Laughing over a subject of tears

  • 2006-01-11
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - There is little agreement among generations when it comes to pre-independent Lithua-nian literature. The young disregard anything that's older than 20 years, whereas elders cling to the nation's literary roots. Yet there's always an exception to the rule, and in Lithuania it's "Forest of the Gods." This literary masterpiece is a heart-stirring document by concentration camp survivor Balys Sruoga, not to mention one of the finest specimens of Lithuanian prose. The book's secret to success was Sruoga's ability to make you laugh about one of the gravest subjects in the world: the holocaust.

In the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany occupied Lithuania. The Nazis, however, were unable to form Lithuanian legions for their army. In revenge, they arrested a group of Lithuanian intellectuals in March of 1943 and deported them to the Stutthof concentration camp. The detainees were charged with persuading students against joining the Reich troops. Among this ill-fated group was Balys Sruoga, a writer, literary critic, and professor at Vilnius University.

Sruoga was a man who considered totalitarianism the greatest enemy of mankind. A victim of his own nightmare, the writer had to experience the horror of Nazi violence, and barely escaped death on several occasions.

After surviving Stutthof, Sruoga wrote a fictional memoir, "Forest of the Gods" - one of the first memoirs in Europe about the Nazi concentration camps.

When I first read "Forest of the Gods," which for years has been on Lithuanian schools' "mandatory to read" book list, I couldn't stop giggling, all the while wondering, "God, what is it that I'm laughing at? What a strange combination of irony and hideousness."

It's absolutely fascinating how Sruoga transforms his painful experience into an ironic and grotesque narrative. The very title of the book, named after swampy Stutthof's concentration camp 's a factory of death - is poetically referred to as "the grove of gods." Thus, Stutthof becomes a miniature model of the absurdity in this world. Critics say that the narrator's stoic posture in the face of absurdity makes "Forest of the Gods" comparable to Existentialist literature.

Although there isn't much action in the novel, Sruoga's descriptions are so vivid, it's difficult to put the book down. The author doesn't pay too much attention to his own experiences, but rather tells the story through excellent portraits of other people, mostly of those in his own shoes.

The narrative once again shows how incredibly cruel human beings can be if given power in extreme situations. In some cases the prisoners provided with supervisory positions in the camp were far more dreadful than SS conscripts.

"Forest of the Gods" has long wandered among the corridors of Soviet censorship. Stalin banned the manuscript from publication as a "cynical ridicule of the victims of German invaders." Well, how on earth could Soviet censorship agree that, in some cases, German SS members were more decent people than those of the oppressed nations?

The book wasn't published until 1957, 10 years after the author's death: Sruoga's health never recovered after Stutthof, and he passed away in 1947.

The last edition of "Forest of the Gods" (Versus Aureus 2005), translated into English by Sruoga's granddaughter, Ausrine Byla, includes marked excerpts from the original manuscript, which were cut out by Soviet censors.

A new film of the same title by director Algimantas Puipa brought thousands of people to cinemas last year, breaking the country's record attendance since independence. And there's an explanation behind such success 's the story is loved by all generations.

As always, those looking for a pure on-screen translation of the book were a bit disappointed, but Sruoga's writing isn't easy to transform. First, the narrative's specific irony is a challenge, and second the novel doesn't have a chronological storyline - it's more like a mosaic reflection of life in Stutthof.

The novel is a must for everyone interested in Lithuanian literature or World War II. Its excellent style and eye-witness details won't leave you disappointed.

To obtain "Forest of the Gods":

Baltu Lanku Knygynas, Akropolis