LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 44, No.3 - Fall 1998
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1998 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Balys Sruoga, Forest of the Gods. Translated by Aušrinė Byla (Vilnius: Vaga), 1996. Available from Aušrinė Byla, 134 Haven, #5G, New York, N.Y. 10032. $17.00 including shipping and handling.
At long last we have an English translation of Balys Sruoga's (1896-1947) Forest of the Gods - and a good one at that. The original text, written in the months following the author's release from a concentration camp, had to wait over 10 years before its initial publication in Lithuanian (1957), and another 40 before this first English translation.
Forest of the Gods relates the author's experience in the Stutthof concentration camp, near Gdansk, where he was imprisoned from 1943 until the end of the war. A professor at Kaunas and later Vilnius University, Sruoga was among the forty-six prominent Lithuanians interned by the Nazi occupiers in retaliation for the boycott of their attempt to draft Lithuanian youth into the S.S.
Sruoga's testimony consists of several short chapters describing every aspect of camp life with great attention to detail: the complex hierarchies, administrative procedures, daily rituals and routines, punishments and executions. The overall image of the camp which emerges is that of a radically estranged, unfamiliar, hermetically sealed world with its own separate conventions of time and space, customs, rituals and habits of life and death. As one prisoner explains to the new inmates: The camp is an entirely separate republic. Autonomous and independent, like maharaja's dominion. It has its own sort of self rule. (p. 30). The horrors experienced by the prisoners in this "other" world exceeds all human proportion.
The most striking feature of Sruoga's narrative is the heavy irony and obscene humor which pervade the work - altogether unusual qualities for Holocaust memoirs and the dignified, sorrowful mood typical of the genre. Sruoga's text represents an absurdist, apocalyptic take on the horrors of his time, and suggests that laughter and ironic distance are the only means of survival in a fallen world of complete degradation.
Forest of the Gods is also notable for the unusually immediate quality of its representation of events, which may have to do with the fact that it was written so soon after the author's liberation. The narrative is fragmented and frequently repetitive, resembling the style of oral testimony. Although carefully crafted aesthetically, there is an absence of self-reflection in the text it is existential rather than contemplative - which highlights how the victims experience in this other world is utterly divorced from the moral certainties and categories of the present. This striking quality of Sruoga's testimony has been mistaken for a cynical or even amoral point of view. Indeed, in 1946 the work was condemned by the Soviet authorities as a mockery of the inmates of the concentration camps, for its inadequate condemnation of fascism and failure morally to distinguish between the perpetrators and the victims of genocide.
Translator Aušrinė Byla surely had her work cut out for her, for this is a finely textured, complex narrative combining elements of surrealism, tragicomedy and folklore. In general, Sruoga ranks among the premier stylists of the Lithuanian language, and his text has a natural, easy poetry about it. It is colloquial and idiomatic with a folksy flavor: proverbs, expressive curses and obscenities abound.
Inevitably, the text loses some of this earthy quality in translation because some aspects of the language are simply untranslatable, like Sruoga's pervasive use of diminutives. For example, inhumanely cruel camp authorities are referred to as "galvažudėliai" (little killers) and "banditėliai, "razbainikėliai" (little bandits), "mušeikėliai" (little punchers), "SS bernužėliai", "vyrukai" (little SS fellows) contributing stylistically to the overall sense of paradox and absurdity. The English language simply did not provide Ms. Byla with the tools to capture this aspect of Sruoga's text. The same can be said about those words which in the Lithuanian literary context have established themselves as sruogisms, given the stylistic weight they bear in the text: "klypatu klypatos, klypatėlės" or "katorginikėliai" which are correctly translated as cripples and convicts but still lack the expressiveness of the original.
Nevertheless, within the limits of the possible, Ms. Byla succeeds admirably at translating the work into free-flowing, idiomatic English while remaining true to meaning, mood and annotation of the original text. Rather than artificially copying every stylistic element of the Lithuanian version, she freely and creatively adapts it to the constraints and opportunities provided by the English language, for example, by switching tense from past to present to intensify the emotional impact of a scene. Furthermore, the translator deploys a broad vocabulary to match Sruoga's inventiveness.
It would have been helpful for this first English translation to have included a brief introduction of the text and its author. However, this shortcoming is partly remedied by the epilogue which provides a brief account of the fates of the group of Lithuanian intellectuals with whom Sruoga was imprisoned. The notes, which explain terms and references which may be unfamiliar to the English speaking reader are also welcome.
Again, this translation is extremely timely. Given the recent controversies and debates concerning narrative representations of the Holocaust, Sruoga's naked, piercing depiction will surely stimulate and enrich the ongoing discussion.
Centre for Comparative Literature
University of Toronto