Long ago and far away: Big stories from small countries

Baltic stories in a global context

What’s different about a place is what’s interesting, writes Canadian novelist Antanas Sileika. A proposition that raises all manner of difficulties, as well as presenting unique opportunities, when writing fiction based on Baltic history aimed at a North American audience.

I am a Canadian-born writer of Lithuanian heritage. In my youth, I had no intention of writing on Lithuanian themes because I was an ardent anglophile and loved the English language very much. I felt I belonged in the world of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle and Somerset Maugham. I had internalized my membership in the British Commonwealth, that relic of the British Empire.

Although I grew up and left these childish enthusiasms behind, I have kept a love of the English language so intense that certain poems can still make me weep. Yet all of my fiction writing is now set in Lithuania, and often it has to do with Lithuanians going out beyond their borders and sometimes returning.

Znamenskaya church and Zverynas Bridge in Vilnius, Lithuania . Photo: krivinis. Source:Shutterstock

Since I am the child of Lithuanian immigrants, it takes no deep psychological insight to understand my subject matter and its persistent exploration of dividedness. But unlike my parents’ generation, which was traumatized by the war and its aftermath, I am paradoxically enriched by this tragic event and its aftermath.

First, I live in a form of exile, at a certain distance from the material that lies in Lithuania; I am an exile not only of a place, but of a time as well. Exile has proven useful to writers in the past, but the second generation is not often thought of as possessing a sense of exile. Yet we do, and we have become, to our dismay, most conscious of this sense of exile in connection with certain extremely violent political acts.

Second, because I grew up in the post-war era, I suffered a form of invisibility, as all people of Baltic origin did at a time when our countries did not exist on a world map. This sense of invisibility compelled me to become a writer in order to become visible, in order to exist in some fashion. Aspiring writers all long to see their names in print, but this need of mine verged on the desperate because it did more than affirm my existence – it made it possible.

Finally, I have the good fortune to have the ability to read and speak (although not write) an intermediate level of Lithuanian. I therefore have a reasonable facility in the Lithuanian language, enough to open a window on to the culture and history of Lithuania, and as a result, I have been delighted to find a rich vein of material in Lithuanian oral stories and books, often in self-published memoirs and obscure biographies.

Lithuanian stories are what I write, but who reads them? I live and work in a Canadian literary milieu, and that is my audience. I am read in translation in Lithuania, but I write for a Canadian audience, and to a much lesser degree, an American audience. One of my books was even translated into Chinese, so something about the Lithuanian story reaches out beyond its borders.

The stories of events in the Baltics, however, suffer from certain impediments and enjoy certain opportunities in a global context, by which we really mean the English-speaking world. So what does it mean to write of the Baltics in Canada, or any English-speaking context? And why do we want people to know our story?

If the answer is that we suffered in a particular way and the world should know, we should be aware that a form of Suffering Olympics seems to exist, and if our suffering is to be measured, some of the judges will not be sympathetic. To paraphrase this idea, just because you want someone to hear you doesn’t mean that anyone has to listen unless you have something to offer.

I would say that the plea, “Please listen to me!” is a bad one. It reeks of neediness and people flee from neediness. On the contrary, if you say, “Have I got a story for you!”, then people will want to hear what you have to say.

I think that Baltic stories do have something to offer, and of course, everyone feels validated by being known. The invisibility that I suffered from as a postwar child remains true of the cultures of the Baltics today. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are on the map, but not in the consciousness of the English-speaking world. So let’s move on to the impediments to the telling of Baltic stories.

First, the geography and history of the Baltic States are terra incognita in North America. I would say that most Canadians and Americans know as much about the Baltics as they do about Kazakhstan, unless, of course, their neighbours happen to be Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian. By the way, when speaking of ignorance, let’s not exclude our own. It might be worth asking ourselves how much we know about Belarus, the Baltics’ near neighbour, and to ask ourselves if we shouldn’t know a little more.

Thus, the place is obscure, as are many other places. Related to obscurity is the lack of interest in the Baltics. Not only are we pretty much unknown, but nobody cares that we are unknown. In a way, we are known unknowns, to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld.

Second, those who do know about us might not like us very much. If I look on Amazon for books about Lithuania, for example, I find that most are about the Holocaust. Just as the Baltics feel wary at best about their Russian near neighbours, Jews do not, for the most part, remember the Baltics with any fondness. Quite the opposite.

Indeed, there is one theory raised by some Jewish thinkers which says the attempt by the Baltics to highlight their suffering under the Soviets, a major theme for the Baltics, is a mask to cover their crimes under the Nazis.

I don’t want to get sidetracked by this thread. Anne Applebaum, the noted historian of eastern Europe, has said to me that this position is marginal anyway. But my point remains that not all of our audience will be predisposed to like us in any way.

A third impediment to eastern European stories in general is that the place seems strange and remote to the West. This perception usually comes as a shock to eastern Europeans, who feel a pull attraction the west and some sort of repulsion, to a greater or lesser degree, to the east. Westerners, however, feel no such warmth toward the East. Our quest for Baltic independence was an expression of this attraction, and inclusion in the EU shows a lessening of the EU’s reservations about the East, but not entirely.

The region has a bad reputation. In 1985 there was an academic conference in which Eric Hobsbawm, the noted leftist historian, read a paper entitled “On the Backwardness of Eastern Europe”, and if you look on Amazon, you will find a book with this title.1

In general, all of eastern Europe seems strange to westerners, mostly because it is unknown. But people do have their opinions. A poker-playing friend of mine said his wife would never set foot in eastern Europe. Neither he nor she explained why, but the subtext was that the places are somehow uncivilized.

At worst, we get comic stereotypes, like Borat, or darker stereotypes, like the dystopia depicted in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or the character of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. He is a fictional serial killer and cannibal from Lithuania.

Thus we have ignorance, indifference and stereotypes dominating the view of eastern Europe, in which the Baltics find themselves.

By the way, no one seems to like the phrase, “eastern Europe”. Poles believe they are in central Europe, as do inhabitants of the Baltics. Some people even take offence at this term because everyone seems to understand that “East” means bad and “West” means good. I consider this to be an unnecessary sensitivity that continues to promote stereotypes. Eastern Europe, from a western point of view, includes all the nations that were once part of the so-called eastern bloc and the western part of the Soviet Union.

Opportunities

So when it comes to publishing poetry, fiction or memoirs about eastern Europe, there are certain problems. But where there are impediments, there are also opportunities.

First, I have found the stories that come out of Lithuania to be extremely dramatic, especially with regard to what people went through there in the middle of the twentieth century. This country is part of the place that historian Timothy Snyder calls The Bloodlands. The history of this place demonstrates how people act under extreme pressure.

Eastern Europe is an interesting place to be from. Again and again we meet historical characters who come out of the East and face the West to enrich it or be tempered by it.

For example – Petras Rimsa was a sculptor who left Lithuania, studied with Rodin in Paris, and returned to become locally famous. On the other hand, Jacques Lipchitz left Lithuania at about the same time, befriended Picasso, and went on to become a world-famous sculptor. Yet curiously, both were shy when they first had to sketch nude models. A fellow-student of Rimsa, when asked if he had ever seen a naked woman before, admitted that he had, once, by accident, but then turned away in modesty and embarrassment. Interestingly, people like Lipchitz and Chaim Soutine, both from Lithuania, and Constantin Brancusi from Romania, ushered in an era of nonfigurative sculpture, bringing their folkloric native traditions to Paris, and transforming them into something modern. In other words, the experience of eastern Europe enriched the culture of the west.

Incidentally, the lives of the two sculptors of Lithuanian origin excited my interest and gave birth to a novel I called Woman in Bronze.

Another unusual person I’d like you to consider, one who could only have come from a place like the Baltics, is the Lithuanian post-war children’s writer, Kostas Kubilinskas. This man was the Dr Seuss of post-war Lithuania, the man whose poems can be recited by a whole generation of readers who remember them fondly as part of the landscape of their childhood.

But what a complicated, even twisted man! He had written satires of Stalin during the first Soviet occupation and when the Soviets came back, they held him to account for it. Yet he wanted to be a poet more than anything else. He considered himself to be above morality, and the needs of literature to be above morality as well. In order to prove himself reliable to the regime, he infiltrated the post-war partisans, shot two of them himself, and revealed another bunker where more men were killed. And then he went on to write the Lithuanian equivalent of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.

Kostas Kubilinskas was like a character out of Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. I could not have imagined such as man, one whose life was an example of the terrible compromises people make to get what they want.

I find my Lithuanian subject matter to be a gift, as I have said, but a gift to literature, not necessarily to Lithuania itself.

I write of Lithuanian subject matter not necessarily to tell the sad story of Lithuania. Every country has a sad story of some kind. In my last three novels I have written of Lithuania because it is a dramatic place where the actions of men and women in impossible situations help to illuminate the human condition, and not just the condition of Lithuania.

In The Iliad, the agony of Andromache as she begged Hector not to fight outside the breached walls of Troy is the same agony of the Canadian wife and mother who begs her husband not to volunteer to fight in Afghanistan or the agony of a mother whose son has joined the post-war partisans. But men have gone to war and women have wept for millennia.

The second opportunity in stories from the Baltic lies in their very remoteness. Like it or not, those places are somewhat exotic to North Americans. That is precisely why the fictional mass murderer, Hannibal Lecter, comes from there. The Baltics are not exactly Transylvania yet, but they are some version of it. The strategy for a writer here, I believe, is to embrace the exoticism of the place. There is no need to demonstrate that the Baltic peoples are just like the inhabitants of Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. What’s different about the place is what’s interesting.

For example, in some of my reading of the history of this place, I discovered that bridges were rare in czarist Lithuania because they were expensive to build. What bridges there were functioned as funnels, gathering people from far and wide into a single, narrow route. Where there are travellers, there are thieves, who often hid under bridges, waiting for unsuspecting passersby. Thus was born the myth of the trolls. In order to discourage thieves, Catholic Lithuanians would carve large wooden religious figures and place them in glassed boxes to overlook the bridges. The idea was that the saint or Christ figure would protect the travellers, or, failing that, shame the thieves into withdrawing. But thieves, it turns out, are practical and not easily frightened. In some cases, they would throw the religious statues out of their miniature houses and get in there themselves to stay out of the rain.

This behaviour is profoundly funny to me, and profoundly human. I could never have imagined such behaviour if not for access to Lithuanian source material.

Third, eastern Europe is becoming far less obscure as far as historical re-evaluation goes. Many western historians have been writing about the place in the last two decades. Among the books on this place are Norman Davies’s Europe, the late Tony Judt’s Postwar, Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain and Marci Shore’s The Taste of Ashes, to name only a few.

Historians lead the way, and the novelists and nonfiction writers follow.

Fourth, while memoirs by Baltic persons have always been written, the relatively new genre of life stories makes these books easier to publish and their acceptance more widespread. Life stories are the stories of ordinary people and what they went through. Life stories are different from biographies in that the subject is usually not famous and the shape of the life is recounted in a less literary fashion. The market for life stories is small and mostly academic, but I am encouraged by the appearance of more and more of these books, such as the work of Irene Praitis of California State University, who wrote the story of her mother (born in Lithuania during World War I), One Woman’s Life.

Fifth, while the Baltics are not very well known, the Nazi and Soviet regimes certainly are, and interest in these regimes remains lively. The Baltics lay between the hammer and the anvil, and people continue to want to read about the place where the sparks flew most hotly.

Finally, the openness to multiculturalism that began several decades ago has become so commonplace now that stories of faraway places are less unusual than they used to be, so much so that the success of the writers of former British colonies has been called “The Empire Writes Back”.

Moral and technical issues

So much for the impediments and the opportunities of Baltic subject matter. Writing stories set in the Baltics or with Baltic themes presents some technical issues and at least one moral issue as well.

The moral issue deals with the Holocaust. Any North American fiction set in the Baltics in the last century must address the Holocaust in some way. One need not write about the Holocaust – others have done that and continue to do it, but one cannot overlook it. Otherwise, the accusations that some are whitewashing Baltic history will be justified. My last novel, Underground, had to do with the anti-Soviet underground resistance in the post-war era. It was not about the Holocaust, but it acknowledged the shadow of the Holocaust. At least one of my Canadian colleagues took issue with me, saying that I did not say enough on the subject. Others accused me of unnecessarily introducing the subject. In the end, no one was happy with what I did, but I cannot imagine that any story set in the Baltics can exist without the shadow of the Holocaust cast both backward, before the event, and afterward, after the event.

The technical issue about writing about the Baltics has to do with writing historical fiction in general. As a writer, I am forbidden to bore my readers, and so I must address the history and geography of Lithuania in such as way as not to seem like a lecturer droning along in front of a class of bored students. Unlike students who must attend lectures, readers will abandon your book in the flick of the wrist. American writer, Elmore Leonard, famously said that to write a good book, you have to leave out the boring parts.

But how do you do that?

In my last two books, I used different strategies.

The most recent example, from Underground, was extreme compression and comparison. I did address the history of Lithuania briefly, but attempted to make it interesting by comparing its difference with that of the West.

Another technique I used in Woman in Bronze was to turn the place into a kind of fairy tale land. I thought at the time that if Lithuania was perceived as the land of Baron Munchausen, then I would embrace this characterization and push it forward.

In conclusion, let me say that the stories found in the Baltics or inspired by them are well worth telling because they illuminate the human condition. Let’s tell those stories and tell them in a compelling fashion, and if the aesthetic strategies I have laid out based on my own work don’t find favour, then I invite creators to explore new ways of adapting their aesthetic to capture the imagination of the world.

Daniel Chirot, The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe: Economics and Politics from the Middle Ages until the Early Twentieth Century, University of California Press, 1991.

Published 15 January 2014
Original in English
First published by Eurozine (English version) Kulturos barai 12/2013 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Kulturos barai © Antanas Sileika / Kulturos barai / Eurozine

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