Book Review: Shadows on the Tundra

Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (translated by Delija Valiukenas), is a memoir of the young author’s deportation, along with her mother and seventeen year old brother, from their comfortable home in Kaunas, the then capital of Lithuania, to a Gulag in Siberia. At the time Dalia was fourteen years old but to earn food for her family was required to work sixteen hour days of gruelling manual labour alongside adults. The memoir was written following her escape aged twenty-two, the pages buried in the garden of her Kaunas home before she was arrested and deported again. The papers were discovered quite by chance many years later, after Lithuania had once again attained independence. They were published in 1997, four years after the author’s death. They provide an account of life during Dalia’s terrible journey and her first year in the Gulag. The memoir has an immediacy often lost when writers rely on long held memories. It is a devastating depiction of the dehumanising of a people.

On June 14, 1941 at three o’clock in the morning, following orders from Moscow, mass arrests and deportations began simultaneously in all of the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Juozas Grinkevičius, the head of the Lithuanian Bank’s currency commission and a mathematics teacher at the gymnasium, was taken to a concentration camp in the northern Urals where he died from starvation in October 1943. The extermination of his family had also been planned.

This book, his daughter Dalia’s account of her experiences, opens in June 1941 after she has been placed in one of sixty-three covered wagons being pulled by a train leaving Kaunas. Fifteen hundred Lithuanians are heading into an uncertain future.

“Secondary school, childhood, fun, games, theatre, girlfriends – everything is in the past. You’re a grown-up now. You’re fourteen. You have a mother to look after, a father to replace. You have just taken your first step in the battle for life.”

The train journey lasts for weeks. At stops along the way carriages are uncoupled as some of the deportees are bound for collective farms. Dalia’s worth is assessed as one would an animal. She is housed in a barracks and put to work in the fields alongside deported Ukrainians. Their supervisors treat them as criminals.

The next stage of Dahlia’s journey again starts by train but this time they are packed in so tightly they can only stand. Illness and lice now plague them. When finally unloaded they sleep in a stable, or perhaps it is a club hall – five thousand filthy, unwashed people, grateful to be able to stretch out and relax exhausted legs. They are near a river and a rumour circulates that they are to be transported to America. Dalia wants to believe this, it offers hope, but in her heart she cannot.

Housed in wooden sheds and selling their few possessions for food they sing songs from their homeland and gather wood from nearby forests to burn for heat. Soon they are moved onto barges and taken down the Angara River before being unloaded onto a beach. From there lorries transport them the three hundred kilometres to the Lena River. By now leaders have emerged within the group and they are learning of each other’s histories.

After a two week wait, the Lithuanians are once again loaded unto barges. They are being fed but there are still regular deaths. Those who had felt superior in their former lives try to give themselves airs and graces. Dalia understands that any influence they may have had, any ability to offer favours, has been stripped away.

Forests and lesser vegetation are replaced by tundra. Dalia is disembarked where the riverbank is steep and a cold wind blows down from the mouth of the Lena. The people find just a few tents and wooden structures alongside piles of bricks. It is now August 1942 and they have reached their destination – Trofimovsk Island in the Arctic. They must build their own accommodation on this previously uninhabited outpost if they are to survive. They wear only the clothes they brought from Kaunas.

The Soviets have decreed that a fish processing plant will be built and worked by these exiled people. The Lithuanians and then Finnish prisoners are racing against time before the onset of a frozen, blizzard filled winter. In Trofimovsk the sun sets in November and does not rise again until February.

Inadequate brick and timber shelters are built, each housing too many people. Those who can work, including Dalia, are sent each day to walk for miles into the tundra and search for logs carried down from the upper reaches of the Lena river. These must be chopped out of the ice, tied into rope harnesses and dragged to Trofimovsk to be used to heat the apartments and offices of the supervisors. The prisoners do not have the right to take any of this wood. It is the only source of fuel. Dalia sneaks out and steals it, at great risk.

Dalia describes the terrible pain – from illness and wounds caused by the rope harnesses – as she helps drag the logs up the steep and frozen shores of Trofimovsk Island. The workers have no strength or energy. Their feet are wrapped in frozen sacks tied together with ropes. They suffer from exhaustion, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene and starvation. Hundreds die.

The Trofimovsk superiors live in warm houses built from logs. They dress in furs, eat bread, butter, sugar and canned goods sent to the Soviet Union by the allies from America. They regard the Finns and Lithuanians as sub species, observing their: lice ridden, rag covered bodies; the damp and filth of their shelters; the pails overflowing with shit from diarrhea. The dead are piled up and left for the wild animals – around three hundred that first winter. Food is withheld from the living to force them to work until they drop. Any possessions the prisoners have managed to retain are taken by the supervisors for a pittance – gold watches for a bag of flour or tinned food that may then be stolen by the other starving people.

Those who somehow survive that first, terrible winter are offered small respite when a doctor arrives at the Gulag and demands that the supervisors allow the workers to eat the fish and other provisions that were always available – the supervisors would have preferred the barrelled fish to rot. Baths are constructed and clothing disinfected.

As the river starts to thaw the workers are sent to other islands to catch and process fresh fish – the working factory envisaged. Dalia lives in a basic yurt but after the horrors of the winter even the pain caused by dipping damaged hands into frozen water and then salting fish is tolerable because she can now steal enough to eat. Unlike the theft of the wood to burn at Trofimovsk, pilfering of fish is tolerated. The work they are doing is pointless anyway. In a country where payment is made per unit and corruption a way of life, the barrels leak and fresh fish mixed with putrid meaning produce rots and will eventually be dumped in the sea.

Dalia describes the main camp supervisor as a  psychopath. It is hard to understand how such treatment of other human beings could be allowed to occur, although at a lesser level brings to mind the actions of our current government towards refugees and the homeless.

This is a striking and searing depiction of survival in horrific circumstances. A disturbingly evocative yet vital read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

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Book Review: And the Wind Sees All

In a fishing community in the north of Iceland a young woman cycles to the village hall where she is to conduct the local choir in a much anticipated concert. As she passes by the reader is introduced to the characters who briefly observe her, many of whom have lived in the village for most of their lives. The narrative covers just a few minutes in time, like a wind blowing through the streets in which these people are going about their day. Whatever they are doing, minds are wandering. Lifetime memories can be triggered by a moment, before that moment drifts away.

And the Wind Sees All, by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjørg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery) is a study of the never ending train of thoughts that individuals live with yet rarely share. Snapshots from the past are cherished – their significance is personal, sometimes hurtful to others. A young woman may have sparked feelings in a man that his wife has never generated – feelings he will linger on as he ruminates over what might have been. A wife may despise her husband for his habits but put up with them for the sake of family harmony. It can be wise to avoid drawing attention to that which is better lived with silently.

One group of long time friends is sitting outside enjoying a pre-concert drink and listening to an anecdote, each remembering events from their pasts involving others known to all but significant in differing ways. These personal perspectives interlink but with unacknowledged importance and consequence. There are: loves, betrayals, resentments, regrets.

The reader learns of the lonely and the guilty. Fortunes have been made and lost. Secrets devastatingly shared. Children have been raised and loved before dying or moving away. Events that felt like endings were survived, marking change.

A poet waits patiently for words that continually flutter away. A priest drinks and gambles in privacy. An old man drowns memories of childhood abuse in alcohol before collecting himself and resuming his quiet existence. A sister grows exasperated with her brother and they cease speaking.

The writing is lyrical and poetic, the sharing of hopes and dreams that sparkled and then faded. Life continues beyond disappointments, marking time with occasional small happinesses. The village knows many of these secrets but chooses to accept and look away.

Lives are complex. Words for intimate feelings prove elusive, the feelings themselves fleeting. The metaphor of the wind passing through and observing just a few minutes of individual lives brings to the fore how little people are aware of what is happening to others, even those close by.

This is an affecting approach to portraying the ordinary as personally extraordinary. A poignant yet hopeful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Shatila Stories

“Spare us your good intentions,
your quiet pity,
Instead, look up and raise your
fist at the sky.”

Shatila Stories is a  work of collaborative fiction commissioned by Peirene Press. In 2017 nine Syrian and Palestinian refugees took part in a 3 day creative writing workshop held inside the Shatila camp in Beirut. Run by Meike Ziervogel from Peirene and London based Syrian editor Suhir Helal, quite a few of the writers pre-selected for the workshop had never before read a novel.

Shatila camp was founded in 1949 for 3,000 Palestinians. It now houses up to 40,000 refugees. It is chaotic and dangerous with inadequate infrastructure and overcrowding. It is governed by various opposing Palestinian groups.

Following the workshop participants were asked to deliver a 4000-word typed draft within six weeks, works of fiction that could be brought together into one cohesive story to bring Shatila alive on the page. A few months later Meike and Suhir returned to the camp to work with each writer to draw out their strengths.

Afterwards Naswa Gowanlock translated everything into English. Meike and Suhir worked alongside to combine the material into a coherant narrative. The result, this book, is a novel written in an authentic refugee voice.

“Don’t talk about the camp unless you know it.”

The story opens with an arrival. A family has been promised accommodation at Shatila Camp by a family member. They pass through a border where thousands are waiting ‘with desperate eyes’, travelling from Damascus to Beirut.

The reader is introduced to key characters, individual tales told from each of their points of view.

Reham is a new bride eager to make a good life with the husband her parents have chosen for her. The couple hope for a child but find a wedge driven between them when their attitudes differ following the birth.

Youssef is the drug lord of the camp, powerful and feared.

Jafra plays with her doll while longing for a new dress, unaware of the steps her parents will be forced to take in an attempt to keep her safe.

Adam stays in his room to avoid the camp bullies until he meets a fellow musician and finds an escape in music. His new friend will rekindle his ambition until tragedy strikes.

Shatha dreams of escape through her studies but is torn between this and her love for her ill father. He believes those who leave the camp are cowards, traitors to the Palestinian cause.

Within these narratives are the limits of culture, particularly affecting the women, and the effects of camp dangers, including a dearth of hope.

Despite the wider reasons for the refugee situation these stories mostly avoid politics. The tales are of family and everyday life. The occasional lack of fluidity in the writing is more than made up for in the power of the voices. What the reader comes away with is better understanding.

An ambitious project that provides a raw and uncompromising portrayal of a radically displaced and closed community. This is a captivating and timely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Dance by the Canal

Dance by the Canal, by Kerstin Hensel (translated by Jen Calleja), tells the story of Gabriela von Haßlau, the only child of the Chief Medical Officer at the surgical clinic in Leibnitz, and his wife, Christiane. Gabriela’s father, Ernst, is proud to descend from noble Anhaltinian stock. Christiane’s family he prefers to forget. In communist East Germany drawing attention to bourgeois standing could be regarded as dangerous.

When the tale opens Gabriela is living under a bridge by the canal, writing the story of her life on pilfered scraps of paper. She remembers back to when she was five years old and expected to learn to play the violin. Although unable to master the instrument her teacher had a lasting impact, one her father would prefer she forget. Ernst has high hopes for his daughter which she struggles to comply with let alone attain.

Gabriela’s schooling in particular proves a disappointment to Ernst. The girl’s chosen friend, Katka, is quickly banned as undesirable company for his daughter leading to undercover assignations lasting many years. The school encourages pupils to revere the state. When Ernst insists that his child should not join the sanctioned youth organisatons he ensures she is set further apart from her peers.

The timeline moves between Gabriela’s homeless experiences and those of her childhood, eventually explaining how the daughter of a once respected doctor ends up living under a bridge. The prose is dreamlike in places as Gabriela navigates her memories whilst trying to survive the increasing harshness of the streets.

The story is told in jigsaw pieces which the reader must fit together, the picture emerging being more impressionist than linearly complete. Gabriela’s pain and confusion as she tries to find a place in the life assigned her shine through the cracks, despite her emotional distance in the telling.

This is a laconic yet vivid account of societal failure in a communist state. Gabriela, like her story, resists further classification

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Where to begin – Guest Post by Anthony Cartwright

Today I am delighted to welcome Anthony Cartwright, author of The Cut, to my blog. In this guest post he talks of the Black Country where he grew up and where The Cut is set (you may read my review of the book here).

“I have lived half my life here, half in London, felt the chasm between the places widen further and further.”

The Cut was commissioned by Peirene Press 

“to build a fictional bridge between the Britains that opposed each other on referendum day.”

It is a fabulous read.

 

The EU funded some of the work you look out on now, just by the house where my uncle used to live, here on a terrace elevated above the Birmingham Road traffic. You used to be able to look into the old football ground from the upstairs bedrooms. Beyond that was the County Ground, where in summers gone my great-grandad would sit in his deckchair behind the bowler’s arm, out of the wind, with a pint of mild. He could look at the castle on the hill, listen to the clang of metal being bashed. The people loved Tom Graveney, Basil D’Oliveira, the Headleys; sons of England and Cape Town and Jamaica and Dudley. The town is an enclave of Worcestershire within Staffordshire; hence the cricket. The earth opened one morning in the eighties and the sports grounds fell into a hole. With a shift in the old limestone workings below, the place was swallowed, went the same way as the jobs. When the hole was filled years later they built a cinema, hotel, gym, bars, called the place Castle Gate. It looks like the rest of England. Or England looks like Dudley.

The newspaper says that Brexit threatens the new light railway set to run up the hill from the mainline, says the new Aldi will bring over thirty jobs. The town, like every place you look out on from this view, voted for Brexit, two to one for Leave across the West Midlands. Map the regions that made the difference and it follows the pattern of the death of industry, of coal, iron and steel.

The ground is always unsteady here. Take a step and an abyss can open up, a foot in one half of the country, a foot in the other half, the chasm widening below you. The cut, the canals, more relics of an old industrial order, were the things that linked the land-locked midlands to the sea, to far-flung London. There used to be a pub called The Sailor’s Return on the crest of the wave of Kates Hill, as if a ship might sail from the distant Indies right into Dudley Port, and the sailor swagger homeward up Bunn’s Lane.

That we lived on an old sea-bed in the middle of England was one of the many wonders of growing up here. At the Wren’s Nest there are trilobites buried in the rocks, creatures from that prehistoric ocean, a symbol of Dudley, hard and strange. The trilobite is there on the coat of arms, just above the salamander, who basks in flames below. We are a country of symbols, with our new Black Country flag – red, white and black – a link of chain emblazoned across it. Black Country Day is 14 July, the day the Cobb’s engine house started pumping water from the mines at Windmill End. The industrial revolution will be permanent.

Except just not here, any more. I remember the day I first thought I might become a novelist. Sitting on the 120 bus somewhere between the Langley Maltings and the Albright & Wilson chemical works, waiting to climb the hill, I thought I might write about this postage stamp of land, like Faulkner said, about defeat, about what it’s like to come down on the far side of something, about the past never really being past.

There is a whole shadow country beneath our feet. The canal tunnels pierce the hill and there are great caverns under the castle. There was a plan, early in the Second World War, to move the whole of the BSA munitions works here, to make an underground city of twelve thousand people and a few hundred thousand guns. It didn’t happen, but this is a country of outlandish plans. Lubetkin built the zoo in the thirties, white modernist pavilions set in old quarries. See the flamingos now from the top deck of the bus to West Bromwich. There is a hole in the hill where they used to dump the dead animals, a well of strange bones. The Richardson brothers, local Thatcherite property men, once planned the world’s tallest building at Merry Hill, the shopping centre they built by the old Round Oak steelworks, unstable ground indeed, where thousands of jobs fell into a hole and disappeared.

Wind down the lanes through Gornal, where the trees bend to each other above the road, to The Crooked House, another pub, a place made crazy with subsidence, where you can watch a marble roll uphill. This is a country of signs and wonders. And it is perhaps so unlike the country that is portrayed – if it is portrayed at all – in newspapers and on television screens and on radio stations that speak with an accent you do not hear on these hills, that you might struggle to picture it at all.

Which is where I should begin. This novel will be a story about magical thinking, a story about loss. The vote was a piece of magical thinking, a vote about loss. And it was many other things as well. Cast the zoo bones, read the runes on tunnel walls. If I must fall into this void then you will come too. There are countries where you have never been, though you have lived in them all your life.

‘It doesn’t matter what the question was, the answer was no,’ a friend says to me when we talk about the vote. And he goes on to tell me about someone he knows who killed himself not long ago, a couple of kids and no one saw it coming, and we talk about the people we know who have done similar. But try not to draw conclusions. There are people doing just fine. And it’s not like the place has a monopoly on the sense that the future lies somewhere in the past.

Watch the traffic flow along Birmingham Road past European roadside flowers. It was my uncle’s funeral a few weeks ago. Our family, living and dead, form a web across these hills. My brother, though he usually drinks Guinness, likes a cocktail at Frankie and Benny’s on Castle Gate, not far from where our great-grandad sat. They raise their glasses across the gulf of years. I have lived half my life here, half in London, felt the chasm between the places widen further and further. Out of the tunnel and into the light, down the hill and into the stream, along the river and into the sea.

And back again. We are all connected.

This is where to begin.

Anthony Cartwright is a novelist from Dudley. He is the author of four previous novels, most recently Iron Towns (2016). The Cut is the second novel in the Peirene Now! series, and was published on 23 June 2017.

 

Book Review: The Cut

The Cut, by Anthony Cartwright, is set in the Black Country, where the skeletons of the industrial past are now regarded by those who have benefited from it the most as a blight. Cairo Jukes has lived in Dudley all his life. He feels indivisible from the land. His ancestors were amongst the men who dug the canals and tunnels, worked the foundries. None of these jobs now exist. Cairo works zero hour contracts cleaning up the old industrial sites ready for redevelopment, a tidying up and sweeping away for those who can afford the new order. He does what is needed to put food on the table for the four generations of family who share his home.

Grace is an award winning documentary film-maker from London. She travels to Dudley looking to interview locals about the upcoming referendum on Brexit, recognising that they are different from those she knows from her life. Most treat her with suspicion, veering away from her approach and the camera:

“She felt like there was some kind of invisible veil between her and these people. These people. And this is how it began, she supposed, prejudice on the scale of a whole country.”

Cairo agrees to be interviewed, speaking in an accent that, when played back on news cycles and Twitter, is given subtitles. What he says is ‘We’ve had enough’. He talks of ‘you people’, those who appear on the telly and believe what is happening is everybody’s fault but their own. Grace is drawn to this rough, unexpectedly cogent man.

The reader is offered snapshots of the Jukes family’s lives. Cairo’s daughter, Stacey-Ann, introduces herself to Grace as Ann. Judgements are made even over names. They are unused to talking to anyone like Grace. Her ways are foreign to them, and theirs to her. Despite their conversations, words cannot be found to bridge the gap.

It is this that the novel offers, a bridge between perception and reality. In packaging Brexit as a protest about immigration or even the EU the depths and complexity are disregarded, what is felt standing on a sun dappled mountaintop reduced to a sterile description of river and rock. Brexit was about how large swathes of the population are routinely admonished, their concerns dismissed.

“People are tired […] tired of other people getting things that you and people like you had made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired of being told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong.”

Grace recognises that there is a disconnect but struggles to accept that she may sometimes be the one to be wrong. It is easier to find others wanting.

“‘This place is a hole’, Franco says to her and sits down.

‘I’ve never heard you say that anywhere. Hungary, the border camps, Serbia, when you came back from Syria. Never. But Dudley is the end of the road for you. Look out of the window. It’s a sunny afternoon in the English Midlands.’ […]

‘Those people have got an excuse, a reason for being how they are, but these people,’ Franco says.

‘Ah, these people, she says, these people'”

Cairo feels increasingly impotent. He sees that many in the rest of the country want the likes of him gone, that walls are built with their well meaning ways. When Grace appears to offer him a new hope and then as quickly takes it from him, something in him snaps. The denouement, which was touched on at the beginning, is shocking.

The writing in this work is stunning. It is sparce, poetic in places, and bang on point.

Required reading for anyone who despairs of Brexit, or anyone tempted to glance at the Stacey-Anns of our world and then self-righteously opine. It offers a plot driven window into a clashing of cultures. It deserves the attention of all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: The Orange Grove

The Orange Grove, by Larry Tremblay (translated by Sheila Fischman), is the second book in the publisher’s 2017 East and West: Looking Both Ways series. The story opens in an Arabic country wracked by war, where nine year old twin boys, Ahmed and Aziz, live with their parents in the shade of the family orange grove. Their grandparent’s house has just been destroyed by a missile fired from nearby mountains, killing the elderly couple. Insurgents appear at their door demanding that the family seek revenge.

The boys’ father, Zahed, is persuaded that he must choose one of his sons to become a martyr for the cause, a suicide bomber who will destroy an arsenal of weapons held by the enemy. His choice and the reasoning he presents will tear the family apart. The surviving son must somehow learn to live with what has been done.

The spare yet poignantly articulate prose conveys a challenging depth of emotion. It is difficult to comprehend how a parent could ever be so convinced of the worth of their country or religion to willingly sacrifice their own child to the cause, and how this would make those considered expendable feel. In presenting this as a story of family rather than a particular conflict, and from the young boys’ point of view, the reader is left to consider the day to day nature of extremism. It is a story of the cost of war but also of belief, and how little difference exists between those who define themselves as enemies.

The reveals in the denouement are shocking yet the last line brings hope. An understanding is reached on how little those who have not directly experienced war can understand its lasting effects, and how those who have suffered yet survived must seek their own absolution. All of this is told in writing that oozes lyricism and an engrossing sense of place. Despite the distressing subject matter this remains a beautiful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.