Full disclosure: I’ve never met Antanas Sileika, but I’m friends with his son.
In Underground, Antanas Sileika tells the story of a group of people that, if it was ever really known in the West, is by now mostly forgotten. This both lends power to his story and at the same time causes a few bumps in its telling.
In 1944, German troops repulsed by the Red Army retreated across Lithuania, a tiny nation that had already changed hands many times in its history. Now it would change again for the second time in just a few years. Just as they did the Germans, many Lithuanians resist the Russians who arrive to run the place, and partisans living in the forests and bogs number in the thousands. They hide underground, stealthily foraging for food, making daring raids on Russian officials in towns, avoiding the patrols of Cheka. And they keep fighting for years, hoping for one of the Great Powers to take notice of them and liberate them from the Soviet Union. The war does not end here in 1945.
It’s not really “World War II” though, either; the partisans are above all a populist, nationalist anti-Communist resistance movement, farmers’ sons taking to the woods to fight for their parents’ land. One such is Lukas, our hero, who becomes a hero quite literally on the night of his engagement party, the scene that opens the novel. He and Elena seem troubled, hiding in the kitchen away from their guests. Called back into the living room, they enter with guns drawn and massacre nearly everyone in the room: the party was a trick to lure several prominent bureaucrats to their death. The couple—who really are engaged—flees separately, unable to meet again for months.
When they can, they marry, though everyone they know thinks it the height of foolishness under the circumstances. When the almost inevitable happens, Lukas continues on his own with the partisans, eventually being smuggled out to the West so he can get the message of the Lithuanians to the greatest moral authority they can think of—the Pope—a quaint choice to Lukas’s contact in Poland.
Another love story begins and the first is reprised, and as we hope against hope for Lukas’s happiness we realize we are also hoping that the partisans will win, that the Brits will decide to help, and the Americans won’t just let Stalin have them. But we know how this story ends. Nothing good can happen for these people who, we know, have decades of bleakness ahead.
The other partisan in the West, Lozorius, tries to teach Lukas realpolitik in place of his sentimentalism (or just the cluelessness of one cut off from all reality behind the Iron Curtain). He tells Lukas not to expect help.
“Believe me, I have seen the future. In a decade there will be children who have never heard of the Baltic States, or if they have heard of them, they will mix them up with the Balkans. Already most people think the Ukrainians are the same as Russians, and as for Byelorussians, you might as well forget about them.”
Unfortunately, this is quite true, and it means many readers don’t know so much of this story. Sileika does what I would call a bit too much explaining, but maybe it is in order when, as the present-day frame of the novel says, the Iron Curtain is now little more than “[a]n ill-defined borderline [that] wavers somewhere around the middle of Europe…. At present, on the far side of this boundary, the Eastern side, lies a zone where beer and hotels are cheaper than they are in the West, and so planeloads of young men travel there to drink, far from the eyes of wives and girlfriends.”
Regardless of this defect, the novel is thrilling, poignant, and often unexpectedly lovely. Toward the beginning, the historically-aware frame describes the location of the town where Lukas’s family had its farm with (forgive me) an arresting extended simile:
There were several barrow hills in the county as well, and the ruins of a hill fort, of which nothing remained but the cellar. Thus the hill had a sunken top, like a volcano, where some of the locals had hidden during the current artillery barrage from the Red Army, having fled up the hill like their ancestors from centuries past. One night the cellar suffered a direct hit, and the hilltop blazed like a true volcano, with wounded adults and burning children rushing and tumbling down from the top as far as the places where they died, frozen in their descent like lava that had solidified after an eruption.
The hill isn’t there anymore, wiped out by the Soviets in 1959 like the whole country had seemed to be.