LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2012 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 58, No.3 - Fall 2012
Editor of this issue: Elizabeth Novickas
Antanas Sileika. Underground: A Novel. Thomas Allen, 2011. 310 pages. ISBN 978-0887627361. Paperback, $24.95.
Sileika’s historical novel recounts the love story of Lukas and Elena, two members of the Lithuanian resistance during the first years of the Soviet occupation. The author has adeptly woven real settings, events, and characters into an absorbing story of fictional history. At different times, the book reads like a war journal, an espionage thriller, a heart-wrenching romance, or sometimes a well-written history book. The author researched the subject matter and consulted with historians in producing his historic fiction.
The novel opens with Lukas and Elena’s engagement party in Marijampole (Lithuanian names are spelled without diacritics), where they courageously assassinate several local Soviet officials. The novel then switches to the chronological narrative of Lukas, from his student days through his life in the underground. After their wedding, their partisan cells conduct a daring daytime offensive against Soviet rule in Merkine, where Elena is killed. Lukas tries to move on with his life. He even considers leaving the resistance. That would be impossible, given his persona non grata status to the Soviets, due to his many underground missions. His dilemma is relieved when he is sent abroad to coordinate communications efforts with the Western powers. In Paris, he falls in love and marries Monika, a war refugee. He receives word that Elena is still alive and returns to Lithuania to find her. He smells a trap and manages to escape his handlers. An elaborate search uncovers a disfigured Elena, who feigns amnesia after a terrible accident, and their infant son. The penultimate chapter depicts their nostalgic reunion, in spite of their star-crossed fate. The novel then jumps forty years to the fall of the Soviet occupation. Lukas’s two sons—half-brothers who do not know about each other—by his two wives find each other in Canada and Lithuania. They piece together the tragic end of Lukas’s life.
The plot is a historical narrative from a third person singular point of view, with frequent historical background commentary. The first and last chapters are exceptions: the opening scene is the engagement party ambush, while the last chapter skips four decades to Lukas’s grown children. The partisan attack chapters capture the reader’s imagination with unnerving excitement, while most of the novel proceeds calmly through the story line. The narrative tone sympathizes with the partisans and berates Soviet collaborators, reflecting the sympathies of the underground and Lithuanian national sentiment.
Lukas is the protagonist, the only fully developed character in the book. He studies literature before joining the resistance. In contrast to the other partisans, he is well-educated and lacks a military background. He uses his real name in the underground, not a pseudonym. This reveals his honesty: he must be true to himself and cannot feign falsehood. He is a trustworthy and loyal Lithuanian patriot. He is also concerned about the well-being of his comrades-in-arms. He has a knack for detecting double agents and either escaping or eliminating them. His interests include poetry. This symbolizes his Lithuanian spirit, i.e., all Lithuanians are poets at heart. Consequently, he pursues romance with Elena during the most unlikely of times. Lukas’s decision to return to Lithuania and search for Elena, in spite of his second marriage, discloses the depth of his love for her. The Lukas character is loosely based on the life of partisan Juozas Lukša (he escaped to the West on a diplomatic mission, fell in love and married, and returned to Lithuania only to be betrayed and executed).
Elena is stunningly beautiful with the disarming naiveté of a country woman. Her life in the resistance transforms her into a heroic freedom fighter. Careful and secretive, she, like many women, is a courier of letters and newspapers. The Mariampole attack precludes her from returning to civilian life, so she becomes an armed member of the underground. Through her, Sileika pays homage to all the forest sisters who fought in the resistance.
Lakstingala is Lukas’s friend, comrade, and commanding officer. He mentors Lukas at all crucial moments of his life: joining the resistance, maturing as a member of the underground, marrying Elena, going West, and finding Elena again. He is just as trustworthy and loyal as Lukas. His military training has freed him from the civilian considerations that sometimes influence Lukas. He serves as the brains of the unit and facilitates communications with other cells. Decades later, he helps to bring the two half brothers together.
Monika is a bit of a mystery. She sweeps Lukas off his feet. Unlike other refuges, she is well-situated and can travel. She is studying to become a nurse. Lukas begins to suspect that she, through her uncle, may be an agent of the Lithuanian government-in-exile. Their goal: to draw Lukas into alliance with the French and American governments, rather than the Swedish or English ones. These spy-vs.-spy intrigues are addressed all too briefly and are not successfully resolved in the novel.
The setting for most of the novel is the forest bunkers and camps of the resistance, with occasional clandestine trips to the town of Merkine in south central Lithuania. The freedom fighters collect supplies, meet relatives, or conduct missions there. Lithuania is home: the towns, farmsteads, and especially the nearly impenetrable forests are all familiar terrain. In contrast, Lukas’s trip to Sweden and Paris with a visit to Bavaria is disorienting, reflecting his inner confusion after Elena’s death. Abroad, he is a fish out of water, but begins to find his place once again with Monika. Likewise, his son Luke shares a similar ennui of alienation in Canada, the only country he knows.
The prose is flawless, but the dialog is sometimes stilted. It does not sound like flowing English, or Lithuanian, or Lithuanian in translation. For instance, Lakstingala’s admonitions to Lukas sound unnatural:
All right, this is better than I thought. I have a lot of men who can pull a trigger. These camps of full of farm boys, but there a damned few men who can handle a pen or a typewriter. Mind you, everyone needs to be able to fight. But I want you to be sure about what you’re doing. (37)
At times, the prose lapses into extended historical asides. They provide rich and interesting background details for the story, but they make the narration choppy. For instance, Chapter 1 opens with a romp through the Eastern Borderlands between the Iron Curtain, Hapsburg lands and Czarist Russia. Chapter 2 scrambles through Lithuanian history – the Teutonic knights, Swedish wars, Czarist partitions and Napoleonic marches – in establishing the setting for the village of Rumsiskes, Lukas’s home. Later chapters have extended historical digressions about the postwar Soviet regime. These are indeed useful to the story. Some authors have experimented with other solutions to similar challenges. For example, Manuel Puig in his El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman) uses footnotes in his novel for background information.
The historic events of the novel grant it overall verisimilitude, while some of the details stretch the imagination. For example, Lukas and Lakstingala survive countless daring attacks and betrayals unscathed, while all of their comrades die. Laks-tingala miraculously evades capture as a partisan leader until the Soviet Union collapses. Elena is rescued from a Soviet prison hospital, pregnant, where she was tortured. Disfigured, she hides in Merkine, undetected, but is eventually deported to Siberia. Their companion, Lozorius, becomes a double agent, but cannot betray either Lukas or Lakstingala, so he commits suicide.
Underground is Sileika’s third novel and fourth volume of fiction. The narrative complexities, intrigues, and refined narrative style all demonstrate his maturating skills as an author. The novel is an easy and interesting read about a fascinating period of Lithuania’s history. The effortlessness reading conceals the complexity of the writing and editing. The novel should be translated into Lithuanian for the audience in the homeland. Likewise, a screen adaption of the novel could present this period of post-World War II history to a broader international audience. It would add to the growing genre of filmography about the Soviet era.