Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

Peirene Press is an interesting publisher. In 2016, three of its books made it into my Best of the Year list.

Every year, Peirene publishes three translated books from Europe, all bound together by a theme. The 2018 one is called ‘Home in Exile’ and I have already reviewed the first title in this series – the wonderful Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk. It is set in Latvia under Soviet occupation.

And now we have the second one – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute, superbly translated by Delija Valiukenas. And the author’s country of origin? Lithuania.

I can confidently say that this book will find a place in my Best of 2018 list.

Shadows on the Tundra
Peirene Press Edition (‘Home in Exile’ Series Book Two)

Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible tale of the author Dalia’s hard and unbearable years in a Soviet gulag when she was a young girl, and her indomitable spirit and will to survive no matter what.

In 1941 at the height of the Second World War, many Lithuanians were deported from Kaunas in Lithuania to a harsh prison camp in the unforgiving Siberian tundra. There, all of them were forced to work in deplorable and inhuman conditions.

The author Dalia was 14 at the time she was deported along with her mother and brother Juozas.

Here is how the book opens…

I’m touching something. It feels like cold iron. I’m lying on my back…How beautiful…the sunlight…and the shadow.

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?

It becomes evident that the deportees are not taken directly to the camp, but with several stops along the way. The first few pages describe this journey, with the deportees having no clue what their final destination will be. In fact, many are in denial and harbor considerable hope that they are being transported to America, that free land.

It’s only when they reach Trofimovsk, the site of the gulag much above the Arctic Circle that the harsh reality sets in.

To say life in the gulag is hard is an understatement. It is deep winter. The tundra is excruciatingly cold and blizzard after blizzard keeps pounding the region.

Sky and earth clash. Our barracks shake. Whirling like a dervish in the spaces between the ceiling boards, the snow descends in a vortex on the people huddled and shivering beneath their tatters. The polar elements sweep across the tundra, obliterating everything that is alive. The din outside merges into one deafening rumble of sound. The savage elements are clamouring for atonement.

In such an environment, Dalia describes the horrific and squalid conditions they are forced to live in. There is no ready habitation. The deportees have to build their barracks themselves right from scratch.

Then there is the work itself. It involves pulling logs tied by ropes from the mouth of the river and up a steep hill. It’s a grueling job, and quite simply back-breaking. And not something a young girl can manage in ordinary circumstances.

But Dalia pushes on through determination and sheer force of will. In fact, her strength of character and her courage shines on every page and makes the book quite incredible.

…that somewhere life is free and beautiful. I feel myself getting stronger, more determined; my desire to live, to fight, to endure intensifies. I want to take life by the horns, I want to take charge of it rather than have it knock me about. We’ve got a life to live yet, Dalia, and a battle to fight. Life may be a cruel enemy, but we will not surrender. So what if I’m only fifteen.

And then there is something to look forward to – school. Hours spent in school are the brightest points of the day for her, but this period of solace does not last for long.

Not everybody makes it through though. The deportees are treated badly. They are made to work hard but are fed poorly. Famine and starvation rule the roost. Diseases are just around the corner. Many of the deportees don’t survive and the corpses keep piling up.

The landscape is bleak and desolate.

Ahead of us is the mouth of the Lena River, which is several kilometres wide and fettered in ice. Wherever the wind has cleared the snow, the ice is as smooth as a mirror. We hear booming, a sound like muted cannon going off. That’s the ice quaking. Huge fissures appear that reach down its entire depth.

Dalia observes her fellow deportees and exhibits keen insight on their characters. These are people who had a life back in Lithuania – they were individuals, they were unique in their own way and had hopes and dreams.

All of that is reduced to nothing in the gulag. There is nothing to distinguish them, they are treated like a herd of cattle. Through sheer desperation, cheating and stealing become the order of the day. But Dalia understands this and chooses not to judge. After all, everyone is looking to just about survive.

What makes Dalia keep going is her spirit and zest for life. Hope sustains her and she refuses to give up.

Oddly, I never thought that I might die. I believed absolutely that no matter what the future had in store, I would survive. It was as simple as that. During the days that followed, a kind of tenacity began to take shape as part of my character. I felt a growing desire to confront life, to grapple with it, to prevail. I was convinced of my survival.

Even in the cold tundra, she manages to find moments of beauty.

Yet what splendor above. The northern lights are a magnificent web of colour. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea, the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, 100-metre-pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the aurora borealis.

And there are always some nostalgic moments – the happy life she led in Lithuania and the prospect of an exciting and full life ahead. Little did she know what fate had in store for her!

They say that it is during adversities that a person’s mettle is really tested. Dalia goes through hell but she fights back and that alone makes her truly extraordinary and extra special. While Shadows on the Tundra gives a horrific glimpse of Soviet cruelty, it is Dalia’s resilience and unbreakable spirit that makes her tale gut-wrenching and yet ultimately quite uplifting.

 

Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

I always wait for a new Peirene Press title to be released. Peirene’s mantra is to publish the best of contemporary European literature and these come in the form of novellas, which when compelling can be devoured in a couple of sittings. A couple of years ago, three of their titles made it to my Best of the Year list.

For 2018, the theme is ‘Home in Exile’ and once again I found a winner in the first book in the series Soviet Milk.

Soviet Milk
Peirene Press Edition (‘Home in Exile’ Series Book One)

Soviet Milk is a poignant tale of a mother and her daughter and the difficult life they are forced to live in Latvia, which is under Soviet occupation. It explores the notion of motherhood, oppression, the freedom to choose one’s calling in life and the frustration of living in exile.

The novel is set over a period of time – from 1944 to the fall of the Berlin Wall – and is narrated in the first person and alternates between the central character (the mother) and her daughter. The characters are not named and to us they are referred to as the mother, the daughter and the grandmother.

Here’s how it begins, it is the daughter talking:

I don’t remember 15 October 1969. There are people who swear they remember their birth. I don’t. It’s likely that I was well positioned in my mother’s womb, because the birth was normal. Not particularly long, or particularly short, with the last contractions coming every five minutes. My mother was twenty-five, young and healthy. Her mental state, though, was not so healthy, as I learned later.

And then we hear from her mother:

I don’t remember 2 October 1944, but I can reconstruct it. Riga has been liberated from the Nazis. Bombs have shattered the maternity ward’s windows. It is damp and cold, and the women who have just given birth helplessly wrap themselves in their bloodied sheets. Exhausted nurses and doctors are bundling up dead newborns and drinking as they work. An epidemic that everyone is calling nasal typhoid fever is raging through the hospital. Sounds of wailing, bombs whistling in the air and, through the windows, the smell of burning. My mother has sneaked me out of the ward, bound to her chest, and is squirting her milk into my nose.

The mother’s life is chaotic right from the start. When she is very young, a group of soldiers suddenly arrive and start destroying her father’s spruce trees. When he protests, he is taken away, never to be seen for a while. The grandmother manages to hide in the cupboard with the mother and saves them both. Later with no news of the grandfather, the grandmother marries again. The mother now has a stepfather.

The mother, meanwhile, grows up to become a brilliant doctor working in the maternity hospital. But, she is a rebel and never really adjusts to life under Soviet rule with its rules, restrictions and set ways of doing things. She feels trapped and claustrophobic.

There is an incident where she meets a young woman stuck in an abusive marriage, but who is desperately trying to conceive. Using groundbreaking techniques (which we know today as IVF), the mother manages to impregnate the woman.

And yet, despite her intelligence, and her ability to experiment and excel, there is no recognition for the mother in her profession. On the contrary, her intellectual endeavors are always thwarted.

Later, when circumstances force her to commit murder, she is banished to the countryside and forced to eke out a living, working in an ambulatory centre there.

The daughter, meanwhile, tries to copes with her mother’s erratic moods. She adjusts to life under Soviet rule better somehow and ironically ends up being the one taking care of her mother.

But mother and daughter have their good moments too.

Sometimes she (the mother) would come home unexpectedly early, roast a crackling chicken and bake a delicious apple cake. We would eat while the dog waited under the table for tasty morsels. My mother would tell me strange stories, things no one had ever told me before. She said that we had once been free.  

Clearly, both of them share a strange bond. We get a glimpse of this right at the beginning when the daughter is a baby. The mother refuses to breast feed her and instead disappears for five days. It is the mother’s way of rebelling against the State. She does not want to feed her baby with milk that is poisoned by the State.

Throughout the story, milk is a recurring theme. There is the title of course. And then the mother’s refusal to breastfeed her baby. And then later, the daughter grows up to be lactose-intolerant and the mere smell of milk nauseates her.

Despite her mother’s moods, and descent into depression, the daughter is more positive and pragmatic as she goes about her life. She also finds relief in the strong attachment she shares with her grandmother and step grandfather. Yet, her beliefs in the State are tested when under the tutelage of a brilliant teacher, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of knowledge and ideas.

Soviet Milk then is a very powerful and touching novella about the debilitating impact of occupation.

The mother, in particular, is yearning for freedom…

…there was something of the flower child in my mother. She wasn’t afraid of experimenting with herself and spend periods in a haze – whether through the use of some substance or thanks to her refusal to countenance the place and time in which she was fated to be alive. I remember her once, drunk on wine and high in a field of dandelions by the hippodrome, where the horses no longer raced. For her the hippodrome was evidence of some other, carefree and unfettered life. She ran through the dandelions like a young mare, and I skipped alongside getting under her feet.

She has what it takes to forge ahead in her chosen profession but is stalled at every turn. She feels isolated not just physically – from her family who loves her – but also mentally. There seems to be no way out.

Soviet Milk also focuses on the relationship between the three generation of women – the grandmother, the mother and the daughter. As the mother gradually sinks into depression, the daughter comes to rely on her grandmother for love and the desire for life.

This is another strong novella from the Peirene stable, and a cracking start for the 2018 ‘Home in Exile’ series.

Translation credits from the Latvian go to Margita Gailitis.