Grim history lessons, all over again

  • 2004-10-13
  • By Tim Ochser
RIGA - I was really looking forward to reading "Amber," the new novel by the English writer Stephan Collishaw, following his highly impressive debut "The Last Girl." It's rare enough to find English-language novels set in the Baltic states, much less good ones.

"Amber," like "The Last Girl," is based in modern-day Vilnius. But where "The Last Girl" was a deeply unsettling excursion into Lithuanian history, "Amber" attempts to enter the extreme moral mess that was Afghanistan in the late 1980s, shortly before the U.S.S.R. pulled its troops out of the country.

The story begins with the death of a man named Vassily, who tells his closest friend Antanas of an extremely valuable and beautiful piece of amber jewelry that he smuggled out of Afghanistan while they were serving in the army there as young conscripts. He gives Vassily written instructions on how to find the hidden bracelet and then entreats him to find Kolya, who also served with them in Afghanistan, and give him the bracelet. But in return Kolya must tell Antanas of the awful secret surrounding the jewel, and how it really came into Vassily's hands.

Antanas is a reluctant protagonist all the way. He wants nothing more than to forget the past, yet the search for the bracelet becomes a sort of excavation and re-examination of the very facts he is so desperate to keep buried.

"Amber" is certainly a captivating, well-told and unflinching story. There is an intensity to the prose, in the meticulous descriptions of things that get in the way of the narrative, as if the author is really just chiseling away at deceptive appearances, at misleading facts, trying to reveal some sort of enduring meaning that binds past and present together.

The scenes of the book that take place in Afghanistan are especially fascinating. The Soviet army, like the Americans just over a decade later, believed it was a liberating force for the good. The propaganda the Americans used to justify the invasion was in many ways a verbatim reproduction of Soviet propaganda. However, the new conscripts quickly lose any notion of good and bad, right or wrong.

When Zena, an Afghan nurse who has an affair with Antanas, decides to leave him after his part in a disastrous raid on a village in which several children get killed, Antanas says despairingly: "A village welcomes us in the daytime, they shake our hands, thank us for our help, and then darkness falls and the muj use their village to shell us."

Antanas ends up in a psychiatric hospital in Lithuania after his experiences in Afghanistan. But his friend Vassily comes to get him and eventually restores his life to some sort of normality by teaching him how to work amber, and the two eventually set up a workshop in Vilnius. Vassily has all sorts of wonderful anecdotes about the origins of amber, ranging from Nordic to Lithuanian to Roman to Greek mythology, most of which explain amber as tears thrown up from the sea from this or that wronged goddess.

In some respects "Amber" is a deceptively simple novel. The more I thought about it, the more I found to think about. It's also a deceptively bleak novel. Just as amber outwardly appears as any old pebble washed up on the beach, so the characters in "Amber" require a bit of tender prodding and probing to reveal another, more human side to them.