Friday, 3 December 2010

Lithuania Past & Present: “The Last Girl” Leaves a Lasting Impression

I have to say I struggled to find a suitable book to represent Lithuania whilst planning my route around the world. Despite the rich history of this country, translated works are still few and far between – and contemporary works in translation are non-existent. I was, therefore, delighted to come across “The Last Girl” by Stephan Collishaw.

Whilst Stephan is not a native author (being born in Nottingham in the UK in 1968), he has an interesting cultural link with Lithuania. On a whim, he relocated to Vilnius in 1995, where he met and married a Lithuanian woman named Marija, who had been teaching him the Lithuanian language. Marija already had two daughters from a prior relationship and later gave birth to Collishaw's son Lukas. The family relocated to Nottinghamshire in 2001. By this time, he had written a total of three unpublished novels, and at his wife's urging, began taking his writing more seriously. “The Last Girl” was his first published novel, which was released in 2003.

This novel garnered universally positive reviews upon its release and it is not hard to see why. For a debut novel, by a relatively young author from another country, Collishaw weaves an insightful, empathetic and thought-provoking novel about both a country and its inhabitants living in the modern-day yet haunted by a tragic past.

In broad terms, the novel is split up into three distinct, yet interrelated, narratives. The first concerns an elderly writer, a borderline alcoholic who no longer writes yet has an obsession with photographing women with their babies on the streets of modern-day Vilnius. The second is an extended account of the modern day tribulations of Svetlana, a washerwoman living on the breadline and dealing with an abusive (and often mercifully absent) husband, who happens to take in laundry for Steponas. In a decaying back street of the city this woman struggles to raise her family. As her son dreams of a better life, she is torn between Vilnius' twilight world of prostitution and her determination to secure hope for her children. The final third takes place in the Lithuania of the second world war, and gives an account of the tragic consequences of independence, Soviet rule and then Nazi occupation, whilst providing the back story to the life of Steponas.

In terms of the narrative, The Last Girl is an engaging and extremely well written novel. The characters are, in the main, portrayed entirely realistically: Collishaw does not hesitate to acknowledge their flaws, whilst allowing enough of their humanity to show through to allow us to empathise with them as readers. Steponas’s refusal to confront his dubious past, and resultant use of alcohol to avoid dealing with his conscience is a case in point. What becomes apparent from the start is that there is a dark element of Steponas’s past which he has yet to deal with, and it is the faces of the women and babies that he photographs that he sees the reflection this secret. A secret he has spent years trying to bury. It is perhaps here that I would tend to find fault in the narrative – as the denouement is sign-posted very early on in the book and, when it comes, seems to lack a degree of emotional punch.

That said, this is astoundingly complex for a first novel. The city - tenderly drawn - feels tense, vivid, effortlessly real. Collishaw’s Vilnius combines past and present, with the rubble of the Jewish ghetto lying side by side with the fallen statues of communist heroes.

Not only does Collishaw take on this huge swath of history - the eradication of the Jewish ghettos, the Soviet occupation of Vilnius - but he also has the nerve to take us into the minds of both Steponas and Svetlana, with their different agendas, different unsettled scores. And no layer is wasted. Each adds meaning, makes the whole more uneasy and disturbing - a feat few first-time novelists could pull off – and results in an excellent stopover on my journey.

And so on to the ex-Soviet Republic of Belarus – a country massively affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, of which I shall be reading more in my next book “Trace of the Black Wind”.

Before setting off I ensure that I obtain the necessary Visa for travel into Belarus. There are three kiosks at Vilnius’ modern train station that sell these, and I order a 10 day tourist Visa – ordering it at 9 in the morning and receiving it at 4 in the afternoon for 78 Euros.

The train from Vilnius to central Minsk costs me just 15 Euros for a second class ticket (in a four-person passenger compartment) and take about four and a half hours, leaving at 17.43. The journey is fine, not the fastest or most modern trains you will ever see but they get you there in reasonable comfort and cheaply!

And so on to Belarus and “The Trace of the Black Wind” - a collection of essays written by Belarussian children about their memories of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the impact that it has had on them and their country in later life.

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