The Wildness Within

Liam Bishop reviews Alvydas Šlepikas’ In the Shadow of Wolves (trans. Romas Kinka)

Alvydas Šlepikas,
In the Shadow of Wolves.
Translated by Romas Kinka.
Oneworld Publications, £12.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Alvydas Šlepikas’ novel In the Shadow of Wolves (trans. Romas Kinka) is set during the closing days of the Second World War. With their husbands and fathers having perished or still posted out in the battlefield, women and children living in East Prussia have a choice to make. As the Russians maraud the post-Nazi territories, the Germans of East Prussia can either sit and await their plunder or make a run for the border. This latter ploy comes with the promise of runaways being shot on the orders of Erich Koch, the Nazi leader of East Prussia. What happens is that the children make these journeys on behalf of their families, sneaking into Lithuania to find food and supplies and, ultimately, new homes. They become known as the “Wolf Children”.

This isn’t to suggest that Lithuania is a safehaven, or was a place of reliable refuge for the children who really did journey there from East Prussia in the 1940s. Soviet hostilities towards Germany didn’t end with the fall of Berlin, and ordinary citizens of Lithuania faced personal reprisals if they were caught facilitating the children’s escapes. As a result, the children who did survive and eventually lived in Lithuania received full citizenship and vindication only as adults, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. If this kind of life then represents a perpetual state of not knowing where one’s home really is, such a state pervades the novel’s atmosphere as well. Reading In the Shadow of Wolves, I was reminded of Primo Levi’s account of his arrival at the transit camp of Katowice in The Truce (1963), when a lawyer tells him that he should refer to himself as an “Italian political prisoner” because it will be “better” for him. The reason? “The war is not over.” It’s debatable as to whether the war ever actually reached an “end” for Levi and the people who suffered as he did, and although Šlepikas’ novel focuses on the travails of children rather than displaced adults, it is fascinating not just because of its air of peril and dread but also because of how it tells of a generation effectively uprooted, homeless, and caught between territories in the midst of their historical moment.

Šlepikas invites readers to wonder whether the environment he depicts is primarily representative of a world overcoming war or, instead, a world in which the idea of “territories” is both a geopolitical and developmental term. In the Shadow of Wolves isn’t necessarily a war novel, then, but a novel in which the rootlessness of wartime displacement will become the root of the families’ experiences. The family that Šlepikas follows features Eva, a mother of five children, her sister Lotte, and Eva’s neighbour Martha. Instilling the sense of inertia, of being caught between territories, one of Eva’s sons, Heinz, is already in Lithuania at the opening of the novel, trying to find food for his starving family. Crossing into Lithuania might be the only way for Eva’s children to survive, however, so she splits up her brood. While the “pampered” and “weak” Helmut remains in the care of his mother, the other boys become lost in impenetrable woodland and the girls go their separate ways: one eastward, to a new life, and one intent upon returning home.

Perhaps only the chaos of war could produce circumstances like those faced by the children, and so, as fitting as the post-war world may be for their stories, it also clashes with the narratorial perspective in ways that feel obscene. For instance, when we, as readers are led to watch the children make their way through this world and its horrors, we assume a perspective that is not exactly voyeuristic, but somewhat cold and diffident, despite its proximity to the characters. Consider, for example, the novel’s opening moments. While the prose has a sense of cinematic grandeur, the distanced watchfulness of the perspective evolves into something more like surveillance of their actions from afar:

The noise died down, and for a moment there was complete silence. Then a strange sound like the wail of a dying beast cut through the silence, high-pitched and endless. Another child was badly injured. He lay writhing, his feet kicking out at the ice; the scream was coming from him. As he twisted and turned blood seeped out from under him, painting an ever-larger area of snow and ice: a stain of colour in a black world.

As with much of the rest of the novel, we are not necessarily “reading” about these encounters so much as we are put in a position from which we witness them. The clauses, similar in length, bring a leadenness to the pace of the scene, and as the blood slowly leaks away it becomes indicative of the time we’ve spent in the presence of these sights. While the children explore new territories, then, the distancing effect of the prose leaves the reader feeling as if he or she is observing them from a watchtower: surveillance is not just something that happens under the orders of Koch. Indeed, the omniscient detachment allows an adult sensibility to intermingle with the children’s perspectives so that, as much as the world of the novel doesn’t appear to be made for children, it is also a world in which only children might make it. 

As the idea of “territories” simultaneously connotes juvenile and adult experiences in In the Shadow of Wolves, it reminded me in some ways of reading the work of Cormac McCarthy. Whilst the environments in which McCarthy and Šlepikas situate their characters are significantly different, they become pivotal in engendering an atmosphere in which the interminable ongoingness of the “event” proceeds in the face of a lack of psychological insight into it. But whereas McCarthy applies Old Testament themes to an American frontier scenario, Šlepikas imbues barren East Germany and the forests of post-war Lithuania with the dark undertones of a fairytale. After the children split up, for instance, one of the girls, Renate, imagines the forest as a place where there might be food and herbs, while Albert and Heinz worry about the “forest devil” roaming wild and free with the wolves. Like McCarthy’s frontier, the Lithuanian forest is an environment strangely representative of both life and myth, both the historically factual and the imaginative.

Šlepikas and McCarthy also stand in proximity through their depiction of youthful protagonists who must make sense of their world without necessarily questioning it. In reading Šlepikas, I was thrown back to the introduction of “the kid” in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985): “He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.” All history present in that visage, as if the harsh ways of the new world he is stepping into are somehow already inscribed in him. He bears emblems of violence already past and yet to come. But are these emblems the results of war or the products of a challenging youth? Is youth ever anything but a battle of some kind? Šlepikas’ children embark on journeys that are not necessarily ways of making meaning of their world, but are nevertheless tributes to the children’s existences: penitential, perhaps, but also reminders of the children’s survival — they are here, still. Such is Šlepikas’ skill, like McCarthy’s, that his psychological detachment from his characters does not extend to a disconnection from the world they move through. Rather, the world unavoidably reflects them, so that, in a way, to follow them through it is to follow them into themselves.

But lest this make it sound as if McCarthy and Šlepikas are realist writers of sorts, the McCarthy novel I was most reminded of while reading Šlepikas was one from his more romantic mode. In All the Pretty Horses (1992), John Grady Cole is a sixteen-year-old boy who has just found out that the Texas ranch owned by his family for generations has been sold off. Leaving for Mexico in the company of acquaintances, there’s a moment in a camp where he is “listening to the others breathing at night in their sleep whilst he contemplate[s] the wildness about him, the wildness within.” We might assume that this “wildness” is both “within” John Grady and in equanimity with the external world, but McCarthy’s interior and exterior worlds cannot be so simply delineated. Instead, later, John Grady wonders about nature and its “secrets”:

[H]e thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in the headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

The combination of savagery and the sublime is, for John Grady, a necessity of the hideous circumstances that surround him. The “wildness within” is then an entity tied up in the problem of a young man’s understanding precisely what is “about” him, and, in the face of nature’s “secret” beauties, it is what keeps him committed to searching for a fulfillment which the reader might perceive as somewhat romantic. This is the point at which McCarthy and Šlepikas overlap because, in In the Shadow of Wolves, the children’s reality appears to be coequal with “the beauty of the world” as John Grady’s is.

Of course I don’t mean “the world” of the Second World War with all its horrors, but rather the way that Šlepikas constructs the fictional environments the children enter. If, as Freud has it, truth is the kernel of the dream that serves to conceal itself while also making itself apparent, the “wildness within” operates in much the same way: in Šlepikas’ depictions of death, for example — or should this be non-death? Šlepikas’ characters, wandering their war-torn landscape, often stumble upon corpses — corpses that are not decomposing or disappearing but instead locked into this wintery world in a kind of stasis. Their appearance raises the feeling, which is perhaps implicit in the knowledge that East Prussia is soon to be overtaken, of transformation promising itself but not actually occurring. Again, though, the corpses appear only as images witnessed dispassionately without being questioned. With Renate’s compulsion to always return home, even when she finds that her family has been relocated by the Russians, Šlepikas allows us to follow her right to the emotional end. Yet this compulsion for home is partly conjoined with both fairytale imagery and the deathly imagery that litters Renate’s journey:

Renate thought they were in a strange dream, perhaps in another world altogether, like the girl who went underground and met someone in a top hat and a hare playing chess. There was some way to go from the pastor’s old house to their woodshed, and night had finally caught up with them. It was difficult to tell a wooden post or broken-down vehicle from a living person, but the children hurried on. They knew their town perfectly, even the way it was now, with the buildings that had collapsed, burnt down or been destroyed.

Is the “wildness within” here some kind of truth that conceals itself, at once recognisable but then not? Or is it persuasion, an idea of home? Clearly there’s a reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865),but when this kingdom is so barren and devoid of the usual rules of reality, it’s questionable as to whether it can still represent that which is home — Alice, after all, never feels further from home than when she is at home. The “wildness within” isn’t a romantic secret about the world that needs to be unlocked in Šlepikas’ novel; it’s instead something known, something familiar but also incredibly alienating, that keeps Šlepikas’ characters stuck in their visions of the world they’d like to escape. To read In the Shadow of Wolves is therefore not only to read about an uncovered aspect of a history we think we know all too well by now — and that many writers have trodden before — but also to read into a part of ourselves that appears to us only in the extraordinary circumstances in which Šlepikas’ characters must confront who, and what, they are.