from Vladas and he rubbed the other rail down to where they had begun with the first.

Not much of the bacon remained except for the thin layer of lean meat. They walked back fifty metres from the rail bed and found a place where the line was visible through a gap in the bushes. Then they sat in the shade and waited.

“When is the next train going to come?” asked Dovas.

The other two boys looked at him, surprised to hear him speak. Dovas never seemed to have a sense of time, except in a general way.

Vladas looked at Almis, who shrugged his shoulders. None of them knew about schedules. It was like fishing. The fish bit or they did not. The train would come, or it wouldn’t. They would wait and see.

Vladas used a pocketknife to scrape the metallic layer off the surface of the bacon that they had rubbed on the rails, and then he cut the meat thinly and laid it on what remained of their bread. They knew it would make them thirsty, but they were hungry and could not resist. This was how country people ate their bacon – sliced and raw off the side, or cooked if a pan was handy. But none was.

They watched and waited, and even from that distance they could see many flies had landed on the rails. Vladas hoped they would not lick away the grease before the train arrived. They watched the bare land by the tracks, and nothing happened for a long time. The sun swung right over the tracks and they glinted, bright and painful to look at. Finally they heard the chugging of the locomotive, coming from the southwest, which was very good because the train would have to make it up the rise rather than come down it. The boys rose up on their haunches, three pairs of eyes above a mass of bushes, and they waited as the chugging grew nearer. Soon the plume of smoke appeared above the tree line.

It was a German supply train, loaded with materiel for the army fighting the Reds at the Battle of Smolensk hundreds of kilometers away to the east. An armored car with a machine gun turret guarded the train. The cars were many and heavily loaded and moving slowly as the engine strained forward like a weary horse with an excessive load. And like horses’ hooves that struggled up a wet hill, the wheels of the engine did indeed begin to slip as they came upon the greased rails. The train slowed as the iron wheels turned but failed to make it up the rise.

For a moment the train was still as the wheels spun madly, and then the engineer disengaged the drive and the wheels stopped turning.

Vladas and Almis hugged each other and would have shouted for joy, but Dovas pushed them down low and put his finger to his lips. Soldiers were getting off the train, and they held their rifles at the ready. The bushes where the boys were hidden were not that far away from the soldiers. If the men chose to fan out toward the forest, the boys would be found.

But the soldiers on the train did not go far. They did not want to expose themselves on the open grass beside the track where Red partisans might be waiting to pick them off. Or even worse, the partisans might intend to blow up the train and storm it afterward. Both the boys in the bushes and the young German soldiers were afraid, and rightly so. Fear was common in that country, and the only way to fight it was to carry on, to laugh if possible when things did not turn out as badly as they might have. But it was easier to think that way after the danger was over.

The men checked under the train for charges, and found none. At an order from an unseen commander, the soldiers stepped back up on the steps of the train and they held their positions there. The engineer engaged the gears and the train went into reverse, helped by the falling grade. The engine pulled back to the place before which the rails were greased. Two soldiers came out with buckets and spades, and another pair came out with them as guards. They went a little way away from the rail bed, and dug the sand that lay under all the vegetation in this part of the country. And then this terrified work party walked out to the greased rails to sprinkle sand on them while the guards kept watch.

The victory of boys over men, of young villagers in homespun clothes over the industrial and military might of Nazi Germany brought unbearable joy to the hearts of the boys. How was it possible to celebrate in silence? It was not even Dovas, the slightly slow, otherworldly boy who betrayed them, but Almis, who had told the other boys about greasing the rails and was now vindicated.

“Hah!” he said, and not even very loudly, but as it turned out, loudly enough. Had the work party still been digging sand, the sound of their spades against the earth might have covered the noise, but they were already sprinkling sand on the rails. One of the guards looked to where the boys were hiding and pointed and then brought up his automatic and fired in their direction.

Other automatics joined in from the steps of the cars and after a moment the heavy machine gun atop the armored car joined in. Heavy firing is often called “withering”, and in this case it proved to be just that, tearing apart bushes, bringing down branches and scattering thousands of leaves in premature autumn.

The boys ran swiftly, like rabbits, zigzagging and keeping their heads low. The soldiers had not seen anything specific, so their firing was wild, but still it struck dangerously close by, throwing up sand near the boys’ feet and cracking branches right beside them. A bullet could hit them at any moment.

But none did.

Soon the firing stopped because no commander could afford to waste ammunition on a vague enemy who did not fire back. Yet the joy in the boys’ hearts had turned to fear. They continued to run as if the soldiers were right behind them. They were wet with sweat, and the mosquitos came out and descended on them as they ran. But still they flew, not looking where they put their feet, and soon they were bleeding from them. Dovas was faster than the other two and they lost sight of him, and although Vladas was faster than Almis, he ran near him because it would have been too terrible to flee through the forest alone. So many sharp things cut his feet that he did not keep track of them.

At the village they separated, and then each ran into his own house. At Vladas’s place the whole family rose in alarm as he threw himself into the room where the family sat together at the dinner table. His hair was wild and his face was scratched and bleeding and the blood ran from his feet, staining the wooden floor. Mother and father seized the boy, whose eyes were wild, but they could not get anything out of him, breathless and fearful as he was. They stripped his sweaty clothes off him and his grandmother dabbed at the scratches on his face and hands as his mother washed his feet and picked the slivers out of them, and then bound them in cloths. They sat him up in bed and gave him birch sap to drink, and toward evening he was well enough to tell his parents what had happened.

His father pulled him out of bed over the protests of his mother and grandmother, and turned him and whipped his buttocks with a switch while pouring out a short, breathless speech.

“They could have killed you. Do you understand? And you would only have gotten what you deserved. And do you know what the Germans do to villages that have attacked them? They burn them down and shoot many men and sometimes whole families. You idiots could have brought them down on us and you could have killed your mother as well as killing yourselves.”

His grandmother stayed his father’s hand.

“Look at his foot,” she said. His left was swollen and beginning to discolour. She unwrapped the foot and brought a candle nearby and searched until she found a double pin-prick.

“He’s been bitten by an adder,” she said. His mother fell on her knees to pray. His father threw down the switch and went out to find the folk doctor. The two women watched as the leg swelled up and the boy began to whimper in pain. They put cool clothes on his forehead, but he pushed them away. After a while, his father returned with water over which the folk doctor had said some words. They rubbed his leg down with this water and waited.

Almis walked about the village with his chest puffed out. He had been right and now everyone knew it. He stayed away from Vladas’s house in case his parents blamed him. Almis received many admonishments from other adults, but he was a hero among the boys his own age.

No one thought much about Dovas because the boy appeared and disappeared at will, and no one ever went looking for him in the house where his father was a drunkard and his mother an anxious, sickly wife. He had told his own father nothing, but word eventually got out. When Dovas’s father came after him with the belt, the boy fled across the village and in his haste, forgot about an unused well in a tumbledown farmstead, where he fell in and drowned before anyone discovered where he was. They only found him two days later.

 

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.