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.

Publishing in Two Worlds

Most of my posts have to do with history and the writing process, but I wanted to comment on appearing in translation in Lithuania, where I was keynote at a bookfair on the publication of the Lithuanian translation of my last novel, Underground., called Pogrindis in Lithuanian.

The Crowds at the Vilnius Book Fair

If you are translated into a language you do not know, you simply accept the fact with no real  knowledge of what the reception was like. This was the case with my book translated into Chinese. But I since I have enough Lithuanian to speak it and read it, I had insight into a remarkably literary culture there.

This is a Full House to Hear about a Book of Aphorisms

Sixty thousand people attend the book fair in Lithuania – whole families come with children. The cabbie who drove there talked about how much he loved books, and as physical objects, and thus not as ebooks.

There were dozens of presentations, and many of them made the newspapers. In my own presentation, there was seating for maybe three hundred people, and it was standing room only with a crowd at the door.

The reception to the novel was outstanding, with many newspaper, television, and radio review and interviews (for links, see my appearances page, but only if you have the language) and a whole print run sold out two days into the fair.  As well, the cultural attaches of some of the embassies picked me up.

Father and Son waited Forty Minutes to Get Their Book Signed

My literary world is a Canadian, and to a smaller extent, an English language one, so it was fascinating to see how another culture reacts to books.

Since Underground is a historical novel, based on the postwar anti-Soviet resistance, much of the interest lay in the subject matter, which is unexplored in fiction in Lithuania.

Sadly, one of the people whose personal history is connected to the subject matter reproached me in print for dealing with history as fiction. You could say this is just a misunderstanding of form, but I can also understand how you might think that your own story belongs to you, and a fictional approach might seem startling.

I’ll be in London to do a talk at the Lithuanian embassy on the occasion of the bookfair there in April.

As to the rest of my work, I am deeply into the new novel, tentatively titled Provisionally Yours, and will likely have a first draft done by the summer. I intend to finish it off at a summer house we have rented very close to the summer house used by Thomas Mann in the thirties on the Curonian Spit. that’s a very unusual place, with villages buried in sands and a lagoon on one side and the Baltic on the other.

The Devil in History

Communism, Facism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

Vladimir Tismaneanu

Hard on the heels of Anne Applebaum and Marci Shore, we find another reassessment of Europe in the twentieth century in Valdimir Tismaneanu’s The Devil in History, a book which is a theoretical study of the century’s two disastrous belief systems. If Applebaum looked at how the structures of civil society were destroyed in postwar Eastern Europe, and Shore looked at the personalities involved in the post-communist landscape, Tismaneanu studies the belief systems of Nazism and Communism that brought Eastern Europe to its present unsettled state.

The evolution of the whole idea of this comparison between nazism and communism is a study in the fast-changing understanding of the last century. For a long time, it was considered reprehensible to compare the two because it diminished the evil of the Nazis. Some thinkers believed every attempt to compare the two was a veiled project to diminish the significance of the Holocaust. The Prague Declaration, a resolution signed in 2008 to study the crimes of communism (Vaclav Havel was among the signatories), in particular has been singled out as just such an attempt to obfuscate history.

Yet when Timothy Snyder visited Toronto to speak about his history, “Bloodlands“, I asked him if it wasn’t unfair to compare these two systems and he responded that if you refuse to compare them, you already have. When I asked Anne Applebaum the same question after her talk in Toronto after the publication of Iron Curtain, she said that this position, the refusal to compare the two, had become marginal. Now, in 2013, the comparison in Tismaneanu’s book is public and most mainstream reviews I have seen of this study only mention the previous “interdiction” on comparison.

When I wrote my 2011 novel about the Lithuanian partisans, I was questioned pointedly by some of my friends about why the Holocaust in Lithuania was not given more space in my book. I thought I had written a story in the shadow of the Holocaust, but clearly some readers were uneasy. I insisted that there were multiple narratives about WW2, and now the subsequent rise in the number of books on the subject of Eastern Europe shows that the multiple narratives continue to appear without, I believe, diminishing the importance of the Holocaust story.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is interesting for his personal history as well as his writing. His parents were committed communists and he was an academic Romanian communist who emigrated to America and began to consider the dictatorships of the twentieth century.  His experience is clearly coloured by his past in Romania, where the communist regime devolved into one with strong fascist overtones.

So what does Tismaneanu say these two ideologies, communism and nazism shared? In his eyes, a willingness to purge societies of “former people”, to use the communist formulation. Humanistic values were abandoned in an attempt to build what Tismaneanu calls the City of God, a perverted version of St. Augustine’s idea of heavenly perfection. Thus Jews could be deprived of life and whole classes of people could be executed, imprisoned, or deported under communism.

The critical difference, of course, is that Nazism sought to destroy the lives of a category human beings, whereas communism was not bent on the necessary physical annihilation of the classes it sought to eliminate. Thus there were no ovens in communism.

Tismaneanu is bewildered by western fascination with communism and its apparent return in some places in Eastern Europe. He goes to great lengths to show communism was not merely an idealistic project that went off the rails. It was a murderous project from the very beginning. One of the further differences between communism and fascism is that the former can live on through the party (which is elevated to god-like status) whereas fascism’s appeal frequently lies in the deification of a leader, and once the leader dies, the system collapses.

Facism, Tismaneanu says, is a form of depraved romanticism whereas communism is a form of depraved enlightenment.

Tismaneanu lingers for some time in Eastern Europe, where he says there has been a great disappointment in the post-communist era. People have lost a belief system, and yet they long for one and their reflex is to yield either to embrace ethnic nationalism or revert to communism. What these places need, he says, is societal glue.

Tismaneanu’s book is not for the faint of heart. It is intended for those with knowledge of Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler and other thinkers on these matters. Those with less historical or philosophical background will find the going slow, as I did, but well worth the effort for the piercing insights that come out.

The theme I have seen running from Tony Judt to Timothy Snyder, Marci Shore, Anne Applebaum and now Vladimir Tismaneanu is empathy for the individuals who lived between the hammer and the anvil of communism and fascism. When Timothy Snyder was asked why the numbers of deaths he gave in his book were not rounded off, he answered that the death of every individual needed to be taken into account – to round off was to lose sight of the humanity of each person.

The humanity of individuals and the tragedy of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe continues to open up as more and more books are being written.

By coincidence, I was speaking to a group of Balts about my own novel two days ago at the Estonian Hall in Toronto, and I was asked by an audience member if the story of the Baltics was eventually going to come out in the west. I said it was indeed coming out, but perhaps not in the way the questioner expected or hoped. The subject of the history of the twentieth century, particularly in Eastern Europe, continues to be a minefield, but the unexploded bombs of the past are being dug up more and more often now. One thing is sure. On the way to broader understanding, there will be more explosions of controversy.