ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 57, No.3 - Fall 2011
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavenas

UNDERGROUND A Conversation with Antanas Sileika About his Latest Novel


EVA STACHNIAK is a Canadian author and journalist. Underground (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2011) is the latest novel by Antanas Sileika about the Lithuanian anti-Soviet underground resistance in the 1940’s based on true events .

Antanas Sileika discusses his newest novel Underground about partisan warfare against the Soviets in occupied post-World War II Lithuania.

EVA STACHNIAK: For me, Underground is one of the rare Canadian novels which delve into the stories from behind the former Iron Curtain. It begins with the poetic evocation of the borderline that “weaves around the middle of Europe.” How significant is this borderline for you, a Canadian writer with Lithuanian roots?

ANTANAS SILEIKA: The borderline at the center of Europe has been critical for me for most of my life. In effect, there were two borderlines in Europe – first there were countries such as Poland and Hungary, which existed in the “other” Europe, and then there were places such as the Baltics or Ukraine which did not seem to exist at all. I felt for decades until the late eighties that I did not exist because I came from a place that did not exist. It is the region that the historian Timothy Snyder, in his new book, calls Bloodlands. It covers the approximate geography of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its height. I am fascinated about what Snyder and others such as Norman Davies and the late Tony Judt have to say about this region that had the most dramatic history in the twentieth century. No one in the West was interested in it. But now they are. And I have access to that world because I have the language and the background.

In my childhood, this was extremely confusing because my parents were filled with the melancholy of loss that their generation of refugees suffered from. I was embarrassed by my origins because I came from a pre-multicultural generation, one whose ethnicity was complicated by invisibility. The strongest resonance I ever found in my reading came from English translations of Czesław Miłosz, whose Issa Valley and Native Realm I read and reread. I know about that place, but I am not of that place. I am close and I am far.

English speakers who have no difficulty distinguishing Irish North and South, Scottish, English and Welsh and all the tensions among them cannot tell the difference among a Russian, Soviet, Byelorussian, Pole, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian, to name just a few. To them, all except Poles were Soviets and all Soviets were Russians.

Many Canadian writers despise historical novels. I belong to a transition generation. I was born here, but I still feel as if I am the survivor of the shipwreck that was my parents’ lives upended by WW2. I belong nowhere, but my job is to consider my parents’ past in Lithuania and my children’s future here. 

I think of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Perhaps if you cannot forget, there can be no laughter.

E.S.: From the Lithuanian perspective, for me, Underground is a haunting tale of doomed love, tragic choices forced by history, and ultimate sacrifice. From the Canadian perspective it is also a story of a legacy that arrives at our doorstep and demands that we do something with it. Your publisher calls it an “untold story of the battle that continued long after Second World War.” When did you become aware of this particular “untold story” and how?

A.S.: Some early partisan material appeared long ago in the fifties, in particular the story of Juozas Lukša, who fought, fled through Poland to Paris, fell in love, married, flew back to Lithuania with the help of the CIA in 1950, and was betrayed and killed there in 1951. His story is the rough superstructure of my novel. New information has appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the opening of archives, and the publication of many memoirs. I thought I would write about what we did not know, at least in the West: the grinding partisan war that dragged on for many years after the war ended in the West.

If one is to speak of the twentieth century, one must speak of war. Here, in Canada, we look at the war and postwar through a Churchillian framework of fighting the good war and winning it. We who live here, and especially those with not much Eastern European background, are easy moralizers about the past because we are either ignorant or we have not been tested. I wanted to introduce a different perspective, to enlarge our sense of the postwar, to make more complex “the good versus evil” picture.

E.S.: Toward the end of the novel Lukas and other characters are very bitter about being forgotten, swept under the carpet of post-war history. There are so many betrayals in the novel, including the hovering betrayal from Kim Philby and others like him.

A.S.: The partisan story was complex and long, with boats sent in through the Baltic by the British, double-agents infiltrated into the movement, and many terrible personal stories, some of which I introduced into my novel. I learned, for example, that a very popular children’s writer named Kostas Kubilinskas, the Lithuanian equivalent of Dr. Seuss, became a Soviet collaborator and betrayed and shot fellow partisans. I incorporated him in my book. Kubilinskas could have been a character out of Captive Mind.

E.S.: There are also the complications of telling a story from an external, “other” point of view… the conflict between the romantic national myth and attempt to see a more universal story in it.

A.S.: The superstructure of my novel follows the true story of Juozas Lukša, who fought, went out to Paris, fell in love and married, and returned to fight for Lithuania, which he called, as a metaphor, his “first wife.” This is the most romantic of Lithuanian true stories: the man who gave up peace to fight for his country. But when I came to the story, I realized we live in different times. We no longer believe in big causes as much as small ones. Therefore in my novel, Lukas goes back to his actual first wife, not to the metaphor of his first wife. And before that, he went into the partisans not because of his patriotism but because of his useless, frightened brother, in order to protect him. It all becomes personal in my novel. Lithuanian patriots may hate me for this change to an iconic story.

E.S.: When I closed your novel I wanted to think about Luke Zolynas. I wanted to know what he makes out of this story of a half brother he now has to acknowledge. I wanted to know what impact this discovery will have on him… Can you speculate on this a bit, in the best tradition of gossiping on our characters???

A.S.: In America in particular, people are encouraged to think of their destinies as if they were masters of them, but Europe, and Eastern Europe in particular, teaches that your personal destiny exists at the whim of history, which might just as easily crush you as elevate you. Luke Zolynas will find his life become more complicated. He will find that the past as he understood it was sand, not stone. But there will be some happiness too. He and his half brother survived because of the actions of their father, whose own life was tragic but whose children’s lives became somewhat normal, even if one son was luckier than the other. That generation is an example of what might happen to us under the same circumstances – some would be broken and some would survive. Some would be lucky and others not. I think Luke Zolynas is a stand-in for me and others like me who become aware of the past accidentally. We need to remember the indifference of history, which is a little like the elements that might sweep us away. We need a little humility. Also, somewhat against my will, a certain theme of resurrection has crept in. Memory is a seed that may bloom again as a weed or a flower. Sometimes the dead do rise again, or if not the dead themselves, those who remember them.