The historical novel remains a huge temptation for any Canadian writer, especially when the history involved hasn’t gotten the exposure that it should. The rewards for tackling obscure history in fiction are many, but so are the challenges. Antanas Sileika, in his new novel Underground, has the additional complication of writing about a subject matter that is near and dear to his own heritage: the partisan resistance movement against Soviet aggression in Lithuania during WWII and the Cold War. His protagonist is Lukas Petronis, loosely based on an actual historical figure, who rises to the rank of legend within the partisan movement but at great personal cost and sacrifice.
Sileika takes two interesting risks at the beginning of his novel. The first is to place his opening chapter out of sequence with the rest of the book’s linear narrative. Chapter 1 finds Lukas and his fiancée Elena luring a number of Soviet officials to their engagement party, only to slaughter them with gunfire and then take off on the lam. Chapter 2 then rewinds the story, back to when Lukas is a student before he met Elena, and describes how he came to join the resistance movement. The date and location listed at the top of some chapters help the reader to figure out this slip in time, but they aren’t really necessary. Sileika is adept enough at framing that opening salvo of violence as a pivotal moment, a moment when Lukas and Elena make a decision that will alter their lives forever and one that deserves to stand out from the other sequence of events.
His second risk, however, is far less successful. Underground’s early chapters open with a kind of historical telescoping: a bird’s-eye view of the broader geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe at the time (the mid 1940s) followed by a zooming in on specific characters. This only works if the characters we find at the end of that zoom are real flesh-and-blood people with their own quirks and eccentricities, their own motivations and unique ways of processing the world around them. On this count, Sileika fails spectacularly – at least in the first half of Underground. What we find in Part One are characters who are nothing more than mere props, wind-up toys to be set in motion through the novel’s broader and more disingenuous agendas. Every person we meet – from Lukas and his religiously inclined brother Vincentas to Elena and other members of the resistance – is portrayed as a one-track representation of something in the conflict. Good and evil are static and no one ever waivers from the point of view that Sileika has grafted onto him or her.
The problem – and I’m not the first reviewer to point this out – is primarily one of dialogue and other interactions with the characters. When people speak in this novel, it is often to simply convey a point of research or historical information, rather than as a genuine exchange that arises organically out of itself. There are a number of instances of what RR likes to call ‘exposition monkeys’ – characters whose sole function is to ask questions or raise points that provide the reader with explanations that the author feels he or she needs. Take, for example, this exchange between an engineer and Ignacas, one of the members of the resistance:
“Don’t you think the Americans will go to war because they don’t like the look of someone’s face,” said the engineer. “Why should they keep on fighting after the Germans are beaten?”“Because they signed the Atlantic Charter,” said Ignacas. “Roosevelt and Churchill met in Newfoundland before the Americans even entered the war. The charter says we all have the right to self-determination and no territorial changes will be made without the agreement of the people.”
Now I’m sure that, in Sileika’s mind during the lengthy research for this book, he felt it absolutely crucial that the reader know this little bit of (highly ironic) historical detail. But God – to convey it in dialogue in such a contrived, dishonest way. Never mind whether it’s actually plausible in the context of the scene; no one actually speaks in this kind of rigid, wooden manner to just disperse information into the ether. This sort of dialogue is rife throughout Underground, and it really undermines what the author is attempting to do.
Another problem is that there is virtually no chemistry between Lukas and Elena. Their brief, harrowing courtship lacks any sense of the truly sensual; because they’re mere machines moving through a historical plot, they never get to experience the randomness of attraction, the quotidian joys that come from discovering the inner world of another person. This speaks to a larger problem in Underground: the novel is so obsessed with executing its broader agenda that it forgets to bring a sense of humanness along for the ride. It’s so busy trying to expose a mislaid part of history that it forgets to be funny; it forgets to be tender; it forgets to be absurd.
To its credit, the book does improve significantly in Part Two. After thinking that Elena has been killed in an attack, Lukas flees into the west – first to Sweden, then to Paris, where he works to expose the plight of the partisans to Western governments. While doing so, he falls in love and marries another woman, Monika. Their relationship becomes ensconced in domesticity: she’s studying to be a nurse; he’s writing a book about his experiences. When Lukas gets word that Elena may still be alive and that the movement needs him back in Lithuania, he makes a heart-wrenching decision. It’s a genuinely earned moment of pathos, mostly because Sileika took the time to invest more care into Lukas’ second relationship.
I won’t spoil the ending of this novel, other than to say that Sileika once again telescopes the narrative, jumping ahead 40 years to show both the end result of Lukas’ two-woman dilemma and the broader fate of Lithuania as a nation. It’s the best we can hope for, I suppose, from a novel that shows so very much and yet reveals so very little.