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Book Reviews Provisionally Yours postwar novel is a story of the margins

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  • Title: Provisionally Yours
  • Author: Antanas Sileika
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Biblioasis
  • Pages: 284

“All the pale horses of the apocalypse have stormed through my life: revolution and famine, currency depreciation and terror, epidemics and emigration; I have seen great mass ideologies grow before my eyes and spread …”

Antanas Sileika chose a different quote from Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday to open his new novel, although he could as well have picked this one to introduce Provisionally Yours and its story of warring ideologies during a time of putative peace. Provisionally Yours is a postwar novel set, like many of the novels of Graham Greene, on the margins of global powers. But it is a postwar novel with a difference, following the end of the First World War, not the Second. This is Europe redrawn in 1919 by the Paris Peace Conference. The map in Provisionally Yours – significantly different from today’s Europe – and its accompanying geopolitics can be disorienting, even more so as the new states of 1919, broken from former empires, vie for dominance. There is much attempted nudging of borders even after the Treaty of Versailles.

Enter Justas Adamonis, recently of both Russia’s Red and White armies, exhausted by the mindless violence, now returned to his hometown of Kaunas, the provisional capital of newly independent Lithuania, to escape politics. It’s not to be. As soon as he steps off the train, he’s recruited to head the young country’s counterintelligence office.

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A bit of historical background helps to understand Adamonis’s task. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was founded in the 13th century and later joined with Poland in a two-state commonwealth. Then the Russian Empire, Prussia and Habsburg Austria divided it, with Russia taking the largest piece of Lithuanian territory. It fell behind German lines for most of the First World War. By 1921, Germany, Poland and Russia looked ravenously upon this country of just more than two million people. This is where Adamonis comes in, thwarting foreign and homegrown plots to undermine the new government.

In its depiction of meddling foreign powers and clashing ideologies in the heart of a young state, Sileika’s novel has similarities to the popular German TV series Babylon Berlin, set in roughly the same time period. This comparison highlights a significant difference, however, since Kaunas is not Berlin. Provisionally Yours is a story of the margins, not the metropolis. It’s a good place to observe the play of giants, yet Lithuania in its early days of modern statehood is also a confirmed backwater. An American ex-diplomat in Sileika’s book complains, “This place is like a cross between the Middle Ages and a comic opera.” Some characters in the novel are old enough that they were born into serfdom, which wasn’t outlawed until 1861.

Sileika based his character Adamonis on a real person, whom the novelist calls the Lithuanian James Bond. This brings me to my biggest issue with the book: Provisionally Yours works as a historical novel, but it lacks the narrative drive or stakes of the spy thriller it wants to be.

The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Sileika grew up in what is now suburban Toronto trying to escape his ethnic heritage. Ironic, given this background: Provisionally Yours is now his fourth book about Lithuanians. Asked what compels him about this subject, he writes, “In that small country acts of great drama took place under the relentless pressures of politics and history.” The free, independent Lithuania born in 1918 didn’t last long; it would be wiped from the map by the Soviet Union, only to re-emerge in 1990. In 2004, it joined the European Union.

In the quote opening this review, Zweig concludes with a list of those mass ideologies that portend apocalypse: Nazism, Bolshevism and “the ultimate pestilence that has poisoned the flower of our European culture, nationalism in general.”

The significance of Provisionally Yours is its portrait of a country – one that later knew both Nazism and Bolshevism firsthand – at a time when nationalism emerged as a captivating force in a region that for centuries was ethnically mixed, including a significant Jewish minority.

Not everyone in the novel is convinced by the value of these new borders. Asked whether he likes that authorities now speak Lithuanian, a peasant in a sheepskin coat replies, “I don’t mind speaking a lot of languages.”

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But a member of the Polish-speaking aristocracy knows how the war changed things. “You had to choose who you were going to be in the new world. Two of my brothers decided they were Poles and one decided he was Belorussian.” This man chose Lithuania.

DEEP DIVE – FIVE WORKS ABOUT POSTWAR EUROPE

The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European, translated by Anthea Bell, is Stefan Zweig’s eulogy to early 20th-century Viennese life, begun in 1934 as he anticipated the Nazi occupation of Austria. Zweig’s depiction of a lost Mitteleuropa inspired Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Third Man, Carol Reed’s 1949 film, takes place in the rubble of a later world war than that of Provisionally Yours and in Vienna, yet Graham Greene’s noirish story of muddied morals in a place subdivided by superpowers has stylistic and thematic links to Sileika’s new novel.

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World is Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan’s examination of how the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War redrew the world map, both literally and figuratively.

Babylon Berlin is German prestige TV based on the crime novels by Volker Kutscher, noted for their historical accuracy. On the surface a detective drama, the series’ greater appeal is its depiction of Weimar-era Berlin and the republic’s precarious foothold amid volatile political forces.

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Underground, Antanas Sileika’s 2011 book, is the second of his Lithuanian historical novels. Opening with the retreat of the Germans at the end of the Second World War, Underground follows a band of Lithuanian partisans amid the Soviet occupation.

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