Writer: Alvydas Šlepikas tr. by Romas Kinka
Publishing House: Oneworld Publications
Date of Publication: June 6th 2019
‘’People appear as if emerging through a mist, a snowstorm, a winter fog; they grow dark, casting a shadow on the trampled, blood-soaked earth, and then are gone.’’
East Prussia. The Second World War has ended but the sounds have only just started bleeding. In a macabre game between the Soviet Army and the withdrawing Nazi forces, the people living in the forest have to fight against nature, wolves, enemies but most of all against their own past, their own cursed heritage. And as always, women and children are the usual victims.
Yes, the first few pages are so harrowing they stab your heart even if you have read dozens of books about WWII and its atrocities. Yes, it is probably one of the most merciless books you’ll ever read, supposedly based on a true story. But I found it highly problematic. I had many objections regarding the course of the story and I consider the execution of extremely unsatisfying.
The writing seemed to me dry and uneven. Certainly, there is a plethora of atmospheric passages and a few horrifying scenes but we’ve seen that before, in much better books like Child 44 and When the Doves Disappeared. The interactions between the characters seemed soulless and the characters came across as flat, one-dimensional, each child was drawn very similar to another and it was so difficult to distinguish and ‘’transfer’’ your mind to a different character. Perhaps, the book would have benefited from a better translation but I suspect that I cannot blame the translator for faults that seem to lie within the heart of the story and the attitude of the writer.
Now, these are my personal observations, my thoughts. And if I come across as confused and torn it’s because I am. And if my perceptions are wrong, so be it. But I cannot lie. What happens when you become the mirror of the nightmare you have caused? Blood begets more blood, as they say, and the links of the chain are forged by the minute. Fascists of both sides create Hell and innocent children are the easy victims of fanatics and the merciless, objective winter. Can we forget the past and reconcile? Can we bring ourselves to say ‘’what’s done is done’’ and start anew? On the other hand, how can you find the strength to overcome the human urge for revenge when your country has paid an unimaginable blood toil caused by the Nazi monsters?
No, there are no easy answers and the book supposedly poses these questions. It is up to the readers to interpret them as they will. However, the writer strangely omits any references to the Holocaust and I couldn’t discern any feelings of guilt in the thoughts of the characters. Is it possible they did not know of the Nazi fire that had swallowed Europe? I find it hard to believe and I would go as far as to say that his writing seemed conveniently forgetful…I don’t know. These questions were constantly battling in my mind while I was reading and the result wasn’t satisfying. On a technical note, Eva, the mother of the story, has certain moments of downright, proper Nazi behaviour and mentality. Make of this what you will…
Did the writer manage to make me feel sorry for the family? No. I am sorry, I couldn’t feel anything because a) I was kept at a distance and b) his overall stance was extremely one-sided. I don’t care about political correctness all that much but I demand some common sense. I can’t bring myself to feel sorry about Nazis and Soviets dying but I did feel sorry for the innocent people of Lithuania who paid the price of the fight between the Nazi terror and the liberators who became a mirror for the monsters they fought to drive away. Yes, the wolf-children of the story were innocent. Of course, they were. But the children in the concentration camps were also innocent. The children burnt alive in villages destroyed by the Nazi demons were also innocent. The raped women, the executed husbands were also innocent. The writer seems to have forgotten their existence. And for this, the novel was a bitter failure…
Many thanks to Oneworld Publications and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.