Saturday, 28 May 2011

“Based on a true story...”

A friend gave me a book that she thought I should read. I am always grateful for reading suggestions because there are too many books our there, impossible to keep track of. It isn't a well-written book in my humble opinion, but I am glad I have read it because it will certainly get a lot of attention and likely to win awards because of its subject matter. Between Shades of Gray is the first novel by the American writer Ruta Sepetys, of Lithuanian origin, and it is a story (“based on first-hand family accounts and memories”, the back cover informs) about the deportation of Lithuanians after the Soviet occupation in 1939. For someone who has read a least some Holocaust literature, including children's literature, the gruesome details are not particularly shocking. For someone who has read books about Soviet labour camps, nothing is particularly new, and with all the horror and misery, the story is relatively idyllic. For someone like me, who learned the words “deportation” and “labour camp” among the very first, much is recognisable from family history: my great-grandfather, too, was thrown out of a cattle car when he died under transport. And yes, it is true that you could be shot if you stole a beet.

The writer has obviously done some serious research, visiting Lithuania and collecting evidence about the events she describes through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old. Since it is a book of fiction, she is not telling a story about any individual, but a collective story of a nation among other nations, and it is quite natural that in a novel everything is deliberately amplified and many stories brought together. Sepetys has got almost everything right. But it is this tiny “almost” that spoils the book for me.

It is, for instance, highly unlikely that a deportee would be allowed to keep a sketch pad and pencils, not to mention a fountain pen. This is one of the premisses of the plot, and I can accept it as poetic licence; however, the metaphor might have been stronger if the protagonist's drawings were imaginary rather than material. A deportee would definitely not be allowed to keep a Bible, which was forbidden under the Soviet regime even outside the penitentiary system.

When the Lithuanian are taken from a Siberian railway station to a labour camp, the truck stops in the middle of nothing, and the deportees are ordered into a building to take a shower. This is a poignant scene reflecting the humiliation of the female prisoners who must undress in front of the male guards. Apparently, Sepetys cannot imagine that in the region she depicts there is still no running water today, seventy years later. Sepetys describes in great detail the squalor of the local population, so where would a shower come from in the desolate Siberian steppes? (Showers are generally not a feature of Russia).

As they settle in the camp, some deportees write letters to surviving relatives and friends in Lithuania – and get replies. Lithuania is now under Nazi occupation; there is no way a letter from a Soviet prison camp would be delivered, and no letter “with Lithuanian stamps” would ever reach Siberia. The truth about totalitarian regimes is so unfathomable that no research helps you to comprehend it.

I would really like to believe that Sepetys has done her research properly, but there are too many gaps between her informants' evidence that she fills inadequately. The final drop comes when the protagonist gets a book for her sixteenth birthday. Well, by some serendipity a pretty, hardbound book with golden lettering might have found its way into a Siberian village. The protagonist is thrilled, because it is a book by her favourite author, Dickens, and a title she has not read, Dombey and Son. Then she opens the book and is utterly disappointed: the book is in Russian, which she cannot read. So how could she read the name of the author and the title? Shouldn't a writer who sets her story in Russia know that Russian language uses a different alphabet?

You may think it doesn't matter in a story of unimaginable suffering, and most readers will never notice. But if a writer decides to “tell ye your children...” she has to be credible all the way through.

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