LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 53, No 1 - Spring 2007
Editor of this issue: Patrick Chura
Liubinas, Alė. Homeland Lost. An
autobiographical novel. Sid
Harta Publishing. Unedited galley edition, 2003, 682 pages.
Reviewd by Rimvydas Šilbajoris
The voices of the victims of World War II may now sound distant and fading among the turmoils and tragedies of our own time. To the victims themselves, however, their personal stories remain vivid, immediate, and, to me, so important that they must urgently be told to the entire world.
Alė Liubinas’s Homeland Lost tells one such story, from the harrowing escape from advancing Soviet armies in Lithuania in 1944 to the new shoots of life in the soil of distant Australia after the war.
Ms. Liubinas is a lively writer who knows various ways to keep the reader interested, the most effective of which is a seeming artlessness, an open naivete that steps over the distance between writer and reader, leading us to experience the events almost as if they were happening to one personally. Nevertheless, the story itself resembles so many others of the time that it almost reaches the point of banality. One looks for something different, some special angle of approach to the various fortunes and misfortunes spread out before us. When we find it, it does not appear to have been deliberately chosen and/ or designed by the author, but rather seems like an inherent quality of life itself in the given period of history, or perhaps even beyond. It is the presence of universal suffering, in part caused by the evils of society, but in part as if these evils were simply in the nature of things. At the beginning of the story, Alė asks her father to please not whip the horses so hard, not really in anger, but as a natural way of handling them. Later, she is herself thrashed cruelly by the same father for various, mostly trivial, transgressions. Once she falls asleep during church service, and her father gives her a really hard belting for such a “sacrilege.“ In today’s society, such a father could easily be jailed for child abuse. But Alė honors and loves him in the most natural way. Just as naturally, the Soviet menace rolls over Lithuania, forcing Alė’s family into exile, with all its attendant trials and tribulations. After the war, they first learn the helplessness of Displaced Persons – people with no say about their future. We can also see the lurking cruelty of their condition. One day, without warning, armed Allied soldiers, guns drawn, surround their camp, separate men from women and children, and make the men all stand in a lineup to be looked over by some German women who were raped by unknown DPs a day before. No one is found guilty, and there is even an apology. This story is actually mild compared with the postwar fate of Russian and Ukrainian refugees who were forcibly removed and put on trains to the Soviet Union by British and American forces. That had been a tale of broken train windows, tears, scrams, blood and death.
Liberation from DP life comes when the allied powers decide to allow the people to start a new life in various countries – Australia, Canada, France, the United States, and others. Alė and her family decide to go to Australia (interestingly, at that point, Alė shows the first signs of independence, when she tells her father that he can whip her all he wants, but she is going to Australia).
In that country, the oppressive demons continue their reign. Alė’s first job, under contract with the Australian government for two years, is at a women’s insane asylum. As described by Alė, this asylum is certainly not a place of comfort and refuge for poor confused souls. It is rather an institution for controlling its deviates from normal human reason, and the primary means of control are the infamous straightjackets that are worn by a number inmates for days on end in stifling summer heat. Here Alė again describes with disarming artlessness a repulsive breakfast scene where “women who refused to eat, or were in straightjackets, were fed by nurses“ (288). They are also forced to sit on the toilet whether they need it or not. Such clarity and order imposed by reason on the helpless extends to the institution’s notion of what “recreation” must be. The inmates are led to a large empty room with benches where they “had to sit still for the rest of the afternoon,” glued like permanent fixtures to the benches (294–5). Alė does say that such scenes remind her of Communist Gulags or Nazi concentration camps, but the point is that evil political institutions and benevolent asylums seem to constitute a continuum of realities that acquire an air of normalcy; as it were, a “banality of evil.”
As time goes by, Alė, her family and acquaintances gradually begin to merge with the mainstream of Australian life. People find their own jobs, buy or build houses, live on in this new country not much differently than they lived in the old. The ominous cloud of oppression, except for instances of arbitrary treatment by Australian authorities, retreats, leaving behind a long trip of tedium that grows on the reader the longer and more detailed this tale of new life becomes. The book could have gained a lot from a judicious editor’s scissors.
Toward the end, it becomes apparent that the book is aimed at English-speaking readers of Australian or other Anglo- Saxon cultures, to informing them about the country and its people’s destinies. The main informative device is the author’s visit to Lithuania after it had regained its independence. As she travels across the country, she tells stories, myths, bits of information about the Soviet occupation, the guerilla war against the Soviets, sundry items of country lore, interspersed with tales of her own family and friends who had remained in the country. One might say that if she captivates the reader with the comings and goings of her life story, then such a reader will also receive this survey of Lithuania with continued interest. Quite possibly, this was the ultimate aim of the book. To a degree, she may well have succeeded.