The Tale of a Lost Decade

Interviu, Rašytojas, metų knyga BASAKOJIS BINGO PRANEŠĖJAS

In late February, Lithuanians and other fans of author Antanas Šileika filled the hall at the Toronto Lithuanian House for the launch of his newest book “Some Unfinished Business”, published by Cormorant Books. Publisher Marc Coté interviewed Šileika about his background and the inspiration for this, his sixth novel. The author then read an excerpt, which happened to include a recipe for Lithuanian black currant “wine”, which he had made and invited the audience to sample. A very hospitable Lithuanian touch!

But the novel was not about wine. Among positive comments by many critics, author Eva Stachniak stands out with her description of the novel as a portrait of post-World War II Lithuania, a “land of lingering ghosts where the past poisons the future. A gripping story of shattering betrayals”.

It is a story few Lithuanian post-war émigrés or their children are truly familiar with. It describes the fallout of the war over a decade when information about the homeland was scarce, large segments of the population had fled to the West or were deported to Siberia, and those who remained lived in an environment of terror and mistrust, where secrets were enfolded in other secrets. “In this country, everything not explicitly permitted was forbidden, and so the revellers could be guilty of some crime without knowingly having committed one,” he writes, encapsulating the mentality that the “red” (Soviet) regime engendered – whether revellers or average citizens of this or any Soviet-occupied country.

Author of five novels and a memoir, in this book Šileika tells the story of one decade in the young life of Martin Averka and his fascination with children’s poet Kostas Kubilinskas, who befriended, then betrayed anti-Soviet partisans. Martin meets the poet, who is assigned to teach in his Lyn Lake village school and is billeted with Martin’s family. He inspires Martin to reach for higher purpose and supplies books to local partisans, for whom Martin is a courier. The story alternates between the late 1950s, after Martin’s escape from a gulag and his marriage to Kristina, when Martin finds Kostas being rehabilitated in a psychiatric hospital – and the late 1940s, when they both had dealings with a partisan leader in southern Lithuania.

Šileika cleverly presents several stories within that decade of betrayal, conflict and change, sketching the lives of many Lithuanians – villagers, partisans, gulag prisoners, city-dwellers, women and children, and what they faced in the aftermath of war.

As an author of novels set in specific historical periods, Šileika has noted that his aim is not necessarily to present historical facts, but to explore characters as they emerge and cope in certain situations. Yet for many of us who may be unfamiliar with that time period, the novel weaves together the threads of half-told, half-rumoured tales about life in Lithuania after the war into a cohesive fabric of understanding.

Šileika is no longer just a storyteller – although he has always been a master. In this book, he is a mature novelist, drawing us in to his world of well-researched knowledge and vivid imagination with succinct language, precise detail and insight.

“Some Unfinished Business” is being translated into Lithuanian for publication next year.