I was seduced into buying and reading Underground after hearing the author read an excerpt at the Vancouver Writers & Readers Festival. He read a scene that seemingly revealed one of the central themes of the book: the tension between loyalty to one’s country and personal loyalty to loved ones. I write “seemingly”, because Sileika’s reading of that scene was somewhat misleading—it kept secret a critical part of the plot to avoid giving away too much to potential readers.
The setting for Underground is Lithuania in the years after World War II. In reading this historical novel, I learned about the aftermath of the war from the perspective of Eastern Europe—a region whose history was silenced for a long time. Sileika mentioned that records about what happened in Lithuania under Soviet rule after WWII were blocked until 1991! Having learned Lithuanian from his parents, he was able to do his research by going to original documents, including KGB archives.
While reading the novel, I was shocked by my own ignorance about how people in Lithuania suffered. The book makes it clear that North Americans and Western Europeans were preoccupied with their own reconstruction efforts after the war and cared little about what was happening in the Baltic states. People in the West were chasing the American Dream; but, in Sileika’s words, people in Eastern Europe were learning that “the steamroller of history will crush you no matter what your dreams may be.”
The protagonist of Underground is a young man named Lukas, a farmer’s son who studied literature at university during the war. Risking death or deportation to a labour camp because he is an intellectual, he joins the underground partisan movement, whose goal is to oust the Soviets from power and regain control of their own country. The partisans hide out in the forests and underground bunkers of the countryside. Though there are thousands of them at first, they are spread out in small groups to avoid easy detection. They are up against a huge and immensely powerful enemy; it is a losing battle.
To avoid writing a spoiler, I’ll advance to a part of the novel where Lukas has escaped from Lithuania and is living in Paris. He is trying to help the Lithuanian partisans by informing countries of the West about what is going on and trying to get their aid. He discovers that other countries have a selfish outlook; they are only interested in helping the partisans if they can get Soviet military information in return.
While in Paris, Lukas meets and marries a woman named Monika who, it happens, lived in the Lithuanian town where he went to university. The scene read by Sileika at the Writers & Readers Festival is a conversation between Lukas and Monika that occurs after he gets a chance to go back into Lithuania; one of the key leaders there has specifically requested his presence, and the English and the Swedes are willing to help him sneak in. In his talk with Monika, Lukas is explaining that he has to take this chance to go back, although he loves her. He is trying to reassure her that he will return.
After reading this excerpt, Sileika revealed the personal relevance of his theme about conflicting loyalties; while he was writing Underground, his son quit university to be a front-line soldier in Afghanistan.
But was Lukas really choosing patriotic loyalty over personal love? You’ll have to read Underground to find out. This novel has more to do with the kinds and depths of romantic love than Sileika revealed in his reading.
But it is very much a book about war—about the murderous acts that ordinary people must perform, the terrible moral choices they have to make and the daily physical suffering that grinds them down. This is a beautifully crafted, suspenseful novel that will make you thankful to be living here and now in democratic country. And you’ll never forget a scene involving a baby and a frying pan.