Reading two novels set in Soviet Europe in tandem, recurrent questions echo between two distinct fictional worlds. Must the past be understood in order to move forward? And in what ways does it define our future?
In his debut novel In a Land without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark, Jonathan Garfinkel skillfully unwinds a complicated narrative knot that spans 30 years of Soviet and post-Soviet history. The novel moves through decades, countries, and protagonists with an energetic, suspense-driven prose that jumps through time and milks the temporal gap for dramatic tension. The novel opens in 1974, when Gary Ruckler arrives at Moscow State University from the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, following in the steps of his literary idol, Russian romanticist Mikhail Lermontov. Gary befriends students from Russia and the Caucasus who play jazz, party in dorm rooms, and debate dialectical materialism. When two of his classmates vanish, the novel’s brief first section concludes with a haunting clue that suggests a sinister explanation for their disappearance.
The narrative then shifts forward in time to the 1990s in Tbilisi, where a young woman named Tamar navigates the tumultuous landscape of a newly independent Georgia in decline: “in a manner of two years, it went from one of the richest countries in the Soviet Union to a totally failed state.” The novel follows Tamar as she becomes involved in Georgian politics as a performance artist, and then moves to Toronto where she meets Joseph, son of a renowned expatriate Jewish academic. Narrative momentum builds when Tamar and Joseph travel separately back to Georgia in the months leading up to the Rose Revolution to understand their murky family histories. Connections between Tamar and Joseph’s present and the disappearance of Gary’s classmates decades prior are revealed as characters from Gary’s world reappear, living new lives under different names, forcing the reader to question what they think they know about what happened in Moscow. Thoughtful reflections on country and identity are punctuated with car chases and gunfights as Tamar and Joseph uncover family and government secrets. Garfinkel navigates the complex environment of post-Soviet Georgia with confidence, drawing persuasively from the country’s political history to contextualize his characters’ personal narratives.
While Garfinkel paints decades in broad but compelling strokes, Antanas Sileika focuses on one man’s experience of Soviet-occupied Lithuania in his newest novel Some Unfinished Business. Set between 1947 and 1959, Sileika follows the mysterious relationship between a young boy named Martin and his teacher, Kostas Kubilinskas, who moves to Martin’s small village of Lyn Lake and lives with the boy’s family. Sileika also relies on shifts in time for dramatic effect, alternating between two decades: the 1947 of Martin’s childhood, when he ran errands for anti-Soviet soldiers, and the late 1950s, when, newly released from the gulag, he visits his former teacher at an asylum. As Martin interrogates his former mentor, the undoing of their relationship – and the nature of Kostas’s betrayal – comes into focus. A bildungsroman of sorts, Some Unfinished Business is, in part, a story about one boy’s search for role models in a world where anti-Soviet partisans hide in underground bunkers in the same forests where Nazis dumped their victims in mass graves. The novel probes the limits of justice and questions the value of revenge through the lens of one character’s attempt to reconcile the past with his family’s future. Sileika provides less detail about the political and historical context of his narrative than Garfinkel; instead, he focuses more closely on character to inflect his fiction with the weight of reality – he draws inspiration for Kostas from the real Lithuanian children’s poet and Soviet informant of the same name, who infiltrated and betrayed an anti-Soviet resistance group in order to be permitted by the Soviet government to publish his poetry.
Both Garfinkel and Sileika offer narratives that pivot around gaps in time to mirror the social landscape of Soviet Europe. Children grow up worlds apart from parents they knew only before they learned to remember; identities are shattered and reformed as pages turn. Characters in Sileika’s occupied Lithuania and Garfinkel’s newly independent Georgia find themselves on all-consuming journeys to bridge these gaps, to reckon with the past in societies where betrayal is ubiquitous and the search for truth and justice is a dead end. Garfinkel in particular highlights the role of storytelling as a counterbalance to this uncertainty, illustrated through Gary’s commitment to write a novel from multiple perspectives (“it is only through a multiplicity of viewpoints that truth can be gleaned,” he says), and characters who rewrite their own pasts by adopting new identities and aliases. Truth is a double-edged sword and characters in pursuit of understanding must choose either to endure the pain that knowledge carries or else live in the dark. At pivotal moments in each novel, a father faces the same choice: flee his home country and shield his children from life in the U.S.S.R., or stay put and sacrifice this hypothetical peace so that the next generation can understand where they come from. Garfinkel and Sileika explore opposite ends of this choice: Garfinkel traces the aftermath of prioritizing knowledge, and Sileika makes a case for starting anew.