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 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.