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Forgotten time in a forgotten land

Not many people in the West knew or cared much about the fate of three small Baltic countries in eastern Europe that suffered through Russian occupation, German invasion, and the return of the Soviets late in the Second World War.

Only since the collapse of the USSR and the demolition of the Iron Curtain has the return to freedom of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania been duly noted and celebrated.

Antanas Sileika’s novel Underground (Thomas Allen, $15.64) is a notable addition  to the literature of that great conflict, delivering a suspenseful and poignant love story set against the harsh cruelties and risk-filled lives of its protagonist Lukas and his lover and wife Elena.  In its weaving of a rich tapestry of love, history, war and politics, it is reminiscent of Dr. Zhivago in its focus on the lives of a man and a woman who must put their resistance to oppression ahead of their personal happiness.

I became acquainted with Antanas Sileika in his capacity as artistic director of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. His masterful evocation of conditions in Lithuania under Soviet occupation immediately after the war aptly demonstrates his strengths as a writer as well as a teacher.

I found Sileika’s ability to weave factual history into a dramatic narrative especially compelling. The book at times reads as a work of  non-fiction in its depiction of the mid-century turmoil that gripped eastern Europe:

“What followed was such a confusing war on that side of Europe! The war was much easier to understand in the West, where the forces of more or less good triumphed in May 1945. On the Eastern side, on the other hand, the messy side, the war sputtered on in pockets for another decade, fought by partisans who came out of their secret bunkers by night.”

Lukas was one of those partisans, and the book begins with a shocking slaughter carried out by he and Elena when they lure a clutch of Soviet underlings to a supposed engagement party. Forced into hiding, they live in forest bunkers until, in a raid that scours a village of most of its life, Lukas comes to believe that Elena has been killed.

Lukas is sent into the West as an emissary of the Lithuanian underground, carrying an appeal for help. Why hasn’t America dropped an atomic bomb on Moscow, some wonder. When he reaches Paris he becomes involved with a Lithuanian refugee, Monika, whom he marries and with whom he fathers a son. When he hears that Elena may be still alive, he abandons Monika and returns on a risk-filled trip to his home country. There, one way or another, his destiny will be decided.

Underground gains momentum as it builds toward its inevitable climax. There is an interesting Canadian connection, which is not surprising in view of the author’s declaration that the story has been inspired by his own family’s history, as well as the experiences of their Lithuanian countrymen. This is a powerfully imagined book which reminds us that political oppression in whatever form eventually brings on a wrathful vengeance. One cannot help but reflect on how similar stories must at this very moment be working their way out in countries like Libya, Syria and Iran.

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