Reviews and Appearances

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.

My latest novel, Some Unfinished Business (formerly The Unbowed Heart)  has been picked up by Cormorant Books for publication in February of 2023. I am very pleased indeed. I have just finished the copy edit.

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

I also have a comic novel almost ready,  loosely based on both  Henri Murger’s Tales of the Latin Quarter (also the inspiration for the opera, La Boheme as well as the musical, Rent) and Neringa Jonšaitė’s Neringos Kavinė, but that will have to go on the back burner as I do a rewrite of the novel above first.

A Chinese translation of Woman in Bronze is in the works and I have agreed  to write a book-length essay on bi-nationality for a new independent press .

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.

And now I’m just back from Lithuania this fall where I signed a contract for both a TV serial and a film based on my last novel, Provisionally Yours.  I’ll report details in a littttle while.

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.

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.

 

 

Short-Listed Again for Book of the Year in Lithuania.

The Lithuanian translation of my memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, has been short-listed for book of the year in Lithuania.

The Lithuanian Translation of The Barefoot Bingo Caller, 2018

This is a readers’ choice award, so those who like the book can vote for it at this page.  Simply click on the circle and make sure you choose the term, “įrašyti”, which means “enter”. The winner will be announced at the Vilnius Book Fair in February of 2019.

 

Books, Books, Books – Vilnius Fair 2018

Notice the crowds –

The book fair in Vilnius was its astonishing usual self, 67,000 visitors over four days, and this in a city of half a million. The cab driver asked me what I was reading, passers by kept asking for signatures. The intellectuals asked if the event had not become too popular, a victim of its own success. Lithuania, and I expect much of the rest of Europe, continues to take books and writers very seriously in a way I have never seen here in Canada. Halls filled with over seven hundred people for stars such as Tomas Venclova and Kristina Sabaliauskaite, but even  the small halls with talks on arcane subjects were full, and every hour on the hour I had a choice of seven or more talks. I had a couple of long television interviews and  couple of radio interviews. Here is a link to one with the charming and whip-smart  Juta Liutkeviciute, pictured below, but you need to have the language to understand it.

 

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, 

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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.

 

 

 

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.

Summer 2016

ECW Logo

My memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, has been more or less put to bed for ECW Press. It will appear in May of 2017. The Lithuanian translation, from Versus Aureus, will appear in the spring of 2017 as well.

I have rewritten my novel, Provisionally Yours, with the help of a good editor and will see his response to it at the end of the summer. This is the espionage novel inspired by the life of Jonas Budrys, the chief of Lithuanian counterintelligence from 1921-1923. His own memoir, Lietuvos Kontrazvalgyba, is an excellent and fast-paced book for those who have the  language.

This gives me time to work on my The Rhyming Assassin, my book about Kostas Kubilinskas, the Dr. Seuss of Lithuania, who murdered a man in order to be permitted to publish children’s books.

I’ll be in Lithuania in August to do research for this book, as well as to speak on my writing at the opening of my wife, Snaige’s, big art show at the Moncys Gallery in Palanga, Lithuania, on August 6.

The summer is a great break from working on the Canadian Writers’ Summit this past June, and preparing for the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Humber School for Writers on October 26 inside the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront. I’ll have time to get some more words down on the page.

Fall, 2015

Grandson on Back

 

I’ve recently signed a contract for a book of stories to appear with ECW Press in the fall of 2016 or the spring of 2017.

I spent the summer in Lithuania, working in KGB archives in the morning and helping to babysit my grandson some evenings. I also gave two talks at the Santara conference in Alanta, Lithuania. Here is an English translation of one of the talks I gave at the Santara conference on the subject of recent books in English with a Baltic theme.

I’ll be at the Assembly Hall in Toronto with Plum Johnson in October and Lawrence Hill in December.

In the last week in October, I’ll be running the Humber School for Writers workshop inside the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

After that, for two weeks in November, I will be in Kaunas and Vilnius, Lithuania, giving a total of seven university lectures on the translations of my books into Lithuanian.

I recently published an Essay called “Fault Lines”  in The Literary Review of Canada. In that essay, I address the controversial proposed Monument to the Victims of Communism in Ottawa.

And among all these activities, I am picking apples and cooking them, building a shed and enjoying the fact that my wife, Snaige, sold out her last art show.

 

 

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.

Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent

While I am deep in source material from the 1920’s for my current novel, I couldn’t help picking up Keith Lowe’s fascinating new history that sheds more light on the postwar era in Europe. It joins the late Tony Judt, Norman Davies, and Timothy Snyder’s deep and fresh analyses of the postwar period, continuing to dispel the myth that the war ended on May 8, 1945.

Lowe is particularly interested in the scale of the wreckage cause by the second world war, including the complete destruction of cites such as Warsaw, the subsequent vengeance dealt out to various parties, the wholesale movement of millions of people (causing millions more deaths), the wholesale rape of women, local insurgencies and ongoing local wars that lasted right into the fifties in places such as Greece and Lithuania.

Deaths numbered over 35 million, the same number as the entire population of Poland and close to that of France.

Jew suffered the greatest percentage losses of anyone, and those who survived and returned often found themselves the objects of new local pogroms that caused them to flee. But even before they did, they noted the complete absence of their brethren on their return. It was not unusual for a member of an extended family of dozens to find himself or herself the sole survivor and thus alive in a social vacuum.

Many millions of people were driven out of ancestral homes, most numerously the Germans, who were forced out of Prussia and the Eastern parts of Germany, many, many dying along the way. Much has recently been written about the massive rapes soldiers of the Red Army in occupied territory, so this is not exactly fresh news, but it is put in the context of many other outrages and forced population movements, among them of Poles and Ukrainians. At the end of the war in n much of Europe, women outnumbered men and were doomed to spinsterhood and whole gangs of orphans wandered the continent.

Moral destruction was great in brutalized societies, and famine added edge so that large numbers of women prostituted themselves for something to eat for themselves or their children.

Perceived collaborators were killed or humiliated, women stripped of clothing and beaten. One of them defended herself by declaring that her heart belonged to France, but her vagina belonged to her alone.

The devastation and postwar horror was worse the farther East one went. There, the Germans had considered most of the populations subhuman, and thus there were policies, as Timothy Snyder pointed out, of intentional starvation, which would have been far worse had the Germans won

Interestingly, there is a detailed vignette of the underground postwar resistance in Lithuania, where my last novel, Underground, was set. Lowe describes a pitched battle in Kalniskis between partisans and Reds, where the historical inspiration for Elena in my novel was killed while firing a machine gun. She had previously taken part in the assassination of five communist collaborators in her apartment in Marijampole.

The partisan resistance remains controversial; some polemicists see them as stranded fascists and the 135,000 deported to Siberia in the postwar period as their supporters (an outrageous comment made on a book review page of Ellen Cassady’s book, We Are Here). More seriously, some argued that a war against the Reds and their local collaborators was a hopeless waste of human life, but Lowe says that the memory of that resistance helped spur the drive for independence in the eighties.

To hate one’s neighbours became entirely rational in the postwar era, and our understanding of the war and that time, according to Lowe, is woefully incomplete. Conflicts over race, nationality, and politics went on for months and years after the war. The communists, and to a certain extent the former allies, saw this chaos as an opportunity to push forward their agendas, leading to the cold war.

As Timothy Snyder pointed out, national myths tend to obfuscate rather than illuminate the big picture. National myths create martyrs, but they do so in the absence of the story of other martyrs in the big picture. These myths often conflict with others’ myths.

To quote Lowe, “The immediate postwar period has been routinely neglected, misremembered and misused by all of us.”

But that is changing, and Lowe’s book is one of the spate of new histories that is helping to open up our understanding of what happened during the European war and in its aftermath.