“A bleak story, told in elegant, poetic prose” – In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Šlepikas

Anyone who imagines that life in Germany returned to even a semblance of normality after the end of World War II could not be more mistaken. For many in East Prussia, now Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania, it merely meant a new chapter of misery and hardship, together with the loss of a sense of hope which many had held, that things would get better after the war was over. In the Shadow of Wolves is the story of what happened when the fragile sense of optimism that had helped people to keep going was destroyed by the bleak reality of 1946. It was the winter that has gone down in history as being even more severe than that of 1878 -1879 which, until then, was said to have been the coldest ever recorded. As Russian soldiers tramped across borders, with permission from the heads of the Soviet military to ransack the regions it had won and to take whatever they wanted, the inhabitants of East Prussia, destitute and hungry feared for their lives. Many of their men were dead or missing. The women caring for young or sick children did their best to conjure up food from practically nothing, but it was never enough. It is a historic episode which many would like to pretend never happened, but as Alvydas Šlepikas says right at the beginning of his novel:

“Everything rises up from the past, as if through fog …… All is distant, but not forgotten.”

The author, here, is reminding the reader that the past, however gruesome, happened and despite the time that has passed, the events of war and its aftermath will for ever reside in the crevices of our collective mind. He does not tell us his opinion about those who deny such atrocities actually took place.

Sisters Eva and Lotte and their neighbour, Martha, are desperate. With their men still on their way home from the war or missing and otherwise unable to feed their children, the women, like many other destitute people, go and collect leftover scraps and potato peelings from Russian soldiers who make it sound as though they are being generous. Emptying out their cooking pots straight onto the snow-covered ground, they shout: “Here you are. Help yourselves, you fascists!”  The women take what they have scavenged back to the draughty wooden cabin where they now live after being thrown out of their home. In this desolate setting, where they sleep on wooden planks on the floor, the sisters dry the peelings before grinding them to make flour with which to bake bread. Russians, wearing their nightdresses are now sleeping in their comfortable beds, eating at their table, wearing their jewellery. All they have in their sparse abode is an old iron stove, but they are grateful for it. They collect fire wood from the nearby forest and boil melted snow for hot drinks to help keep themselves warm, but that and the scraps are not sufficient to keep the cold and hunger at bay.

“The cold was everywhere; it was in the blood. Hunger was gnawing at them from the inside like an icy fire that could not be assuaged. The children could no longer remember a time when they hadn’t been hungry. And whatever fairytale they were being told, there was always some mention of bread, of meat, of turnips, of delicious food.”

There are rumours that over the border in Lithuania they have food and the people there are said to be kind and compassionate. And so, the two sisters’ oldest children, Heinz and Albert, and Martha’s daughters, Brigitte and Renate, become so-called wolf-children, embarking on separate journeys in search of food to bring back to their mothers and younger siblings. Their respective experiences are a complex combination of the aid and compassion they hope to find in those they approach for help, on the one hand, and warnings to go away and not come back, on the other. Both pairs of children eventually become separated. What ultimately befalls them is perhaps the only unsatisfactory part of the story as the author only tells us conclusively about what happens to Renate. There is barely a mention of Brigitte once the girls are parted by events. From a couple of paragraphs late in the novel we can assume that Albert has either somehow been drafted into the Russian army or forcefully taken prisoner by them, which is more likely, but not made entirely clear. Heinz has found his way back home to the wooden cabin, hoping to delight his mother and siblings with the rucksack full of food which the kind people he met in Lithuania have generously given him, only to find the cabin abandoned and the stove cold and unlit. We know that Martha died, presumably of pneumonia, but the reader is given no inkling at all about what became of the sisters, Eva and Lotte, and their youngest children.

Alvydas Šlepikas (b.1966) has been described  as one of Lithuania’s most multi-talented contemporary writers. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, actor and director. In the Shadow of Wolves is said to have been the most read novel of 2012 in the original Lithuanian. Since then it has been translated into seven east-European languages as well as English. Yes, the story, inspired by actual events, is bleak in the extreme, but the language in which Šlepikas tells it is beautiful and frequently veers into the poetic. Generally speaking, the translation feels true, that it conveys the narrative in the sensitive way the author intended. Occasionally the syntax is a little clumsy and doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as it might. In a novel that is remarkable in almost every other way it seems churlish to mention it, yet I think it is necessary to do in order to maintain the integrity of this review. And finally, the darkness of the book’s contents is amply compensated for by the elegance with which Oneworld Publications have presented the first English-language edition. The slim volume of just over 200 pages has a dust jacket in black and greys depicting a quasi-abstract group of pine trees in snow. This image is extended to the beautiful end papers inside the book.

Any Cop?:  A bleak story, told in elegant, poetic prose, while in no way sparing the reader from the full horror of this awful period of history. A metaphor for all wars, this is an important novel which anyone with a conscience ought to take the time to read.

 

Carola Huttmann

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