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.

Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent

While I am deep in source material from the 1920’s for my current novel, I couldn’t help picking up Keith Lowe’s fascinating new history that sheds more light on the postwar era in Europe. It joins the late Tony Judt, Norman Davies, and Timothy Snyder’s deep and fresh analyses of the postwar period, continuing to dispel the myth that the war ended on May 8, 1945.

Lowe is particularly interested in the scale of the wreckage cause by the second world war, including the complete destruction of cites such as Warsaw, the subsequent vengeance dealt out to various parties, the wholesale movement of millions of people (causing millions more deaths), the wholesale rape of women, local insurgencies and ongoing local wars that lasted right into the fifties in places such as Greece and Lithuania.

Deaths numbered over 35 million, the same number as the entire population of Poland and close to that of France.

Jew suffered the greatest percentage losses of anyone, and those who survived and returned often found themselves the objects of new local pogroms that caused them to flee. But even before they did, they noted the complete absence of their brethren on their return. It was not unusual for a member of an extended family of dozens to find himself or herself the sole survivor and thus alive in a social vacuum.

Many millions of people were driven out of ancestral homes, most numerously the Germans, who were forced out of Prussia and the Eastern parts of Germany, many, many dying along the way. Much has recently been written about the massive rapes soldiers of the Red Army in occupied territory, so this is not exactly fresh news, but it is put in the context of many other outrages and forced population movements, among them of Poles and Ukrainians. At the end of the war in n much of Europe, women outnumbered men and were doomed to spinsterhood and whole gangs of orphans wandered the continent.

Moral destruction was great in brutalized societies, and famine added edge so that large numbers of women prostituted themselves for something to eat for themselves or their children.

Perceived collaborators were killed or humiliated, women stripped of clothing and beaten. One of them defended herself by declaring that her heart belonged to France, but her vagina belonged to her alone.

The devastation and postwar horror was worse the farther East one went. There, the Germans had considered most of the populations subhuman, and thus there were policies, as Timothy Snyder pointed out, of intentional starvation, which would have been far worse had the Germans won

Interestingly, there is a detailed vignette of the underground postwar resistance in Lithuania, where my last novel, Underground, was set. Lowe describes a pitched battle in Kalniskis between partisans and Reds, where the historical inspiration for Elena in my novel was killed while firing a machine gun. She had previously taken part in the assassination of five communist collaborators in her apartment in Marijampole.

The partisan resistance remains controversial; some polemicists see them as stranded fascists and the 135,000 deported to Siberia in the postwar period as their supporters (an outrageous comment made on a book review page of Ellen Cassady’s book, We Are Here). More seriously, some argued that a war against the Reds and their local collaborators was a hopeless waste of human life, but Lowe says that the memory of that resistance helped spur the drive for independence in the eighties.

To hate one’s neighbours became entirely rational in the postwar era, and our understanding of the war and that time, according to Lowe, is woefully incomplete. Conflicts over race, nationality, and politics went on for months and years after the war. The communists, and to a certain extent the former allies, saw this chaos as an opportunity to push forward their agendas, leading to the cold war.

As Timothy Snyder pointed out, national myths tend to obfuscate rather than illuminate the big picture. National myths create martyrs, but they do so in the absence of the story of other martyrs in the big picture. These myths often conflict with others’ myths.

To quote Lowe, “The immediate postwar period has been routinely neglected, misremembered and misused by all of us.”

But that is changing, and Lowe’s book is one of the spate of new histories that is helping to open up our understanding of what happened during the European war and in its aftermath.

A Diplomat’s Diary – Part 2

Fragments from the Period

Lithuanian in the 1920s

Robert W. Heingartner

Heingartner was a diplomat sorely disappointed to be in Lithuania, and his early observations are unfailingly negative.  City hall was dirty and filled with people waiting for something. This description is applied to the opera theatre, and the banks as well. His impressions are not that different from those of people who wander into the poorer parts of Indian cities today.

He complained that there is too much drinking in the town, but there hardly seemed to be anything else to do. Among the more picturesque of his observations:

-chained prisoners are forced to walk through the streets, but not on the sidewalks. They must walk on the road itself.

–  single horse-drawn streetcar runs on rails on the cobblestones main thoroughfare.

– when the local diplomats and Lithuanian government officials partied, they partied all night, drive to the local spa of Birstonas in the morning and then return to Kaunas to drop in on friends in the early afternoon, where their fatigue finally began to take over. They sound like characters out of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies.

Birstonas Spa - The Boozers' Destination

– streetlights were turned off during nights of the full moon in order to save money.

– in the winter, it became dark by three-thirty in the afternoon, and people shuttered up their windows, so the only sound from outside was that of sleigh bells passing in the night.

– Mrs. Smetona, the wife of the president, smoked imported cigarettes and drank Benedictine, complaining that her husband was too impractical, too much an intellectual to rule efficiently, yet we know he ruled as an authoritarian right until the end.

– meat in Kaunas was as cheap as apples. Vegetables were expensive.

– Prime Minister Voldemaras appeared unshaven and drunk with chest hairs sticking out between the buttons on his shirt, yet he was an intellectual who spoke twenty-three languages. Together they drank cognac from 1830.

Augustinas Voldemaras - A Drunken Intellectual

– one September, there were 17 Jewish Holidays in the month. This circumstance was inconvenient because most of the tradesmen were Jews.

– for Christians, the most important holiday was Easter. There were turkey and ham on all tables. On the first day, the men went out visiting. On the second day, the women took their turn.

– unlike military officers in other countries, those in Lithuania wore spurs when they went to dances – a hazard to all the others.