Nowhere Land: Writing Eastern Europe in Canada

When I was a child reading Batman comics and Hardy Boy books in the fifties and early sixties, it seemed as if Canada was a nowhere land compared to the United States. Nothing happened here, and never would. If a man had put on a Batman cape in Canada, he would have been arrested. If the Hardy Boys had come to Canada, they would have found no adventures to be had. If Canada was no place, then a working class suburb on the edge of Toronto felt about as backwater as anywhere I could imagine; it was a barbarian landscape where thugs chose football, hockey, and baseball as their weapons, and woe to those readers, budding artists, hopeful dancers and other dreamer types who could never be victors on those unforgiving fields of battle. And to compound all this, my people came from a place that did not exist on any world map in any Canadian schoolroom. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians had been wiped off the map in WW2, and Ukraine, although much bigger, suffered in a similar way because it was not a country you could find either. These three forms of exile put me into a nowhere land, and made me, in my own eyes, a nowhere man – invisible, I believed, in the culture I inhabited.

However, as the decades passed, Canada grew up. And furthermore, those of us who were uncomfortable in the suburbs left them. Still, Eastern Europe continued to be a problem for those of us associated with it, especially for anyone interested in literature or the arts in general. Eastern Europe was behind the iron curtain, but those of us who came of age in the sixties and the seventies in the arts identified with leftist or liberationist causes. At the time, these included support for feminism and gay liberation, Nicaraguan Sandinistas, California grape pickers, and South African anti-apartheid fighters.

The very phrase “iron curtain” was quaint. Worse, McCarthyism had so tainted the right, that stories of the gulag and communist crimes sounded irrelevant. In addition to this, the people of my parents’ generation from Eastern Europe seemed to wear bad clothes, have bad accents, and hold reactionary views. When I saw the film Borat a few years ago, I saw the enemy of my youth, and he was us—my father and mother and all their friends—reactionary, ridiculous, pre-psychological at best. Anti-Semitic and fascist at worst.

It’s possible this sense of invisibility, of shame, extended to other Canadians like me. Maybe that’s why Canada had, until recently, so few books set in Eastern Europe or informed by it in any way, even though Ukrainians and Poles alone number over two million in Canada. Literature has fashions too, and Eastern Europe used to be very unfashionable indeed.

When I began to write, I sought my material elsewhere, in the so-called mainstream that I wanted to join. And while the Eastern European part of me felt invisible, hidden, a kind of shameful secret, my Canadian upbringing had given me the gift of the Commonwealth, that short-lived mosaic formed by the relics of the British Empire. The UK belonged to me, and so did India and Australia and Ireland. In my childhood I longed to live in the jungle book, and in my adolescence to walk upon moors in search of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Later I traveled more broadly in the commonwealth, reading, in addition to Graham Greene, writers such as R. K. Narayan, V. S. Naipul and Sam Selvon. And Canada was awakening from literary sleep too – so out came the stories of Newfoundland, Cape Breton, to join the histories of roughing it in the bush. Sexy titles like The Double Hook, and later Surfacing, and The Studhorse Man were exciting and cutting edge. Add to this commonwealth the American low culture and high culture mix of Gilligan’s Island, Richard Brautigan, The Brady Bunch and Susan Sontag, and the mainstream comes off pretty well, a kind of cultural and literary smorgasbord from which one was free to choose literary elements, and where no one ever needed to feel short of material.

But something else was developing in the culture and in me. The Polish joke, that moronic expression of humour of my youth, came to an end with the birth of Solidarity, the Polish trade Union movement in the nineteen eighties. Suddenly Poland became sexy and James A. Michener even wrote a novel of the same name. One could argue the end had been in sight after the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in the seventies. During this period Milan Kundera and Josef Škvorecký opened up Mitteleuropa. The eighties and nineties led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the collapse of fashionable left-wing causes, the collapse of icons such as Mao Tse Tung. Robert Mugabe ceased to be a liberator and became a tyrant – the Sandinistas were forgotten as a popular cause.

Though very little appeared to change in the Canadian literary zeitgeist, political and historical processes were going on both here and elsewhere. For one thing, the Canadian novel set abroad, in places formerly invisible, became both acceptable and even praiseworthy for opening up the scope of Canadian letters. Take, for example, the work of Rohinton Mistry and Shyam Selvadurai. At about the same time, elsewhere, the archives of the Soviet Union opened, and countries that had not been on the map reappeared there – the Baltics, Byelorussia (now Belarus) and Ukraine (minus “the”), as well as free central European countries more familiar to us.

Accessible Eastern European history took a decade longer to appear because historians needed to dig through those recently opened archives to uncover the secrets of the past. Then historians such as Tony Judt, Norman Davies, and most recently Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum wrote books demonstrating that the narrative we were comfortable with in the West, the Churchillian narrative of Europe that we had been living with for decades, was an incomplete story. The incomplete story was largely the story of WW2 as we saw it in films such as Saving Private Ryan—America and Canada and the UK, we believed, had fought a good war, a triumph, really, except for the tragedy of the Holocaust part of the story. But this narrative of triumph in war has no credence in Eastern Europe. There was no such good war in the East, where the war went on, arguably all the way until 1989.

Not surprisingly, Eastern Europe is the locus of a certain sensibility. It’s all about darkness. This is apparent in the writing of Milan Kundera and Czeslaw Milosz. Aside from the triumphal moments of anti-Soviet action, the history of Eastern Europe is bleak indeed, and according to Anna Porter’s latest work, The Ghosts of Europe, even the present political atmosphere there continues to make darkness visible. In contrast, the Western version of WW2 runs in tandem, at least in America, with a much different sensibility, an expectation of a happy ending in many narratives.

This is somewhat of a simplification, but generally speaking, at least in popular culture in the West, the dominant narrative goes something like this: one tries hard to achieve a goal, and suffers, but may well succeed in the end, and if not, the failure is valuable in itself. A good example is the popular American novel, Cold Mountain, which, although sad, shows a sort of triumph in the end. We have a fairy tale version of happily ever after. While this sensibility has never appeared in Canadian literature, which has a sardonic kind of humour and a darker view of life than American popular culture, we too nevertheless live in the headspace of the successful struggle toward success.

All the political and historical processes I have outlined above—Canada opening up to stories elsewhere and the particular elsewhere of Eastern Europe being uncovered—have taken me on a journey of writing to the point where Eastern Europe has come to dominate my material. Part of this is a historical accident—I happen to have a foreign language at my command, one that gives me access to somewhat obscure Lithuanian source material while I happen to have a publishing outlet here in Canada.

In my research, I have stumbled across a new wealth of material to add to the aforementioned Western smorgasbord. Sensibility is the defining difference in literature from Eastern Europe. What else besides darkness characterizes Eastern European sensibility? First, triumph is elusive in narratives from there, and even when triumph exists, it is provisional. If in the West, the story of the war was the more or less good allies defeating the evil Nazis, the story in the east is like something from Dante’s Inferno—one simply moves through different levels of hell. In Eastern Europe during WW2, the more or less evil Soviet system came first, followed by the evil Nazi regime, followed by the return of the more or less evil Soviets. To change the comparison from Dante to Shakespeare, in Eastern Europe one is in the land of King Lear—As flies to wanton boys are the people who live there to the political gods. The gods kill them for their sport.

In this bleak landscape of Eastern Europe, in the ruins of civilization, morality is slippery because collaborators might have worked with the Nazis or they might have worked for the Soviets. Those who resisted were crushed, and most just kept their heads down and hoped for better times. Upon this blasted scene, however, lies a certain richness of dramatic potential and complexity of motivation. The personal really was political. The stakes were higher in Eastern Europe because tyranny endured longer there. No happy ending came until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that ending turns out to have been provisional. A novel with a happy ending would be ridiculous there.

Eastern European sensibility also brings a particular kind of comedy, a sort of gallows humour, because if the political landscape is bleak, the only way to survive it is by laughing. There is a lot of Good Soldier Svejk-style humour in Eastern Europe. Also, the details of human life are so improbable in Eastern Europe that they produce interesting and complicated characters. Michael Ondaatje famously used the outlines of the life of László Almásy in his novel, The English Patient. The memoirs of Eastern Europe are largely unknown and filled with people at least as interesting as that Austro-Hungarian African explorer and spy.  Eastern Europe is also the home of a sense of absurdity, or surrealism. Gabriel García Márquez once wrote that his magic-realist fictional landscape of Macondo was not an artificial construct at all, but a straightforward depiction of life in a Colombian provincial city. I think Czeslaw Milosz would have agreed.

After many decades, Eastern Europe has become valid territory for literature here in Canada. It is no longer uncool, unhip. Witness the recent successes of Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace, Andrew Borokowski’s Copernicus Avenue, Aga Maksimowska’s Giant as well as David Bezmozgis’s The Free World. We have had the work of Janice Kulyk Keefer and Myrna Kostash for some time, but there is much more than that now, including the Young Adult material of Marsha Skrypuch and the recent Kobzar literary award winner, Shandi Mitchell’s Under This Unbroken Sky.

Canada is like a very lush tropical island in a sea filled with reefs, sharks, and catastrophic storms. Many shipwrecked persons wash up on this island, people who are grateful for the refuge they find here. But once these castaways have taken care of their needs, they begin to mull over the disasters that befell them or their parents, and they start to tell stories. The narrative of Eastern Europe is one of those stories, in my case a kind of Aeneid influenced by my parents who, like Aeneus himself, who fled the breached walls of Troy, fled the destruction of Eastern Europe but brought their narratives and sensibilities with them. And so I and the stories from Eastern Europe go from invisibility to visibility. From nowhere to somewhere.



4 responses to “Nowhere Land: Writing Eastern Europe in Canada”

  1. Strange coincidence that about 2 minutes after I order Zugmunt Miloszewski’s latest thriller from Amazon, I find your story about Eastern Europe. So much insight. Perhaps having friends who made it alive out of East Prussian, (or what was once East Prussia) pushed me to learn more about the history and even travel there. Such good literature arriving too And one book I have recommended often on my blog is Underground, by one Antanas Sileika.

  2. Thank you for the additions to the essay. There certainly are more writers whom I hadn’t considered, as others have now pointed out, although I do think Kundera’s vision is essentially dark. And of course, I blurbed Todorovic’s fine first book, so I should have included his work. On the other matter, he is right to point out that the Holocaust is the major tragedy, essentially of Eastern Europe because that is where it mostly happened, as Timothy Snyder has said in his recent Bloodlands. But as Snyder and Anne Applebaum have pointed out, the incoming Soviets did defeat the Nazis, to their credit, and and then went on to rape and murder and deport hundreds of thousands of innocents. In the western view of “the good war”, we were helped by Uncle Joe, but I don’t think many can remain unstinting fans after what we know now. Naimark’s Stalin’s Genocides might be worth a look too. In order to keep from writing a long analysis of the particulars here, I suggest Snyder’s and Applebaum’s books because otherwise, we are left with knee-jerk reactions. By all means, let’s keep a clear focus on the Holocaust, but let’s continue to explore the related and unrelated narratives of that place. And let’s keep talking about them here, on this side of the world, now that that side has opened up as subject matter.

  3. Really, Mr. Sileika? Eastern Europe is darkness? You don’t see anything optimistic in, say, Kundera’s novels? You must have been referring to the enthusiasm with which the Reich troops had been made welcome in Lithuania, for example, the enthusiasm that helped annihilate 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews? Oh, wait, that wasn’t the darkness you were referring to. The doom came with the Russian occupation. Speaking of which — are you really sure that it is possible to talk about the good allies fighting Hitler and not mention at all the unbelievable Russian sacrifices and the fact that the WWII was decided on the Eastern front? Do you really believe that everything has become so relative, so irrelevant that you can just decide to reconstruct history and nobody would care? Why do you believe so?

  4. Lovely piece, Antanas. We might add our Yugoslavian themesters: Steven Galloway, Goran Simić, Maggie Helwig, that other guy, uh…