Notes from the 'Underground' of Antanas Sileika's life

Antanas Sileika's theme is the underground nature of stories, how they can bubble up from both open and hidden sources, and the many ironies they impart to our lives. As Richard Handler writes, Sileika's own life is full of these kinds of stories.

Once I bought a bright green umbrella with a strap so I could sling it over my shoulder. And one day while riding an escalator in Toronto, an old European gentleman stared at me, in what I took to be a look of shock and disbelief.

I assume he must have felt he was seeing something that he had witnessed before, in the country he had come from: a soldier, with a backpack and a rifle strung over his arm, guarding a shop or public square.

So here in peaceable Canada, while I was on errands, he was transported back, possibly back to the underground of his own memories.

I thought of this incident when I read Antanas Sileika's novel, Underground, which was just listed as one of the Globe and Mail's best books of the year.

It also came to mind when I listened to the intimate and compelling interview Sileika did with Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio's The Next Chapter (which is now online).

Sileika's theme is the underground nature of stories, how they can bubble up from both open and hidden sources, and the many ironies they impart to our lives. (Full disclose: I've known Antanas for some time and used to produce him as a columnist on CBC Radio's The Arts Tonight.)

This country, largely a nation of immigrants, has millions of desperate stories from lives lived somewhere else. Just look closely at people on the street and it is not hard to imagine the ghostly memories, the half-forgotten tales that rattle around inside their heads.

In their bunkers

Sileika's parents grew up in Lithuania, one of the Baltic states the Soviets occupied again during the Second World War.

Author Antana Sileika, a consummate storyteller. (Photo courtesy Antana Sileika)

During the war, the population lived in a see-saw of invading armies, the Nazis, the Soviets. The country become one of those Eastern European "Bloodlands," as the historian Timothy Snyder calls them, a charnel house of murder and revenge.

Sileika's parents eventually came to safe, "boring" Canada (as he told Shelagh Rogers) and while driving about in their car, his father, "too cheap to buy a radio," used to tell the family stories of dodging the aircraft that strafed the traffic during the War.

Lithuanians soon became expert at the propeller sounds of friend or foe. And who was friend or foe, in any event? Certainly not the anti-Fascist, invading Soviet Red Army.

Sons (and daughters) joined the guerrillas, the partisans as they were called, and fled "underground" into so-called safe bunkers in forests and on the edges of farms.

But the Soviets and their sympathizers went looking for them, poking the ground with their long sticks.

The partisans could fight back or commit suicide, blowing themselves up with hand grenades. The Soviets dumped their disfigured bodies in the town square, making note of who came to claim them.

Call me 'Tony'

Sileika grew up in a pre-multicultural world where people anglicized their names. He couldn't imagine using his Lithuanian name. Antanas grew up as "Tony."

As he told Shelagh Rogers, to have relatives who were so eager to assimilate, to try so hard to both remember and forget their pasts, was confusing, if not a little embarrassing.

When he was a lefty student attending university in the 1970s, he says he remembers feeling that his parents old-world politics seemed so out of fashion with the progressive liberalism that he was imbibing at the time.

As a consequence, he grew up in a world of profound ambivalence. Canada was "the best country in the world" and a "delight" to his immigrant family. Yet at the same time, he could feel among his family and relatives a profound sadness and sense of loss.

He remembers trudging to the post office to send bolts of cloth to his relatives in Lithuania who would trade them for even more scarce goods.

Bubbling up

Sileika is a consummate storyteller (his day job is the head of the Humber College School for Writers in Toronto). And just as these wartime stories of his parents would surface, almost as reveries, during car rides and raucous dinners, they began to sneak up and speak to him in new ways as well.

He began to see the underlying patterns in those tales, where partisans would have to kill friends and relatives, those they broke bread with, as takes place in the first chapter of his novel. Mistakes were made.

As he began to research his novel about the partisans, he encountered more and more stories, from old men and women, from archives, from old and new books, bubbling up from the underground.

At the same time, as he was writing Underground, he lived for a time with a double anxiety.

In the novel, he was telling the bloody, melancholy story of the partisans, his forebears, who felt abandoned by the West. But he was also waiting for news of his own son, who had joined the Canadian army and was serving in Afghanistan.

Was his son Danius going to be safe? Was he going to return to Canada, where his grandparents had fled so that their children would live a quiet, peaceful life?

You will be glad to know Danius did come back safely. Also, that from birth he has been called Danius, not Danny (and that he served in the Vandoos and spoke French while in Afghanistan).

For his part, Antanas hasn't called himself Tony for decades now. But he does call Canada "a story magnet," his being just one in this vast, northern story landscape that bubbles up from the charged depths below.