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Antanas Sileika is a Canadian author of Lithuanian heritage who has published five books of fiction and nonfiction in Canada and had four of them translated in Lithuania and one in China. He has been short-listed for the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Toronto Book Award in Canada as well as Metu Penketukas in Lithuania. He has received starred reviews in Quill and Quire, the Canadian Literary magazine, and as well been chosen twice in the Toronto Globe and Mail for having written one among the year's best books. He was the director of The Humber School for Writers in Toronto before retiring to devote more time to writing. His most recent book is the memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, and his forthcoming espionage novel set in newly independent Kaunas from 1921-1923 is called Provisionally Yours.

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by Antanas Sileika

 

Antanas Sileika A 03Photo by Liudas MasysI was in a taxi on my way to the Vilnius book fair last winter when the driver looked in the rear-view mirror and asked me if there was any particular book I could recommend. He was an old-school cab driver, grizzled and speaking with an accent. Polish? Russian? Hard to tell.

No other cab driver in any other city has ever asked me that question. At the fair itself, the place was so thick with people I could not even see the books on the publishers’ counters and felt like I was at a particularly successful nightclub and couldn’t get close to the bar because of the crush. Hundreds of people packed a dozen lecture halls at a time, rooms too small for their number, in order to hear historians, poets, and novelists talk about their writing.

And after it all, a radio show called me for an interview to discuss whether the fair was not too middlebrow – shouldn’t it get more serious?

If only my hometown of Toronto could get so unserious. Literary culture is thriving in this country, but I am far from a knowledgeable critic of literature in Lithuania. I wish I knew more than I do, but there are only so many hours in the day.

My specialty is Canadian literature in English, although I follow most English language literature when I can – Lithuania is the place I come to in order to gather material for my novels published in English Canada.

English is my instrument and Lithuania is my tune, and I find my melodies mostly in nonfiction here. There is so much astonishing nonfiction in Lithuania, but so little of it was ever translated. Lucky me. I get to pick among storylines unknown in the west and weave them into the tapestries of my work in English.

After a number of years, these novels of mine began to be translated into Lithuanian – a dizzying event for me as the material returns to its natural home after having gone through some kind of Canadian filter.

My interest in Lithuanian nonfiction was first sparked by my late mother, who gave me a book she bought at a parish bazar for a quarter. Her generation of Lithuanians in Canada was dying off and the books went cheap. The book she brought was Petras Rimša pasakoja, a memoir by Lithuania’s most prominent interwar sculptor.

His story of a provincial boy’s progress took him from Lithuania to Warsaw, where he was taught manners, to a studio in Paris, where he was taught art. He was still a bit provincial at first - shy about looking at the nude models. His story was very similar to that of Jacques Lipchitz, who also came from Lithuania, and one of my novels was born in my imagined contrast between those two types of artists in Paris – one the shy, retiring type, and the other filled with the all-encompassing ego of a Picasso. Thus was born my novel, Woman in Bronze, though it needed many, many other inputs too.

Subsequently, I read over thirty histories and memoirs of the postwar partisan fight in Lithuania before using the outlines of one of Lithuania’s most famous fighters, Juozas Lukša, to write my novel, Underground, set in that period. But people upon whose lives my work is based are sometimes unimpressed. Lukša’s surviving  widow managed to launch a letter campaign against me in Lithuania and North America, claiming I had deformed her life story. And she was right. I had done that. Fiction takes the raw material of history and then reshapes it, but not everyone is keen to be reshaped. (To my credit, I never claimed I was telling her story in particular). Historians tend to disapprove of historical novels too, and I have taken many barbs, to which the only possible answer from novelists is that we reach a much wider audience than academics do.

Two memoirists insinuated themselves in my forthcoming novel, Provisionally yours. One had a voice that came at me full bore: Jonas Budrys in his memoir Lietuvos kontržvalgyba, in which he described his years as head of Lithuanian counter-intelligence from 1921 – 1923. Budrys liked expensive restaurants, beautiful women, and fast cars, but he also had high moral standards. They were so high that his revelation of a smuggling operation called “The Saccharine File” caused the resignation of the entire Lithuanian government in 1921. Jonas Budrys was such an enemy of corruption that he became a bit dangerous to the people in power, and so he was invited to lead the “uprising” in Klaipeda in 1923 in the full knowledge that if he failed, the government would disavow any knowledge of him. But he succeeded! James Bond would have been proud.

The late Tadas Ivanauskas was a vastly different man. Known as one of Lithuania’s most prominent naturalists, he wrote a memoir of his life on a pre WW1 estate in a manner that revealed not only the complex society of the lower upper class but the society of flora and fauna in which it was situated. It was called Aš apsisprendžiu. If Jonas Budrys was James Bond, Tadas Ivanauskas was Czeslaw Milosz. Where else could I have found a pair such as these except in Lithuania? And where else but in a novel would two such vastly different men meet?

There are people who require fictional treatment after spotty journalistic coverage in the past: Kostas Kubilinskas, whom I call “a  rhyming assassin” wrote children’s stories after putting a bullet through a partisan’s head at close range. He deserves a novel and is getting one from me. The triumvirate of Communist rulers deserves a novel too, if I ever get to them: Antanas Sniečkus, ruthless ideologue; Justas Paleckis, a Mussolini knock-off whose every statement was a kind of proclamation from a podium; Antanas Venclova, the intellectual apologist for a murderous regime. These are three characters in search of an author.

    And there are books about places that deserve if not novels of their own, perhaps entry as background in my own novels or as dedicated films in the manner of Federico Fellini. I am thinking of the famous Neringa Cafe, which was some kind of cross between the Deux Maggots in Paris and the Grand Budapest Hotel, a place where bohemians met the ruling class, where the waiter worked for the KGB and frogs jumped out of the fountain, where everyone who was anyone bumped into one another in this book: „Neringos“ kavinė: sugrįžimas į legendą, by Neringa Jonušaitė.

And in high contrast to that book, Šiapus ir anapus Vilniaus vartu, by Gražina Mareckaitė - the heartbreaking story of growing up in the post-war just outside the Dawn Gate in Vilnius as the daughter of a teacher at a time when a poet Kazys Jakubėnas’s body was found frozen in the street, left there by his KGB interrogators; the monuments in the Rasų cemetery had their ceramic photographs shot off by triumphant and drunk Soviet soldiers; and where the train station explosion killed hundreds in an accident long forgotten. And the characters she gets into her memoir! Poor Paulina, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who killed herself when made pregnant by a married man – poor children whose parents were deported and whose nanny took repatriation to Poland, leaving the ten and twelve year-olds to fend for themselves like unfortunates in some terrible fairy tale without a happy ending.

Where else but here could I find such terrible histories that might make compelling novels? To people who live here, these types of stories are not really anything exceptional. They are the stories people heard from their parents or grandparents. But I was not here in Lithuania to hear them, so these stories never became “normal” to me.

Since I am working on another novel, I am trying to read in my period, Lithuania in the fifties. At the book fair last winter, a persistent representative of a publisher called Aukso žuvys thrust into my hands a rather heavy and serious book called Kažkas tokio labai tikro. It’s a collection of twenty-five life stories, oral histories of people who are mostly unknown but who suffered under the Soviet regime for a variety of reasons from their bohemian outlook, their religious beliefs, or any other of a variety of “sins” against socialism. The book is riveting. Who knew how much pain a girl could be put through because of her religious convictions? Who knew about the “Bermuda Triangle” of three cafes in Vilnius where poets hung out, only to be hounded by the same sort of KGB operatives?

I look forward to a new book of nonfiction by Giedra Radvilaviciute that I have not even opened yet. I fear walking into a Vilnius bookstore or God forbid, a used bookstore, my favourite on Pylimo Gatve called Knyga visiems, a magical place one part dust, one part mould, and one part bad lighting. All of those characteristics seem to want to drive you away, but the wealth of material on the shelves is intoxicating and worth the sneezing.

I fear bookstores because I am so far behind in my reading and even farther behind in my writing that I can’t take the chance that I will stumble upon yet another fascinating book of nonfiction. The risk is high, though. I am in Vilnius for longer than usual during my latest trip, and one of these days my resistance will fail and I’ll end up in a bookstore. And yet again I will be mezmerized by the stories told here, and yet again I will despair of shipping the books home to Toronto. Once there, I’ll tuck them away somewhere out of sight so they do not distract me from my labours. But sooner or later I will find myself standing in the middle of a room with a book open in my hands, wondering just how I can use this material in a new novel of my own.  And then I will settle into a chair, which is already surrounded by open, unfinished books, and sink into the compelling world of Lithuanian nonfiction.

 

 

 

 

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