While the topic connecting last week’s Women in Translation Month posts (houses…) was rather tenuous, this week sees a more concrete thematic thread. My next three reviews will all look at books set during the Second World War, focusing on women and their experiences of conflict, occupation and upheaval. The three are all set in different regions, and we start today in Eastern Europe, where a young woman must survive a long winter in brutal conditions. Surprisingly, though, despite these hardships, this is a work where the text appears to have suffered through even more than the writer. In fact, it’s the perfect example of the underground book…
In 1941, Lithuania was coerced into becoming a part of the Soviet Union, and one of the first acts carried out by the Russians was to forcibly ‘evacuate’ thousands of people who might cause problems in the future. Dalia Grinkevičiūtė was one of those made to leave her home town of Kaunas, and she eventually spent more than a decade in various camps across the east of Russia, either ‘helping the war cause’ or simply as punishment. During a brief respite from her troubles, she wrote about some of the hardships she faced at the start of her journey, and the result was Shadows on the Tundra (translated by Delija Valiukenas, review copy courtesy of Peirene Press) – although, as we’ll see, there’s far more to the creation of the text than that statement suggests.
Shadows on the Tundra is an autobiographical account of a year or so in the writer’s life, starting with her departure from Kaunas at the age of fourteen. Describing the day she left Lithuania, she writes:
I am aware that a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous. Twenty-four people lie nearby. Asleep? Who knows? Each of them has their own thoughts. Each is leaving behind a life that ended yesterday. Each has a family, relatives, friends. They’re all saying goodbye to their loved ones. Suddenly, the train jolts. Something falls from the upper bunk. No one is asleep now. Silence. I dress hurriedly – I have to say goodbye to Kaunas.
p.15 (Peirene Press, 2018)
The first weeks and months, while uncomfortable, go by relatively uneventfully, and it’s only when the evacuees reach their destination that they realise the fate the Soviets have thought up for them. Hundreds of people are unloaded onto a small island in a river delta close to the Arctic Ocean, their task to start work on buildings that are to become a fish-processing factory. Unless they get a move on, they’ll have nowhere to shelter from the elements – oh, and the long, bitter Arctic winter is just around the corner…
I won’t lie to you – for the most part, Shadows on the the Tundra is anything but a pleasant read. It’s a story of people marooned on a small island in the middle of nowhere, left to starve and rot, or make it through to spring, if they can. It’s a powerful addition to the gulag literature by the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a testimony to the cruelty of the Soviet authorities towards the minorities they controlled. Unlike the Nazis, they saw no need to dream up efficient ways to kill people when they could simply send them off to Siberia and even claim that it was all for the greater cause, with these ‘settlers’ helping to populate the frozen north.
From the start, young Dalia is clear that this will be a long winter, with no guarantee of making it out alive. Shortly after her arrival on the small island of Trofimovsk, she enters a deserted barracks to attend to a ‘call of nature’, and realises that she’s not alone:
The snow is well above my knees. Suddenly, I trip over something. I bend down to look. It’s a naked woman, a Finn, covered with snow. I recoil in shock and trip again. I want to run but I’m rooted to the spot. There are corpses everywhere, naked legs and breasts, frozen hair poking out through the snow. Like blocks of wood, the bodies have frozen solid in every conceivable posture – hands and legs bent or outstretched, petrified at the moment of death. (p.49)
Sadly, this is just the beginning. As winter takes hold, the number of people lost in the snow increases, with blizzards claiming lives on a daily basis. One woman is found months later, having failed to walk the few metres separating one building from another. Unable to see in the blizzard, she wanders past her destination, never to return.
In some ways, though, these deaths seem merciful, as the majority of the forced labourers, cooped up in roofless barracks with no power or sanitation, and very little food, are prone to all kind of diseases. Dalia’s mother is permanently at death’s door throughout the long winter, and even those who do remain relatively upright suffer from malnutrition, frostbite and frequent diarrhoea. Inevitably, the weakest start to die off, and with the weather as it is, a decent burial is unthinkable, impossible. In fact, much of the time, corpses are simply slipped under the pallets the workers use as beds until someone can dredge up the energy to take them outside.
Of course, it’s not this bad for everyone. The overseers on the island are far more comfortable, living in log cabins (built by the labourers…) and well stocked up with food and fuel for light and warmth. Of course, should the poor Lithuanians attempt to do the same by stealing a little bread or taking boards to burn in an old barrel, then they’ll be put on trial:
I feel the prying eyes of the room on me. They stare intently. Am I ashamed? Ashamed of giving my dying mother a drink of water? What is it you want to see, you Travkins, Mavrins and Sventickis? You gluttons. Is it remorse? Shame? But it’s you who should be ashamed, you’re the murderers, not me! (p.78)
For those who are found guilty, prison might sound like a nice change after life in the camp. However, you’ve got to get there first, and that proves to be easier said than done in the Arctic winter.
Surprisingly, though, Shadows on the Tundra can also be an inspiring read. From the beginning, the writer proves to be resilient, her youth driving her on when many of the adults simply crumble. She realises early on that giving in to bodily weakness is the first stage on the road to death, so she’s determined to keep upright and carry on working, even when it doesn’t seem possible given the extreme conditions and her emaciated state. She also manages to care for her mother, hoping that the older woman will somehow hang on until spring arrives, when assistance will hopefully arrive on the isolated island.
Of course, Shadows on the Tundra is non-fiction, and as a result it does lack some of the control and flourishes of a novel. While it’s well written, and translated, it can be a little repetitive in places, and until you get the idea that it’s less about Grinkevičiūtė’s life than one, long winter fighting for survival, you might wonder where it’s going. Also, with its being written almost a decade after the event, the cynic in me does wonder how closely this reflects reality, particularly in regard to some of the writer’s actions. She certainly does seem to come across as a cut above the other prisoners in the way she holds up – I wonder if there’s a little retrospective polishing going on.
Having said that, I’m probably not the ideal reader for this kind of book, and anyone with an interest in these kinds of stories will undoubtedly be far less critical than I am. It’s an important book, with canonical status in Lithuania, and (as mentioned above) the history of the original text is just as interesting as the writer’s own experiences. You see, fearing arrest, Grinkevičiūtė buried the papers in a preserving jar in her Kaunas garden in 1950, but was unable to find them on her return to Lithuania. She rewrote the book from memory in the 1970s, but in 1991, after her death (and after her country had regained its independence) the papers were rediscovered – and this book is the translation of those very pages…