Eva Stachniak interviews Antanas Sileika

Antanas Sileika, a Canadian novelist and critic, a son of Lithuanian-born parents, is the author of two novels and one collection of linked short stories Buying on Time (nominated for both the City of Toronto Book Award and the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour). Underground, his newest novel, will be published in March of 2011 by Thomas Allen. In the words of its publisher Underground “explores the narrow range of options open to men and women in desperate situations, when history crashes into personal desires and private life.” For me Underground is also one of the still rare Canadian novels which delve into the stories from behind the former Iron Curtain, a tempting topic of conversation with its author.

E.S. “Underground” begins with the poetic evocation of the borderline that “weaves around the middle of Europe.” How significant is this borderline for you, a Canadian writer with Lithuanian roots?

A.S.: The borderline at the center of Europe has been critical for me for most of my life. I felt for decades until the late eighties that I did not exist at all because I came from a place that did not exist at all.

In effect, there were two borderlines in Europe – first there were countries such as Poland and Hungary, which existed in the “other” Europe, and then there were places such as the Baltics or Ukraine which did not seem to exist at all. They were on no map of the time (unless the map displayed Soviet provinces). In my childhood, this was extremely confusing because my parents were filled with the melancholy of loss that their generation of refugees suffered from.  Yet the site of their loss  existed only in stories that they told, and these stories were a cross between fairy tales and the Aeneid, as if they had fled from burning Troy.

In my adolescence, I was embarrassed by my origins because I came from a pre-multicultural generation, one whose ethnicity was complicated by invisibility. But in my first year of university I underwent some kind of dramatic transformation and I refused to answer to the name “Tony”, which I had used until then. Everyone had to call me “Antanas.”

In my youth, the strongest resonance I ever found in my reading came from English translations of Czeslaw Milosz, whose Issa Valley and Native Realm I read and reread. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, I have become more and more interested in the region that the historian Timothy Snyder calls, in his new book, Bloodlands. It’s no accident that these bloodlands cover the approximate geography of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its height.

I am fascinated about what Snyder, and others such as Norman Davies and the late Tony Judt have to say about this place, and I have discovered that the richness of stories I have at my disposal, rising out of my ability to read and speak Lithuanian, is huge. There is no other part of the world I want to write about any longer. A writer is somewhat merciless, and I can see that this region has had the most dramatic history in the twentieth century. What a source of material! And in the old days, no one in the West as interested, but now they are. Much remains to be told about the other side of Europe.

E.S.: From the Lithuanian perspective The Underground is a haunting tale of doomed love, tragic choices forced by history, and ultimate sacrifice. From the Canadian perspective it is also a story of a legacy that arrives at our doorstep and demands that we do something with it. Your publisher calls it and “untold story of the battle that continued long after Second World War.” When did you become aware of this particular “untold story” and how?

A.S.: Some of the early partisan material appeared long ago in the fifties, in particular the story of Juozas Luksa who fought, fled through Poland to Paris, married, and flew back into Lithuania with the help of the CIA in 1950, and was betrayed and killed in 1951. His story is the rough superstructure of my novel. But to be aware of a story is not the same as to know it.

The partisan story was complex and long, with boats sent in through the Baltic by the British, double-agents infiltrated into the movement, and many, many terrible personal stories, some of whose details I introduced into my novel. This information has only appeared over the last twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet  Union, the opening of archives, and the publication of many memoirs. I learned, for example, that the Lithuanian equivalent of Dr. Seuss, a major children’s writer named Kostas Kubilinskas, had betrayed and shot partisans because he wanted to ingratiate himself with the rulers. I think again of Czeslaw Milosz – Kubilinskas could have been a character out of Captive Mind. The particular grotesquerie of WW2 and afterwards is especially acute in the east, and this is a perspective I wanted to introduce here, in Canada, where we look at the war and postwar through a Churchillian framework of fighting the good war and winning it.

I am trying to enlarge our sense of that event and the postwar, to make more complex the good versus evil picture of stories such as Saving Private Ryan. I am trying to do something like showing the scene on the bridge at the beginning of the film, Katyn, in which you have civilians fleeing from two attackers. That event was something we were aware of in Canada before the film, but the film made us know it.

In America in particular, people are encouraged to think of their destinies as if they were masters of them, but Europe, and Eastern Europe in particular, teaches that your personal destiny exists at the whim of history, which might just as easily crush you as elevate you. That’s a little pessimistic. Also, I have to admit that somewhat against my will, a certain theme of resurrection has crept in. Memory is a seed that may bloom again as a weed or a flower. Sometimes the dead do rise again, or if not the dead themselves, those who remember them.

E.S.: This is not your first novel that evokes the lands beyond the Iron Curtain. Woman in Bronze also dipped into the same well. Was writing of these two novels very different? And if yes, how so?

A.S.: One novel led to the next novel, but the story begins before that. In 1997, after I wrote a collection of stories called Buying on Time about immigrants in the Canadian suburbs, I realized I had found a method of writing about the twentieth century through a strange kind of window, Lithuania was far enough away to be remote – very remote from me in my everyday life – but dramatic things happened there as they happen everywhere in the world. And I had access to that world because I had some of the language (I read it and speak it passably well but cannot write it without many errors). I decided that if all the universe can be seen in a handful of dust, then I can deal with the twentieth century through a trilogy of works of fiction seen through my window into Lithuania. I know about that place, but I am not of that place. I am close and I am far.

The first book, as I mentioned, spoke of the suburban experience and the birth of consumer culture. The second, Woman in Bronze, attempted to speak to certain aspects of modernity. I was interested in how one creates morality in the absence of God, or how one creates a modern image that has moral weight, or seriousness within it. One has a choice in the twentieth century – does a modern artist create sensation and novelty, the golden calf that Moses finds when he comes down from the mountain, or does he create an icon in a different way, a symbol of a new reality, a new morality, or a new way of thinking?

There are also contradictions in modernity. I was struck that modern images were very often created by “primitive” people – Constantine Brancusi was the first to take sculpture into pure abstraction, and he used Romanian folk motifs to do it. Jazz dance came to us from the poor train conductor’s daughter, Josephine Baker.

That describes the first two books – now let’s move to Underground. If one is to speak of the twentieth century, one must speak of war. I struggled with this for a long time, trying to write war stories or holocaust stories. But none of this felt true to me – I was repeating what we already knew and had read about or seen in movies.  Instead, I thought I would write about what we did not know, at least in the west: the war after the war, the grinding partisan war that dragged on for many years after the war ended in the west. And in all these three works I am comparing one life and another, measuring loss and gain.

E.S.: Toward the end of the novel Lukas and other characters are very bitter about being forgotten, swept under the carpet of post-war history. There are so many betrayals in the novel, including the hovering betrayal from Kim Philby and others like him. When I closed your novel I wanted to think about Luke Zolynas. I wanted to know what he makes out of this story of a half brother he now has to acknowledge. I wanted to know what impact this discovery will have on him… Can you speculate on this a bit, in the best tradition of gossiping on our characters???

A.S.: I think Luke Zolynas is a stand-in for me and others like me who only become aware of the past accidentally, because there are things in the past other generations have wanted to hide. In my own case, I stumbled across some family surprises while doing research for this novel. I discovered, dramatically, that one of my late uncles strangled his lover and threw her body down a drainage well in 1931, and then hoped to use acid to dissolve the body with material from a laboratory set up to make bombs to kill the Lithuanian president. Nobody had ever told me about this. He died in Chicago in 1952. As well, the photograph that was in the magazine article was not of my uncle, but, mistakenly, of my father. The historian told me it was my father’s prison photo. Prison? My father never told me about that. It turns out he too was trying to overthrow the Lithuanian president (who came to power in a coup in 1926). The past holds all kinds of surprises, good and bad, but most of us walk over the past like barbarians walking over the ruins of Rome. On the other hand,  you might consider the past a trap, and you might consider forgetting to be absolutely necessary for us to live out lives. Many Canadian writers despise historical novels. I think of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Perhaps if you cannot forget, there can be no laughter.

But as for me, I have belonged to a transition generation. I was the only one of my three brothers born here, but I still feel as if I am the survivor of the shipwreck that was my parents’ lives upended by WW2. I belong nowhere. My job is to consider my parents’ past in Lithuania and my children’s future here. Obsession with the past only leads to problems, but I cannot seem to let those problems go. Luke Zolynas will find his life become more complicated. He will find that the past as he understood it was sand, not stone. He will find this new information not so much redemptive as complicating, including a whole new set of relatives who will look upon him as the lucky one. But there will be some happiness too. He and his half brother survived because of the actions of their father, whose own life was tragic but whose children’s lives became somewhat normal, even if one son was luckier than the other.

E.S.: This is a question I find very important, for I struggle with the same issue myself. You write in English while most of the events you write about happen in Lithuanian. You have to give your characters an English voice, English expressions. Since language always shapes the way you can tell a  story what were some of your victories and some of your frustrations in this process?

A.S.: My difficulties with writing about Lithuania in English come in various ways. First comes the problem of ignorance of the place. I must tread very quickly and clearly over background information because English speakers who have no difficulty distinguishing Irish North and south, Scottish, English and Welsh and all the tensions among them cannot tell the difference among a Russian, Soviet, Byelorussian, Pole, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian, to name just a few. To them, all except Poles were Soviets and all Soviets were Russians. Most people I know think Prussians are types of Russians. Therefore I must compress very, very quickly and move the story forward. No professorial paragraphs on history are permitted.  And yet I must give some background, so I tend to do it in a fairy-tale way. In my last book, I have paragraphs about a mythical “Rainy Land” and in this one the voice occasionally rises high to look at the Atlantic Charter or Yalta, but I hope to make that voice lyrical or ironic – certainly not professorial.

The next problem looks simple, but isn’t, and that’s the problem of Lithuanian names, in particular men’s names, almost all of which end in –as: Antanas, Juozas, Kazimieras, Jonas, Petras, etc. This uniformity is boring, but I hate to make all the above into Anthony, Joseph, Kazimir, John, and Peter. Therefore I take an uneven approach. In this novel, Lukas is easily understandable to the English ear, although it was practically never used as a first name in Lithuanian.  I stuck with the code name Lakstingala because I thought is sounded like something out of Lord of the Rings. Women’s names are a little easier, but not much.

When it comes to atmosphere, I rely a lot on food, but Lithuanian food is very simple and not evocative to most people. In this book, I used black currant as the flavour of home – the flavour is mildly exotic here. My English tends to be as simple as possible in this novel. I don’t like mixing in the odd foreign word, as they do in movies – (“Hey, tovarich, let’s escape this camp together.”). But diction is very hard to get right. No one can “scoot” in my novel, nor “take a hike”, nor  “beat it”. It is very hard to comb out the modern turns of phrase and the particularly American ones and still sound fluid. One critic claimed my last novel sounded stiff, whereas I was trying to make the English limpid. Lithuanian is more romantic at times, more sentimental and by turns much rougher than English is. I need to “translate” this language into some semblance of English that sounds real, yet is not an imitation of English lords or Chicago gangsters speaking. It’s a real struggle!

E.S.: There are also the complications of telling a story from an external, “other” point of view…the conflict between the romantic national myth and attempt to see a more universal story in it.

A.S.: The superstructure of my novel follows the true story of Juozas Luksa, who fought, went out to Paris, fell in love and married, and returned to fight for Lithuania, which  he called, as a metaphor,  his “first wife.” This is the most romantic of Lithuanian true stories: the man who gave up peace to fight for his country. But when I came to the story, I realized we live in different times. We no longer believe in big causes as much as small ones. Therefore in my novel, Lukas goes back not to the metaphor of his first wife, but to his actual first wife. And before that, he went into the partisans not because of his patriotism but because of his useless, frightened brother, in order to protect him. It all becomes personal in my novel. Real Lithuanian patriots are going to hate me for this change to an iconic story.

As to the issue of complex stories, yes, modern stories are complex, and we realize that more clearly about the past now too. But there is a danger of revisionism through claims of complexity.  One might say, for example, that a man died for his country because he had no life worth living and thus he identified with nation more than he should have. This is exactly the kind of thing Jews must worry about in further developments in thought about the Holocaust. The next thing you know, we’ll be sympathizing with Nazis, and that would be a mistake. That would be a sort of revisionism. We should not vote in favour of complexity merely because it suits our times. On the other hand, in Marijampole, I spoke with a partisan museum director who said to me, “I know what you novelists do. You make everyone seem sympathetic. But please, do not make slayers into sympathetic characters. They are the ones who killed the partisans.” But I could not follow his direction. The slayer who walks above the bunker where Elena is almost killed does not like his life and wishes he could do something else. He has been forced into becoming a slayer. I had to make him more complex than a simple enemy.

E.S.: In Polish literature Lukas’s generation was called the Columbus generation, those whose youth was shaped by WWII, the Nazis and the Soviets, the doomed battles, the breakdown of values they were brought up in. Bitter, tragic, they had to find humanity in a cruel, ruthless world filled with brutality and betrayal. What do they have to tell us that is still important?

A.S.: That generation can be further splintered into sub-groups. One of them includes many of the postwar partisans who only came of military age in 1944 -1948, meaning they were born in 1925 – 1929, too young to have acted during the war but old enough to have seen everything and been formed by it. I am incredibly impressed by those who fought because they were trying to push back in spite of the horrors they had seen. But I am more touched by the generations  before them, the aspiring artists, engineers, teachers; the newlyweds, those expecting to retire and enjoy life, those who lived and loved in their circle of family and clan. They were like us because we have dreams too. But their dreams were destroyed by the crush of history on the aspirations of individuals.

We who live here, and especially those with not much Eastern European background, are easy moralizers about the past because we are either ignorant or we have not been tested. That generation is an example of what might happen to us under the same circumstances – some would be broken and some would survive. Some would be lucky and others not.  We need to remember the indifference of history, which is a little like the elements that might sweep us away. We need a little humility. The good times always come to an end – war or drought, ecological disaster or disease. How will we face the next disaster?

One final lesson is the lesson of love. What impressed me were wives who waited years to reconnect with husbands, parents who searched for their children, men and women who went to hell to save the ones they cared for – all the small personal impulses during the apocalypse. Somehow love survived – not always, not undamaged, but sometimes.

As a child I remember long, boring afternoons at a shop on Roncesvalles where my mother had fabric measured out, filled out forms, and paid outrageous duty to make up packages for her relatives. She knew we were lucky. She was trying to do something to compensate for some of the bad luck that had fallen on the shoulders of the ones she loved.

E. S.: Thank you.

About Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak is a Canadian and Polish novelist and a short story writer.
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