This Is Not My Sky
(Tai ne mano dangus)
review by Vaida Venskutonytė
Laima Vincė. This Is Not My Sky (Tai ne mano dangus): a novel – Vilnius: Alma littera, 2018. 542 pages
This review was published in the Lithuanian literary journal, “Metai,” 2019.
The writer, Laima Vincė, first conceived of the idea for her novel, This Is Not My Sky (Lithuanian: Tai ne mano dangus) when the United States declared war on Iraq. At the time hers was an emotional response, an individual protest against military aggression, which would bring along with it extreme traumatization in the consciousness of both individuals and society, as well as in the cultural memory of the nations involved in war. While teaching Creative Writing workshops at the University of Southern Maine, Laima Vincė experienced watching her classes shrink as more and more students were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan with Maine's National Guard or with the United States military. She experienced what could be called a metaphysical moment of injustice. She saw in a very direct way how the fragility of a single individual's existance was compromised by the cruelty of what could be expressed as,“the military system.” The writer's overwhelming sense of this impending tragedy reflected not only her concerns as an American citizen, but resonated with the tragedy of the Lithuanian nation during World War II and the postwar years. The anhilation of Lithuanian families and the massive deportations to Siberia, the Soviet occupation, and the forced emigration of Lithuanians to the United States, consumed this writer's imagination for fifteen years until all that became the basis of this novel's narrative history and its central theme.
The novel opens with an excerpt from the gnostic poem, “Thunder, Perfect Mind”: “I am the first and the last./I am the honored one and the scorned one./I am the whore, and the holy one. … I am the goddess, and I am the one,/Whose God is great.” The language of this poem gently, subtly, and somewhat secretively, reveals one of the main themes of this novel—the ambivalent experience of a woman's sense of individuality and her complicated search for identity. Especially significant are the poem's references to whores and holy women, which echoe the biblical figures of Mary Magdalene and Holy Mary Mother of God, who make an appearance in the novel. These two contrasting religious figures are connected into one in Maria, the heroine of the novel. A similar duality dominates the work of Lithuanian emigre writer, Birutė Pūkelevičiūtė, in her novel, Aštuoni Lapai (Eight Leaves) (1956). In both of these novels women experience the horrors of war: humiliation, rape. However, simililary in both novels the female characters are spiritually inspired by the image of Holy Mary, who shows them that all women carry within them the possibility of motherhood, the seed of redemption through starting a new life.
From her early childhood, Maria, the heroine of This Is Not My Sky, is a religious and sincere Catholic. She somewhat naively dreams of marrying and creating a harmonious Catholic family, and then living a safe, even idyllic, life. However, Maria's rosey dream is destined to be shattered from her early adolescence onwards. She is fated to experience the horrors of World War II, and then the postwar anti-Soviet armed resistance and the massive deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia. These events erase even the possibility of a humane, civilized existence. Maria's mother, Nora (full name – Eleonora) agrees to shelter a resistance fighter in her home. They address him familiarly as Uncle Rimas. Maria's mother formally agrees to risk her daughters' lives in exchange for Lithuania's freedom. She promises the leader of the local resistance that if Rimas is arrested or if their house is surrounded by Soviet security forces, that their house will be exploded together with all of them inside of it. Nora is even taught how to handle a pistol, and if necessary, how to shoot herself with it...
This is one of the most difficult dilemmas the heroic Nora must endure, one that is reminiscent of the Biblical story of Abraham, when he is asked by God to sacrifice his son. Nora's drama is saturated with a burning silence. The relentless stress of the situation weighs heavily on this courageous woman's shoulders. She must consciously sacrifice her flesh and blood—her children, who she'd raised alone in the most dire of conditions, and whom she loves with all her heart—while living the entire time with the thought of their deaths hanging over her. In that silence she must overcome her heaviest doubts and not betray herself—beneath the armour of her silence she hides an existential horror.
It is noteworthy that the inspiration for Nora's character is the historic woman, Eleonora Labanauskienė, who sheltered two leaders of the resistance, Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas and Juozas Lukša-Daumantas, in her home for almost a year. Eleonora and her husband, Vincas, just like the protagonists in the novel, consciously agreed to explode themselves if the Soviet army were to surround their home. Other characters in the novel are also inspired by historic truths: the love story of Ona and Bronius is based on the actual love story of the liaison woman Eleonora Rubine and her beloved partisan, poet, artist Bronius. They fought together with General Jonas Žemaitis. Vladas Pilvelis represents the stereotypical middle-aged, wealthy, bachelor engineer—there were many men like him who came out of the displaced persons (DP) camps of the allied territories of Germany and Austria after the war. The characters Žygimantas and Barbara reflect the names of the historic Grand Duke of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy and his beloved Barbora Radvilaitė. Yet it is important to take note that these characters similarity to these historic figures is crafted in a subtle way. Certain names have been appropriated, as well as certain important historic events; however, the necessary artistic transformation takes place, as well as an aesthetic transformation. The characters in this novel are endowed with a rich emotional life, complete with dreams, and with necessary detailed biographical facts and background information. Sometimes the text becomes ironic and the characters' motivations for certain sins are exposed. Therefore, this novel is not a documentary novel, nor is it a strictly historical novel. History is used to create a realistic background upon which a rich imaginative narrative unfolds.
The sense of a true historic reality in this fictional novel is created not only by the expert use of a detailed historical backdrop and carefully constructed psychological portraits of the characters, but also by the voice and style of the writing. The author's style is easily accessible and fluent. Metaphors are applied sparsely: “She must carry the freezing temperatures of Eastern Europe around inside of her” or “The color plates were faded and the tones were off, just like the lives of people left behind the Iron Curtain were faded, drained of color, devoid of tone.” The author plays dynamically with language. In psychologically charged moments (when the Russians search the house, when there is the risk of the bomb being detonated, when the teacher interrogates the girls) the author crafts such intense dramatic tension that in the culmination of the scene the reader practically hears an existential scream.
Additionally, every character has his or her own original, unique, manner of speaking that reflects that character's appropriate worldview, timeframe, and social stature. While Žygimantas speaks broken English peppered with flirtatious comments, Milda uses slang and a heavy dose of adolescent irony. Baba speaks only Lithuanian, and uses many archaic words and phrases. Cathy's voice is interesting because her vocabulary and tone reflect back the privileged situation of an only child surrounded by indulgant loving adults. In her childish chatter we hear the intonations of the adults around her. Maria's speech is the most dynamic. As she grows up and matures throughout the novel, we hear her speech mature and her vocabulary expand, gaining more and more depth and insight.
In the Prologue, when Cathy arrives unexpectedly in Maria's home, Maria weaves her a Lithuanian national costume. This act takes on not only the ritual of creating an ethnographic traditional gift for Cathy, but also is heavy with symbolism. The cloth is “woven” together, just like the novel is woven together. There is not one character that appears in this novel that is not somehow connected to the central narrative.
In fact, many of the fates of the characters are woven together in several dramatic narrative threads. For example, Cathy's nanny is a Puerto Rican woman who lives in the same walk-up as Maria's family. Žygimantas starts a love affair with Barbara, the woman who adopted Cathy, his own biological daughter. Milda becomes Cathy's friend. Uncle Rimas's wife meets Maria in America... The characters' lives are twisted together like a net: On their own or separate from each other they could not function or exist. A tight community built on connection is revealed. This novel bears witness to the unique way that the individual cannot exist alone and for himself/herself only. It is not possible to interpret one's life without examing the many threads of connection that tie it to others. Each detail viewed on its own is open to misinterpretation, engenders chaos, or ambiguity.
Therefore, from the first glance the novel's history is a woven textile; however, that texile has no lack of “meaningful” holes. It is not clear why Rimas disappears. The reasons why Cathy is given up for adoption remain murky. Žygimantas's alcoholism, Milda's self-destruction, and the fate of Vanda and Vilma after their painful parting with Maria, remain unresolved. Some holes created by events in the novel are slowly woven back together later, while others remain in the shadows, behind the theater curtains.
Perhaps the writer is trying to show us how elusive it is to try to understand this world—certain life tragedies will always remain a mystery. One can only learn how to live with them for decades, perhaps even until death. The most dramatic example of this enigma is the separation of the three sisters. The leader of the resistance, Perkūnas, tells Maria she must go live in Poland, but he gives her sisters, Vanda and Vilma, away to a Soviet orphanage. Maria, as the eldest daughter, promised her mother that she would take care of her sisters. But she is forced to break her promise and leave them behind. The scene when they must part ways seems to slow down and enlarge time. Time stands still as Maria must make her choice, as she raises her doubts, as she considers several different outcomes, until finally a stranger comes and calmly calls the two little girls to her side and slowly, calmly, leads them away, as though they were going out into the forest to pick berries... Maria feels a heavy weight on her heart as she watches them disappaer into the forest. She wonders if her sisters even understand that they may never see her again. Their parting is reminiscent of the metaphor of the lost paradise of childhood—once you set out on that path that leads away from home there is no way back. Maria never receives any news about her sisters. They never go home... The memory that is seared into Maria's mind—the way the woman calmly walks off into the forest holding her sisters' hands, as though going berry-picking, is a metaphor for the existential loss of loved ones. The characters in this novel never know when they will find themselves in unchartered territory. Anything can happen that will hurl them into an unknown situation without any clear outcome. Their daily lives are subject to being uprooted at any given moment. Today you are in Lithuania, but tomorrow you may find yourself on the other side of the earth...
Existential questions regarding a woman's growth as an individual, her search for identity, her search for self, are always raised at the core of the novel. Every female character bears a symbolic name and has her own unique interpretation of what it means to be a woman. The main protagonist, Maria, based on Carl Jung's archetype theory, embodies the symbolism of womanhood. Maria reflects: “Instead of the power of her beauty, now she had another power, the power of motherhood.” For the greater part of her life Maria raises her children, takes care of her home—that is her source of spiritual energy, her wellspring of motivation. However, once her children are grown she is able to hear her own unique inner voice—she longs to know herself, to find her calling. She begins to work, she goes to a local college and earns a degree in literature, later she moves out of her husband's home and goes to Florida, where she becomes a professional weaver of the Lithuanian national costume. Maria's portrait is one of the most developed, and dynamic, characterizations in the novel's narrative: She grows up from a young, but brave, girl who helped the partisans as a liaison girl, to a naive young woman, to a married woman who falls in love outside of her marriage, to a grown woman with a sense of humor who knows how to defend herself. Ultimately, she becomes an independent artist. The novel consistently documents Maria's growth and evolution as an individual, her maturing mind, her taumas, and finally her release from trauma through healing.
Another interesting character is “the Other Maria”—Uncle Rimas's beloved. She finds Maria in America and wants to talk with her about the past. It is clear that this is not her real name, but a symbolic name that renders her Maria's doppelganger. This woman experiences a romantic, intoxicating love affair with Rytas Vilkas (Uncle Rimas), which is cut short when Rimas returns behind the Iron Curtain on an reconnaissance mission for the American CIA. Despite the tragic end to their romance, this woman experienced what Maria longed to experience and lacked in her life—a fulfilling spiritual love that was requited. Perhaps this is the reason why the writer created this mysterious doppleganger, who unexpectedly tracks Maria down in America and shocks her to the point that Maria loses consciousness.
Later, the great beauty, Barbara, inserts herself into Maria's family. Barbara is an aristrocratic, sophisticated forty-year-old woman, who because of her husband's impotence decides to adopt a baby. Unexpectedly, at the height of her womanhood, she experiences a blind passion and physical attraction for another man (Žygimantas) and loses all sense of reality over her desire to possess him. She is a hedonistic aristrocrat. Barbara and the object of her desire do not match, rather they negate the Lithuanian cultural memory of the legendary love affair between Žygimantas Augustas and Barbora Radvilaitė. The Grand Duke Žygimantas Augustas is prepared to sacrifice everything for Barbora, whom he considers his soul mate. He mourns her death his entire life. However, in Laima Vincė's novel, Žygimantas (who is usually simply called, Ziggy) is a typical Don Juan, who quickly replaces one woman with another. Barbara is ready to give up everything for Žygimantas and follow him to the ends of the earth on a moment's notice, but that does not inspire any feelings of authentic tenderness in him for her. Žygimantas's mother, Baba, represents the archetype of the healer and prophet. This ancient woman is skilled in a number of verbal incantations, magical forumulas, and in the use of healing with herbs, which she stubbornly tries to apply to the family's illnesses. According to tradition, she must pass on her knowledge and her power to the first born child or the last born. She chooses Cathy.
The narrative introduces us to an important bit of folk wisdom: If someone gives a pregnant woman the evil eye, the soul of the child may split into two. Eventually, one of the two must die so that the other may live. The soul that survives leads the other soul back to the crossroads. The cross standing in the crossroads guides the lost soul home. This mystical story helps the reader understand the symbolic meaning behind the characters of the two sisters, Milda and Cathy. The two girls are sisters; however, for certain reasons the younger sister, Cathy, is given away to an American family to raise. The result is that the two sisters experience totally different lives, which form their personalities. Cathy is adored by her adoptive father, Bill, who raises her in a luxurious home. She receives the best education money can buy and becomes a doctoral student at prestigious Columbia University. Meanwhile, her sister Milda experiences poverty, neglect and abuse, her father's alcoholism and her mother's depression. She loses her God Mother, who is her only lifeline, and then loses her mother when she relocates to Florida. This chain of painful life events lead Milda into a life of escapism through drugs and sexual experimentation. Eventually she succombs to AIDS and dies an early death. Although Cathy's archetype is that of the rescuer and the healer, she cannot prevent her sister from escaping her fate, death. Milda parts with Cathy with these words: “My ruined body, my dying body, is a symbol of occupied Lithuania. … My body is an occupied country. … But you Cathy, you're pure. … You can be a part of the new Lithuania. You can go there and do something good for the people.” Milda becomes Cathy's shadow, her antagonist, her double. She symbolizes a Lithuania that has been raped, defiled, humiliated, a Lithuania that has lost its soul. Such a country cannot be healthy and vibrant. The only path left is death and rebirth.
The novel masterfully opens up the complicated concept of psychological trauma. According to Professor Danutė Gailienė, in her book What They Did To Us (Ką jie mums padarė, 2008), the most difficult traumas happen in childhood, or they occur over a long period of time. There are two types of trauma: Individual trauma and cultural trauma. Often one masks the other. An individual who has experienced trauma struggles with looping repetitive thoughts and images, and is often haunted with nightmares. In the novel, This Is Not My Sky, the reader is exposed to many various traumas: the loss of loved ones (the tragic death of both Maria and Žygimantas's families in Siberia, Milda's death, the murder of Baba's baby), violence (the Russian soldiers beat and rape Nora in front of her children, Žygimantas hits his children), sexual violence (experienced by Nora, Maria, and Milda). The research of Holocaust scholars reveals that trauma is passed down in families to children and grandchildren.
We see an analogical situation in the novel. Although they live in America, because both Maria and Žygimantas have experienced trauma caused by the Soviet occupation, they raise psychologically wounded children: Milda becomes a drug addict, Tadas is in jail. It were as though this novel collects all its characters into one meaningful plane that represents the entire spectrum of twentieth century cultural trauma experienced by Lithuanians. Most of them suffer and find their own methods of escaping the horrors of their pasts. Žygimantas is paranoid, fearing a Russian invasion of America, which leads him to drown himself in alcoholism. Maria nurtures her depression. Baba shuts herself off from the world in her own mystical realm. Ona isolates herself from the people of her village and meets with her dead lover, Bronius, in her dreams. Maria and Cathy both experience trauma dreams. As a child Cathy has a recurring dream of seeing her barefoot ancestors disappearing into snowdrifts. The present is crippled by the wounds of the past. It is difficult for these people to adapt, to experience any joy in their lives, any meaning. The most positive event in the novel takes place when Maria's daughter Cathy returns to her. Maria's newfound independence and the soothing work of weaving helps her find spiritual peace and to experience post-traumatic growth.
Because this novel encompasses themes that are highly relevant to us as individuals, to our families, to cultural discourse, and raises questions about serious problems in contemporary Lithuania—violence against children, women, sexual violence, depression, the loss of loved ones, identity confusion experienced by Lithuanian emigres and immigrants, the search for a meaningful life, familial relationships—it is relevant to both men and women, to the entirity of today's society. The novel becomes an odd type of history textbook while also a primer on psychology, while at the same time it functions as an expressive work of literature.
Who am I? What does it meant to be a Lithuanian? What has my nation experienced? Why are our life tragedies cloaked in silence? What does it mean to lose one's home, one's family, one's beloved? The characters in This Is Not My Sky seek to find the answers to these questions and to many more.
Juozas Lukša. Forest Brothers: The Account of an Anti-Soviet Lithuanian Freedom Fighter: 1944 – 1948. Translated with an Introduction by Laima Vincė. Budapest–New York: Central European University Press, 2009.
Juozas Lukša’s memoir of anti-Soviet underground resistance in the postwar years was the first ever published, and it remains one of the most vivid depictions of what went on after the Soviets swept back into Lithuania in 1944.
The Lithuanian partisans fought the returning invaders as best they could, usually employing guerilla tactics. After three years of bloody resistance battles, Lukša escaped through Poland in 1947 in a vain attempt to solicit Western help, but he became stranded in Paris. There, he met and married Nijolė Bražėnaitė, only to return to Lithuania for the CIA in 1950. But the resistance was in its final years, and in this melancholy twilight of the partisans, Lukša was betrayed by a former comrade- in-arms and killed in 1951.
Juozas Lukša’s memoir and biography are extremely popular – they have appeared in five editions in Lithuanian, the final one exquisitely footnoted (though with too many errors in pagination). His story was made into a feature film in Lithuania and is being made into a documentary in the USA. The memoir was abridged and translated into Swedish, and into English in 1975. I used elements of the Lithuanian version in my own novel, set in the partisan resistance.*
* Antanas Sileika, Underground. Toronto: Thomas Allen and Son, 2011.
Now we have a new translation of Lukša’s memoir from Laima Vincė, and it is a welcome addition to the growing body of evidence about the resistance, not only in Lithuania but throughout the so-called “borderlands” of the former Soviet Union, consisting of parts of Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine, Estonia, and Latvia.
Although Lukša’s memoir is far from perfect – its structure and time sequences are confusing – it is an excellent mosaic of first- and second-hand accounts of various crimes visited upon the locals by the Soviet occupying forces: robbery, murder, dispossession and deportation.
In response to this violence, Lithuanian men first gathered into bands in the forest to escape Soviet conscription or arrest and then began to fight back with any means they had: an underground press, sabotage, assassination, and finally pitched battle. Over time, the number of Soviet collaborators began to rise and the resistance situation, as we now know, became entirely hopeless, although it did not seem that way to the partisans at the time. Many continued to hope for rescue from the West.
So here we have the most romantic of stories – the biography of a hero who sacrificed his love and his life for his country. While Juozas Lukša was undoubtedly both romantic and heroic, this new translation appears at a time when a great deal more information about the partisans and their context has come out, and our own attitudes are more skeptical now than they were during the Soviet occupation.
Certain aspects of the partisan mind-set might seem peculiar to some of us now, as demonstrated in such moments as the atom bomb party, when the partisans danced with delight to hear of the atomic weapons dropped on Japan. We have learned to deplore the twin atomic explosions, but to the partisans it seemed as if the Americans finally had a knockout punch against the Soviets. It was peculiar to them that the Americans chose not to use it.
The cruelty inflicted upon the partisans by the Soviets and their collaborators was quite horrifying. In one case, provocateurs captured a partisan and buried his head in an anthill. Captured partisans were tortured by many other horrible means. Frequently, their grotesquely mutilated bodies were tossed onto the marketplaces as examples to the locals, and those who identified the bodies were themselves deported.
For their part, the partisans did not hold back and employed violence of their own. For example, they burned a house with phosphorous grenades so the collaborators inside suffocated in the basement; they attacked the homes of Soviet settler families who moved onto the properties of deported citizens; and they planned elaborate assassinations. Most dramatic among these assassinations was the infamous “engagement party,” in which a partisan pair masquerading as an engaged couple invited local communist functionaries to a party, only to shoot five of them dead after dinner. The accordion player, wounded in the throat, was found by the authorities fleeing across a bridge. Unable to speak, he wrote out the story of what had happened, and the police went on to photograph the scene. The grisly photo of the carnage appears in the Lithuanian version of the book, but not in this translation.
The partisan delight at killing enemies stands as a strong corrective to the romance of Lukša’s story. Traitors were hunted down and liquidated. The violence of the occupation bred the violence of the resistance, it is true, but the violence remains appalling.
When I stopped at a Marijampolė museum in 2009 to look at its partisan history displays and to visit the scene of the engagement party assassination, the director, upon learning that I planned to write about the partisans, cautioned me against humanizing their enemy. He said that, if I went that route, I would be doing an injustice to those who died defending their homes, their families and their country.
He had a point, but one can’t help remembering that many of the partisans’ victims were civilians. In his recent study of the partisan resistance, Alexander Statiev, in The Soviet Counterinsurgency in the Western Borderlands, goes so far as to claim that the partisan war was a form of civil war. This statement is exaggerated – there would have been no partisan war without the Soviet occupation, but it does stress that most losses were civilian losses.
In Partizanai tada ir šiandien, Lithuanian historian, Bernardas Gailius, goes beyond defending the partisans. He makes the point that, by their actions, they demonstrated the resistance of the Lithuanian nation against the Soviets. He would call the resistance a war rather than an insurgency, and an extension through war of the policy of the legitimate Lithuanian government.
Yet in Lithuania itself, any online newspaper article about the partisans prompts dozens of comments, most of them negative (one might argue that newspaper commentators do not reflect the general population). These commentators claim the partisans were killers and thieves. Defenders of partisans say the killers and thieves were agents provocateurs planted by the Soviet regime, or a few men gone bad. The fact remains that, in Lithuania itself, the subject causes occasional controversy because, in some smaller towns, virtually all the inhabitants were touched by the partisan war. As a friend said to me of Merkinė, a town in the south of Lithuania, “Only two types of people live here: those whose parents suffered under the Soviets and those whose parents caused the suffering.”
This partisan story is mostly unknown in the West – all the more reason to be grateful to Laima Vincė and her publisher for retranslating one version of it.
However, even among the few in the West who do know about the partisans, the subject is sometimes controversial. The Jews who survived in Lithuania and the East were rescued by the Soviets. To them the Soviets were saviors. On the other hand, some of the Soviet counterinsurgency operatives in Lithuania were Jews. At least two of them, Nachman Dushansky and Aaron Greisas (the latter not identified in the translation as a Jew, although he is identified as such in the original) are named in this text, the former surviving long enough to flee to Israel after Lithuania’s independence and the latter killed by partisans.
There have been all sorts of intemperate accusations on this score. Juozas Lukša is identified in some Jewish web sites as a Nazi collaborator (unsubstantiated) and he was depicted as a criminal in a Soviet piece of disinformation called Vanagai iš anapus, published in the Soviet Union in 1961. Extremists on the other side make exaggerated claims about Jews as Soviet operatives and collaborators.
What it meant to be a “collaborator” in Lithuania is a fraught subject as well because it was not just Nazis who killed Jews there. Some Lithuanians were involved too, and whatever their actual number may have been, even one was too many.
In other words, controversies swirl around Lukša and the partisans, and while we need not take these controversies too seriously, we cannot let them pass unremarked upon.
❖ ❖ ❖
One of the strengths of the fifth edition of the Lithuanian version of this memoir, carried over in Vincė’s translation, is the addition of extensive footnotes that humanize the victims Lukša writes about. Thus we read the following in Lukša’s original text:
A few days later I met my friend, who went by the code name of Uosis (Ash Tree).* He was a partisan. He had come to Kaunas to retrieve a printing press...
*Algirdas Varkala, 1927 - 1948. March 18, 1948 he was retreating from the enemy when he was shot in the leg. He shot himself to avoid being taken prisoner.
The two exchange some information about partisan life, and Uosis is described as optimistic and determined. He is a minor player in the story, but even minor players had lives important to them and their loved ones. Timothy Snyder, in his recent and magisterial Bloodlands, points out that we need to remember the humanity of every single person who suffered in World War Two. In a Vincė translation footnote, we read the following additional information about Uosis:
In other words, most of the people mentioned in the memoir had histories and fates that play out in the footnotes, making their lives all the more vivid and tragic.
On the matter of the translation itself, the text reads easily enough – the sentences are fluid. A stickler might argue that the tone is somewhat American (the partisans sometimes sound like Marines in basic training) and the phrasing is not always felicitous with the original.
For instance, the 1975 translation by E. J. Harrison reads:
A lone Red Army trooper appears and turns his hard-ridden nag into our yard. The animal is unencumbered by either saddle or bridle – a length of rope around its neck apparently serving the purpose of both.
The first Red Army soldier appeared at the rear of our barn on the back of a tired, old nag. A pair of pants slung over the nag’s back served as a saddle and stirrups.
The Lithuanian original names neither rope nor pants, but a hobble tossed over the back of the horse. Since hardly any modern person knows what a hobble looks like, one can see the need to change the word, and one can see the different strategies of Harrison and Vincė, including a change of verb tense.
We should cut Vincė some slack on this issue – scrupulous precision would have made for a bumpy translation.
This rich trove of partisan memoirs, histories, articles, and archive material has barely been translated into English. The Diary of a Partisan (Lionginas Baliukevičius), a document found in KGB archives, is a welcome exception, but there are more books awaiting translation, among them Adolfas Ramanauskas’s Daugel krito sūnų and the late Liūtas Mockūnas’s Pavargęs herojus.
And there are many more books being written about the context of the resistance. In addition to the ones mentioned above, the late Tony Judt’s Postwar and the more focused The Lands Between, by Alexander Prusin, are worth looking at.First-hand accounts from other countries should be looked at as well, including the chilling Polish-language Egzekutor, by Stefan Dąmbski.
The controversy about the partisans is not likely to go away any time soon, but if we hope to come to a balanced judgment, we will need to study all the sources available and thoroughly thrash out the different interpretations of them. Laima Vincė has made an important contribution to this ongoing project of remembrance and clarification.
A Tale of Biblical Times
Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart. Laima Vincė, selfpublished by Amazon Create Space, 2012. ISBN: 978-14-751- 2897-0.
Laima Vincė’s latest book, Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart, is a documentary, and yet personal, excursion into the overwhelming trauma of postwar Lithuania and the ways in which its ravages are still sorely evident. It is largely a collection of the stories of mostly, but not exclusively, “women who were former partisan fighters, liaisons, or supporters of Lithuania’s armed resistance against the Soviet Union” (7), Jewish Holocaust survivors, and survivors of exile to Siberia and Tajikistan. Those stories are interspersed with Vincė’s personal stories of, and reflections on, life in post-Soviet Lithuania.
In the book, Vincė tells us that she has had a long-lasting and emotionally charged relationship with Lithuania: “For fifty years my grandfather represented a nation that did not exist. He kept his film noir Consulate on the Upper West Side of Manhattan open and operating as Lithuania disappeared from maps of the world […] Tonight we were racing through the land that was in my blood. I took after my grandfather and the people of his region” (216). Vincė’s family had been victims of the Soviet regime and part of the motivation behind this project is her preoccupation with historical justice and perpetuating the memory of people who suffered injustice and whose suffering, she feels, has not yet been appropriately acknowledged: “These deportations, kept secret for half a century, are hardly mentioned in history books outside of the countries affected by them” (205). Although U.S.-born, Vincė has considerable firsthand experience of living in the country of her grandparents’ origin. She is fluent in Lithuanian and made lengthy visits at the end of the 1980s as a young woman, studying Lithuanian literature, creative writing, and translation, participating in the Singing Revolution, and witnessing some of the most significant political and social changes in modern European history (those experiences are documented in her book Lenin’s Head on a Platter). She has returned at least twice as a Fulbright scholar, a mother of a family and a professional teacher and translator. Her own relationship with Lithuania is far from uncomplicated and settled: “I wonder whether I was really so brave in 1988–1989 and in 1983 and 1984 when I visited Soviet-occupied Lithuania as a student? As an American citizen, for me the Soviet Union was just one big reality show, and I could always get out if I had to” (351). Therefore, I feel that her desire to understand the reality and mentality of postwar, as well as post-Soviet, Lithuania is tightly entwined with her own identity quest. Vincė’s previous book The Snake in the Vodka Bottle also testifies to this quest.
The point of view, from which Vincė carries out her research and contextualizes it, is that of a stranger who has a native right to the knowledge and experience that is shared with her. She treats her subjects as newly discovered family members, sympathetically, with the weight of emotional responsibility. For example, “All his life Jonas Kadžionis had worked as a manual laborer. Yet, listening to his poems and his thoughts on poetry, I felt that under different circumstances, he could have been a professor of literature” (286).
The first two chapters of Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart provide the historical background, painted accurately, although in broad brush strokes, for the interviews that follow. In her introduction and indeed the entire book, Vincė does justice to the historical, ideological, moral, and emotional tumult that raged during the years of World War II and postwar Lithuania. She records a moving conversation between Kazys and Karolis Kadžionis, as told by their younger brother, Jonas:
I remember my two elder brothers discussing what to do. ‘I will sacrifice for my family,’ said my brother Karolis, ‘and I will join the Red Army.’ Some men joined the Red Army voluntarily to save their families. They went to the front. You can’t hold that against them.
‘No’, said Kazys, ‘I am going into the forest to join the partisans and then we will be shooting at each other.’
So they both went into the forest. (291).
Needless to say, they both died.
Vincė is also careful to explore different types of repressions against Lithuanian residents of different ethnic groups and social strata – Soviet aggression against resistance fighters and other participants of the resistance movement, the first Soviet occupation and deportations to Siberia, as well as “one of the least known of the Soviet deportations – that of Lithuania’s German population to Tajikistan” (184). She also deals with the Holocaust in Lithuania, a controversial subject given that many Lithuanians participated in it. The overall tone of the book is nonjudgemental, nondefensive, and nonideological. It is sympathetic towards all the survivors of the postwar horrors. After a visit to a stribas, “a man who had actively worked for the NKVD hunting down people in the resistance” (141), Vincė writes: “Listening to Pranas, I began to feel sorry for him. It was a strange sort of compassion. All these people were victims of their times, whichever side they chose” (146).
When it comes to comments on contemporary Lithuania, Vincė maintains a much more negative perspective. After a guided visit to the Museum of the Center for Genocide and Resistance (which is often criticized for not paying sufficient tribute to the Holocaust in Lithuania) and the guide’s failure to establish clear historical facts to a group of foreign visitors with little to no knowledge of Lithuanian history, and to explain to them the historical significance of the tortures that took place in the KGB basement, she reels off a string of questions that serve to channel her disapproval: “Gulag tourism is a growing industry in the post-Soviet world. […] What is the point of this type of tourism? To gawk at the misery of others? Or to reflect and remember? What is the responsibility of the tour guides who lead the groups into a tour of hell? To educate? To indoctrinate? Honor? […] And are these guides properly prepared to lead us into Dante’s inferno? Have they had the appropriate training? Do they know their history? And how dare the tour guides wear bright floral prints?” (151). This is an eloquent commentary. Many of Vincė’s observations on contemporary Lithuania question the way in which the complicated and painful past is being dealt with now, people’s ability to look at it directly, analyze it, understand it, take in the conflicting points of view towards it, face the ugliness of it in order to one day be free of it.
The title of Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart arises from the fact that all the protagonists of the book were young when the war struck and naturally their love affairs feature strongly in their stories. Furthermore, they often share how they came to make the life-or-death decisions they were forced to confront. As Leonora Grigalevičiūtė-Rubine told Vincė, “Ours was a generation that lived through times that were biblical in nature. There was good and there was evil. And there 79 was nothing in between. It was impossible not to choose sides. Each one of us was forced to choose.” Those decisions were always hard, often damaging, and always heartbreaking.
One of the drawbacks of the book is that it lacks a strong editorial touch, both in terms of proofreading as well as content selection. Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking testimony of the complexities of a not-too-distant past and homage to the suffering of thousands of Lithuanian residents whose lives were crushed by the forces of war and the regimes that followed. In spite of all this, the overwhelming message that Vincė is keen to retain and pass on as a result of those conversations with victims of trauma, physical, and psychological violence is this: “In order to survive, you must throw away all your bad energy. Anger takes up too much. […] You throw away all the negative emotions, all the anger, the hurt, the jealousy. And that makes you spiritually free” (Rytė Merkytė, 43-44).