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From Invisibility to Visibility –Some Recent Books about the Baltics in English 2015

Sileika-L-Masys-Photo-2014-

Author of the photo – Liudas Masys

A Transcript of a talk Antanas Sileika gave at the Santara Conference in Alanta in the summer of 2015

I

Living in postwar North America, I found Eastern Europe and the Baltics to be practically invisible in popular space that included history and literature. Hardly anyone knew about them and fewer cared. Much of my life has been search for traces of the Baltics in writing in English, as if for acknowledgement of their existence, and by extension, of my own.

This ignorance fell away for a couple of years during Lithuania’s quest for independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Lithuania was in the news more than any country in Western Europe. But this existence in the popular mind diminished practically to invisibility soon after.

In 1988, Hannibal Lecter, the evil central character in The Silence of the Lambs was depicted as a Lithuanian traumatized by the cannibalism of his daughter by foreign soldiers who fought for the Nazis. Shortly after, in 1991 Jonathan Franzen in his novel, The Corrections, depicted Lithuania as a post-Soviet Dystopia, a place where everything was for sale and the rule of law was very weak.

So far, so bad for a picture of Lithuania and the Baltics in the popular imagination.

Around that time, many les well-known books came on the subject of The Holocaust in Lithuania, often depicting Lithuanians as enthusiastic supporters and perpetrators of the massacres. Most of these Jewish memoirs were read by people interested in The Holcoaust, a subgroup of the reading public. Notwithstanding the smallness of this group, it can generally be said that after a moment of glory in the late eighties and early nineties, Lithuania and the Baltics were not known, and when they were, the picture was dark indeed.

Two other background elements have to be kept in mind. First, Eastern Europe is generally looked upon as the poor cousin of Europe in the West. And as much as East Europeans hate the term “East” and insist they are Central Europeans, in the popular mind, all that lay in the zone of influence of the Soviet Union was East.

Second, when it comes to emigration, Baltic émigrés did not write and publish widely enough to make an impression on the Western Popular mind, if such a thing can be said to exist. However, many, many Jews emigrated from the Baltics and Poland and Lithuania in particular at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some to South Africa, from which their children and grandchildren often emigrated to North America.

When it comes to history, things began to change as a series of historians from Norman Davies, to Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum, The late Tony Judt and others began to take an interest in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

But not many people read history.

The first really international English language book to be a big success was Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Grey, an international bestseller about the Lithuanians in the gulag. However, the tremendous success of this novel was limited in a way because it is categorized in bookstores as a young adult book, and although Lithuanians of all ages read it, generally speaking, adults do not read books in the category of young adult. Thus the impact of this novel was limited in what I will call the popular western consciousness, if such a thing can even be said to exist. Perhaps that consciousness will expand when a film version of the novel comes out.

However, more and more books with Lithuania settings are beginning to appear, and I wanted to alert you their existence.

The First is a book called Epsitolophilia, a biography written by Julija Sukys.

This book was published in the USA by Northwestern University Press, an academic press which has recently begun to make a strong impression with its nonfiction line.

Julija Sukys is an academic, born in Toronto, who now teaches at the University of Missouri.

Epistolophilia tells the the story though letters of Ona Simaite, a Lithuanian librarian who smuggled Jewish children and books and documents out of the Vilnius ghetto. She was discovered by the Nazis, tortured, and imprisoned in Dachau but survived the war. She lived primarily in France although for some years in Israel too, a place she could not bear because she found the climate too hot.

This is a remarkable book about a remarkable person, eccentric, moral, uncompromising. The book went on to win a Jewish book award in Canada and to be long-listed for two other nonfiction awards. It will be coming out in Lithuanian translation in 2016 and Julija Sukys will be at the Vilnius book fair then.

She also will also be bringing out a book next year in English about her grandmother, who was sent to Siberia. This is an important writer of Lithuanian subject matter in English, someone to keep an eye on because she is serious and talented and we can expect much from her in the future.

Next is a novel by Kenneth Bonert, a Canadian with South African and Lithuanian Jewish roots. His novel, The Lion Seeker, came out in 2014 and won the Jewish book award that year and was nominated for one of Canada’s most important literary prizes.

The novel is a vast and sweeping bildungsroman of a boy who grows up in South Africa before and after the Second World War. It is truly voluminous, with an uneasy young man learning about life from the details of auto body repair to travelling across the countryside as a salesman.

But much of his life is defined in relation to his parents, especially his mother, who had an ugly wound on her face that was so bad, she kept her face covered as much as she could until she had an operation to give her some semblance of normality.

The mother has been traumatized, and we find out eventually she was in a Pogrom in Rokiskes in 1906 during which the Lithuanians attacked the Jews, killed one, and maimed the woman by cutting her face. If this is the opening bookend of the novel, the closing bookend is even more terrible, because it occurs in the Lietukis garage massacre of Jews in Kaunas in 1941.

The mother, in short, was maimed by history, and so the protagonist lives endlessly in the shadow of the terrible crimes visited upon the Jews by Lithuanians.

A new book of nonfiction has just appeared this year in New york by the American poet, Rita Gabis. I had the good luck to get an advance copy of this book, and I think it will make quite an impression in America.

Rita Gabis is an extremely sensitive person whose father was Jewish and whose mother is Lithuanian. Thus she was torn between two families which did not mix comfortably at all.

On her Jewish side, she has fond memories of her late father, a real academic and thinker who spent most of his life in books. Her paternal grandmother however was a powerful and sometimes angry force. Once, when Rita was a young teenager, her grandmother saw her on the street wearing a cross on a chain around her neck, just like the other girls that Rita hung out with. Rita saw the cross as a form of jewelry. The furious paternal grandmother stopped her car to rip the chain from her neck. On the other side, however, her Lithuanian family of aunts and uncles encouraged not to identify with her father’s people, to be Lithuanian.

At the centre of this book of memoir lies the character of her Lithuanian Grandfather, Senelis, whom she remembers somewhat fondly, and her grandmother who was sent to Siberia.  What did her grandfather do during the war? He was head of Saugumas in Svencionys under the Nazis in a time when many Jews were shot.

So her central question is – was her grandfather a war criminal, or did he save some Jews and protect them?

This memoir is very, very well informed. The research Gabis did is thorough. She went to book talks given by Ruta Sepetys  and remembers Sepetys being called “The Lithuanian Anne Frank”. At a Jewish dinner party in New York, however, someone says to her that all Lithuanians are fascists, a view that some people hold to this day.

This memoir is agonizing to read and it probes very deeply into the massacre both of Jews and Poles in Svencionys. And it is very subtle, very thorough. It tries to see everything through as many lenses as possible while searching for the truth. It is also very understanding of the suffering of Jews, Poles, and Lithuanians during the war.

All of the books mentioned so far have made or will make an impact on the “popular view” of Lithuania and the Baltics, but the next two books I want to talk about are bestsellers, and thus have much bigger audiences.

The first is by the British writer, Samantha Harvey, called Dear Thief. It is an intensely romantic story about a love triangle. A young woman’s friend, the thief of the novel, steals away the narrator’s husband. The novel is a long letter to the thief, a study of their relationship, their friendship and the betrayal.

What is interesting is the thief of the novel is a Lithuanian woman. Her name is Nina, but she is called Butterfly, perhaps because she flies in and out of the narrator’s life mysteriously.

Butterfly is a profoundly bohemian person, a photographer, but also a person deeply committed to Lithuania, as is her brother Actually, there is a third Lithuanian in the novel, an old man in a nursing home.

The glimpses we see of Lithuania in the novel are of a country seeking freedom, fighting for freedom, and suffering under the Soviets.

Some of the Lithuanian details are ahistorical, because Butterfly and her brother seem to steal into and out of Lithuania very easily during the Soviet period. Her brother even goes to Lithuania to work as a scientist during the Soviet period, and as far as I recall from that time, there were not many Lithuanian émigrés who worked and lived in Lithuania.

Butterfly is a mysterious figure in the novel, and so is Lithuania.

I listened to an interview with the author, and she said she became fascinated by Lithuania, and visited it.  She said she identified Lithuania as a place where eco nationalism developed. She said it was a place where the people were nationalists and fought for freedom because of their love of nature, as exemplified in the sand dunes of Nida as well as the forests of Lithuania. The character of Butterfly in this novel has a powerful, mystical life force associated with Lithuania in the novel.

The book was reviewed in the New Yorker, a very important place that will make the writer widely read. Indeed, some of my friends wrote to me to ask if Harvey as Lithuanian because she seemed to know so much about it.

I just want to note that this is a mythical Lithuania being represented in the novel. Just as France might be depicted at the home of joie de vivre, and Spain the home of blood sport, so Lithuania is depicted here as a place of mystical, ecological life force. We are seeing not historical Lithuania, or contemporary Lithuania, but a mythical Lithuania depicted in a fresh way.

Lastly, I bring you a novel not in English, but only recently translated into English from the Finnish.

It is called When the Doves Disappeared, and it is written by Sofi Oksanen, whose father is Finnish, but whose mother is Estonian. Sofi Oksanen is a sexy young writer, very popular, and some people say she is going to be the next Stieg Larson, the latest best-selling Nordic writer.

Oksanen’s novel tells the story of three people during the German and Soviet occupations of Estonia.

Edgar is a collaborator with whoever is in power. He was trained in Finland to fight the Soviets, but when the Germans arrive, he becomes a collaborator with them. Later, he hides his past and works for the Soviets.

His cousin, Roland, is a more determined resister, one who becomes a partisan and continues to fight the Soviets.

Judit is Edgar’s wife. She suffers because Edgar is not interested in her sexually and we assume he is a closet homosexual.  She goes on to have an affair with a German officer, only to be reunited unhappily with her husband after the Soviets return.

This is a fantastically popular writer, translated into many languages and winning prizes all over the world. Her story of the Estonian resistance to the Soviets has probably done more than any other book to bring out the narrative of the Baltics and their search for independence.

 

The five books I have just mentioned are intended to give an impressionistic view of the Baltics in the popular mind in the west. Of course, not so many people read any more, so until a movie is made of any of these books, those people who are conscious of the Baltics will remain a minority.

The reality of Lithuania and the Baltics is complicated, of course. There are many layers to any story, and the books I have mentioned address only some of the layers, and only superficially.

Nevertheless, I hope these snapshots have given some idea of Lithuania and the Baltics in the popular imagination in the west.