18 February 2018
VilNews has its own Google archive! Type a word in the above search box to find any article.

You can also follow us on Facebook. We have two different pages. Click to open and join.
VilNews Notes & Photos
For messages, pictures, news & information
VilNews Forum
For opinions and discussions
Click on the buttons to open and read each of VilNews' 18 sub-sections

Antanas Sileika
Stories from behind
the iron curtain

I sit outside and drink coffee with Antanas Sileika this beautiful summer
morning in Vilnius, as he tells me about his latest novel, Underground.

By Aage Myhre 

I sit outside and drink coffee with Antanas Sileika this beautiful summer morning in Vilnius. The award-winning Canadian-Lithuanian writer is visiting the country his parents fled during the Second World War. He is here to promote his latest book, Underground, which probably also comes in Lithuanian edition this autumn. The novel, which can be bought through Amazon Canada, tells the problematic love story of Luke and Elena, two members of the Lithuanian partisan revolt against the Soviet Union in the middle of the 1940s.

His visit to the fatherland has also another purpose, namely to gather information for his next book, and he tells me that the new novel will have the early 1920's as backdrop, the years when Lithuania just had begun to re-develop the country after more than 100 years of occupation by Tsar Russia.

But this summer morning, we focus on the period after World War II. The below 5-chapter essay speaks for itself…

Below an essay Antanas Sileika has written about himself, his novel,
and writing in general for the National Post in Canada

1) Love and Loss Among the Ruins

In 1946, Winston Churchill’s created a powerful metaphor when he said that an “Iron Curtain” had descended over Eastern Europe, and that political metaphor seemed to hold longer than most, until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the captive republics flew away like birds escaping from an unlatched cage.

So much for the curtain. Or so it seemed.

The metaphor of the iron curtain actually remained as strong as ever for almost twenty years longer because we in the West remained ignorant of the stories that had unfolded behind it, what it meant to live there. It was only after 1991 that memoirists began to write and historians began to work in the newly opened archives both in Russia and among the various former Soviet republics.

It’s only now that their stories are coming out.

In Western Europe and North America, we laid down our arms after WW2 and set about making a baby boom, and then building the suburban houses to put the children in. Later, we filled those houses with televisions and refrigerators with the help of Mad Men who told us what brands to purchase. We built garages for our cars and paved roads for them to drive upon.

But in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltics and Ukraine and to a certain extent in Poland, terror set in. Farmers were dispossessed of their land, businesses were taken away, and teachers, policemen, journalists and former government bureaucrats were shipped out to the gulag where many of them died of hunger or exposure.

An underground resistance sprang up by 1944 and it fought the Soviets for another nine years. At first, pitched battles took place in forests and swamps. Whole towns were seized by the partisans. The fight eventually settled down into a guerilla war during which the partisans owned the countryside by night.

And they fought while waiting for the West, believing that if the war was started because of Poland, surely the West would not forget that country or the others nearby.

For those interested in the history of the period, the last decade and a half have been illuminating, beginning with the appearance of Norman Davies’s Europe, followed by the late Tony Judt’s Postwar, and culminating in the recent Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder. And there are many more histories now on the subject of Eastern Europe, so many that there is a danger of narratives in collision, particularly for the way the Holocaust fits in among the other crimes of that time. 

But I’m not interested in the facts themselves. I’m interested in what they mean, and I am interested in the lives of people under great stress during those times.

In 1942, in the film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman as he sacrificed himself by giving up his flight to safety to another, more worthy man, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

That was what people believed then. We don’t believe that any more. In our time, we believe the personal is more important than the political. 

I take this insight and then I wonder: what was it like to be in love under impossible political conditions behind the newly-created iron curtain in the forties and early fifties?

Although the revelations about Eastern Europe are new, I wanted to tell a very old story of a man who goes to war and after much killing, and nearly being killed himself, wants nothing but to return to the women he loves, the woman he made promises to.

It’s the story of a man who wants to go home, even if that place is no longer the home he left.

I’m interested in a story of love and the loss of it among the ruins.

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

2) John Le Carre Territory

I did not set out in my writing life intending to write about the postwar period and I did particularly did not want to write about Lithuania. My parents came from that part of the world and they gave me the language, but English is still my strongest language and I have been an anglophile since my childhood, when I imagined myself Sherlock Holmes, or someone slightly more complex, like Lord Jim. I imagined myself a character out of Kipling, an inhabitant of the British Commonwealth whose pink-coloured  countries dominated the maps of the world that were found in schoolrooms into the sixties.

On top of that, in the sixties and seventies, everyone was loose left and I was too, and I found the anti-Soviets of that time, including my parents, embarrassing for their squareness. In my callow youth, I imagined the people with right attitudes about the world did not wear bad suits, or have funny accents.

But against my intentions, I was eventually lured into fascination with the stories of Eastern Europe in general and Lithuania in particular.  After all, if one can see the universe in a grain of sand, one can see the whole world through the events in a small country.

The language, one of the gifts of my deceased parents, gave me a window into the happenings on the other side of the iron curtain. At the same time, life in Canada gave me the distance to reflect on the happenings from afar. And the stories that came out of there were so dramatic, so compelling, that I would have been a fool to look somewhere else for my material.

Eastern Europe is John le Carre territory. The British masterminded spy missions into postwar Lithuania, running a former German torpedo boat off Sweden in order to dump spies on the Lithuanian beaches. As late as 1953, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians took their small arms and their radios and their cyanide tablets from the British handlers at MI6 and went inland to decipher the enigma of Soviet intentions.

A good quarter of the men the British used were actually double agents, and they sold out the rest to the KGB. Kim Philby, the English turncoat who spied for the Soviets, might have been involved. These doomed operations are exquisitely described in Liutas Mockunas’s Pavarges Herojus  (luckily, I can read Lithuanian and have access to this title).

And the true-life stories are more varied than the grey of Le Carre. They even have tragicomic moments. For example, the British/Lithuanian agent, Anicetas Dukevicius, was promised ten pounds a week in pay by MI6. He was captured and imprisoned by the KGB on a mission inside Lithuania in 1953, but he was not executed. After Lithuania’s independence in 1991, he apparently went to the British embassy to ask for back pay plus accumulated interest. I don’t know if he received it.

The Americans were slow to get started, but they played in this game as well. In 1951, they sent Juozas Luksa and his fellow partisans into Lithuania in a low-flying plane from which they parachuted. He, too, was betrayed a year later, and lured into a trap and shot.

He had left behind him a wife in Paris who did not receive certain news of his death for six years. Four decades later, she published “Laiskai Mylimosioms”, a collection of their love letters.

As if all these stories were not compelling enough to get my fingers tapping on the keyboard, there’s also a personal element to the stories above. Because Lithuania, with only three million inhabitants, is such a small country, there are fewer degrees of separation among people, more coincidences.

Adolfas Ramanauskas, the man who wrote the most dramatic stories of anti-Soviet resistance and then was captured in 1956, tortured for a year and executed, had worked in an office with my mother and probably sat in the lunchroom with her. A paternal uncle of mine was a farmer who supported the partisans, and he was exiled to the gulag and died there for his trouble.

These stories, and not just the personal ones, are irresistible for their drama and pathos. Why would I bother to look anywhere else?

*                                   *                                               *                                   *

3) The Past is Slippery

I once asked an audience at a talk at the Goethe Institute in Toronto if Germans were opposed to historical novels in the same way that some Canadian critics are. They looked at me as if I were a fool. What German writer could leave history unexamined? For that matter, what European could live ignorant of the past?

I have often heard it said that Europeans remember everything and learn nothing, but if that is true, it is also true most Canadians remember nothing and learn nothing.

The past is complicated. The past is slippery. We think one thing of it now and another thing of it tomorrow. Is it because we have changed or the past has changed? In her recent history, The Ghosts of Europe, Anna Porter quotes Faulkner who said, “The Past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Some people believe all history is polemic, but I am not of that school. I believe the truth is down there somewhere among the shards of the past, and some of us need to be patient archeologists, piecing the shards together until they form a recognizable whole. That is the job of both the archeologist and the historian.

The job of the historical novelist is somewhat different. We writers in the past have to decide not only what the object was, but also the importance of it, the meaning of it. The writer of historical fiction imagines into the past. What was it like to be there? What did it mean to love then, and did it mean something different from what it means now?

The British historian and art critic, Simon Schama, says that the greatcoat buttons of six generations of soldiers can be found in certain parts of Eastern Europe. In my last visit to Merkine, a small town in South-East Lithuania, I saw monuments to German soldiers who fell in WW1, to Red Army soldiers who fought the Germans in 1944, to Red partisans who were killed in the forest and to Lithuanian partisans who fought the Reds until they were annihilated in the fifties.

Each one of these monuments represents a narrative, a version of history. If I add to the monuments above those alarming highway signs found throughout Lithuania, like tourist indicators, that point the way to the many sites where the Jews were massacred in the Holocaust, then we have layer and layer of sediment in our archeology of the past.

The patient sifter of the past might find one narrative or another, or he might find that one narrative collides with another. The Soviets saved what remained of the Jews of Eastern Europe, but the Soviets were the enemies of non-Jewish farmers, business owners, teachers, and lawyers and bureaucrats of the old order. Therefore each group remembers them differently.

What is the correct interpretation?  We still need to struggle with the past.

*                       *                                   *                                   *                       *

4) The Minefield in Historical Fiction

Mine is an old-fashioned view of literature. I believe it has to be about something important, something moving, something illuminating about the human condition. Otherwise, I’d rather watch movies or read the New Yorker, skipping the fiction.

Which is not to say that a good thriller, a family melodrama, or a comic confection does not have its place.

Historical writing is arguably harder to write than fiction about the present.

First, there’s the problem of language.  I’m always wondering if certain words can be used in a historical setting. When did we adopt the words deck, porch, and verandah, and which is the appropriate word for the period I am writing in? How do I make my characters speak as if they were in the past when the actual way people spoke in the past is intrusive in contemporary writing? How do I do this without sounding stiff or corny? I read the word scoot in a piece of historical writing and it feels too modern. But I cringe if I read words such as these: don (a cloak),  lo (and it came to pass), behold (thine enemies).  Language is a minefield in historical writing (mine fields were in use in sixteenth century Europe, earlier in China - thank God for Wikipedia and damn the way it wastes my time).

Second, there’s the problem of the way people thought then. If characters in the past were racists or sexists, or homophobic or anti-Semitic, should I “correct” their attitudes by introducing a forward-thinking character who points out the error? That’s much, much too corny. On the other hand, to depict the sins of the past straight up feels wrong too.

Third, there is the danger of using our superior knowledge to condescend to the past. Everyone in the past was somewhat less informed than any of us because we know how things turned out and characters in the past did not. We know that the Molotov - Ribbentrop pact split Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, but at the time, the Baltics, Poles and Ukrainians did not. People in the past always seem slightly dumb (as we will appear to those who know how our current political turmoil in North Africa will play out in the long run.)

Fourth, fifth and sixth, there are the dangers of nostalgia, kitsch, and excessive enthusiasm for obsolete technologies (Who really needs to know how to use a scythe properly when harvesting wheat?).

As any historian knows, there are surprises in the past, and the same is true of writing historical fiction. I’m not religious, but it only occurred to me much later that “Underground”, the title of my novel, has meaning beyond the physical and the political. People kept burying their supposed dead in the novel, as well as their stories and feelings, but these kept returning, breaking back out of the clay in the novel, rising again and again. Sometimes, the obvious only becomes clear after the fact. I was writing about resurrection, it seems, but in a social sense, fired by memory and determination.

The dead soldiers, partisans, and victims were rising up from beneath their monuments.

*                       *                       *                       *                       *

5) Forever Stories

It’s not so much old stories that I look for in historical fiction as the forever stories. 

A man flees a burning city and tries to find a new life. A woman chooses to kill to avenge her brother. Another woman, a long time ago, stands before her husband inside the breached walls of Troy and begs him not to go out to meet the Greeks who will surely kill him and make her a widow and a slave and her son an orphan.  But her husband responds that no man escapes his fate; he must go out into battle, where he promises he will not give up his life so easily.

A few short years ago, as a parent, I stood before a young man and beseeched him not to go to war in Afghanistan, but nothing I said could stop him, and if his particular fate was luckier than that of many other soldiers, my anguish before the outcome was surely an echo of what Andromache said to her husband, Hector, in the Iliad.

This was a forever moment, one that was historical and forever present. The best of historical fiction gives us these kinds of moments:

Mark Helprin did it for adventure in A Soldier of the Great War; Annabel Lyon did it for Aristotle’s thought in The Golden Mean; Wayne Johnston did it for mixed motivations in Joey Smallwood in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams; Nino Ricci did it for a reconsideration of Jesus Christ in Testament.

Sometimes writers need to be explorers of the human heart, and sometimes explorers of geography; sometimes they need to be chroniclers of manners; they need to be the best craftsmen they can with the evasive and even fugitive meanings of language.

So why shouldn’t they be time travelers as well?

Antanas Sileika (Antanas Šileika) is a Canadian novelist and critic. He was born in Weston, Ontario - the son of Lithuanian-born parents. After completing an English degree at the University of Toronto, he moved to Paris for two years and there married his wife, Snaige Sileika (nee Valiunas), an art student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. While in Paris, he studied French, taught English in Versailles, and worked as part of the editorial collective of the expatriate literary journal, Paris Voices, run from the upstairs room of the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. Upon his return to Canada in 1979, Antanas began teaching at Humber College and working as a co-editor of the Canadian literary journal, Descant, where he remained until 1988. After writing for newspapers and magazines, Antanas Sileika published his first novel, Dinner at the End of the World (1994): a speculative story set in the aftermath of global warming. His second book, a collection of linked short stories, Buying On Time (1997) was nominated for both the City of Toronto Book Award and the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, and was serialized on CBC Radio's Between the Covers. The book traces the lives of a family of immigrants to a Canadian suburb between the fifties and seventies. Some of these stories were anthologized in Dreaming HomeCanadian Short Stories, and the Penguin Anthology of Canadian Humour. Antanas Sileika appears occasionally on Canadian television and radio as a free-lance broadcaster. His third book, Woman in Bronze (2004), compared the seasonal life of a young man in Czarist Lithuania with his subsequent attempts to succeed as a prominent sculptor in Paris in the twenties. His latest novel, Underground was released by Thomas Allen & Son in spring of 2011. The new novel is a love story set in the underground resistance to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. He is the director for the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, Canada, and is a past winner of a National Magazine Award.

Category : Culture & events / Featured

VilNews e-magazine is published in Vilnius, Lithuania. Editor-in-Chief: Mr. Aage Myhre. Inquires to the
Code of Ethics: See Section 2 – about VilNewsVilNews  is not responsible for content on external links/web pages.
All content is copyrighted © 2011. UAB ‘VilNews’.

مبلمان اداری صندلی مدیریتی صندلی اداری میز اداری وبلاگدهی فروشگاه اینترنتی گن لاغری شکم بند لاغری تبلیغات کلیکی آموزش زبان انگلیسی پاراگلایدر ساخت وبلاگ بوی دهان بوی بد دهان