Woman in Bronze

by Antanas Sileika
ISBN: 0679311424

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A Review of: Woman in Bronze
by Nancy Wigston

Toronto novelist Antanas Sileika infuses everything he creates with an intelligent, human touch that makes his writing a pleasure to read. His last short story collection, Buying on Time, gave us a wondering kid's eye view of the strange ways of his immigrant parents-especially his tough father-in straight-laced 1950s Wasp Toronto. This time around, Sileika eschews his clash-of-the-cultures approach for a more sweeping historical panorama that traces the path of one man, artist Tomas Stumbras, as he makes his way from his family farm in Lithuania to 1920s Paris and eventually to Canada. While offering answers to questions about how, and why, this person chose movement over rootedness, Woman in Bronze's wide-angle view doesn't leave much room for the laugh-out-loud comedy of Buying on Time-a book that earned Sileika a Leacock Award nomination.
That being said, Sileika skillfully portrays one man's remarkable progress, through sheer will and luck, in spite of what could easily have been overwhelming historical forces, thus answering the very questions that hung in the air in his previous novel. How did they do it, these ancestors of ours? Who were they before they arrived here as men and women with funny accents and pasts they preferred not to speak about? In his early chapters Sileika draws an indelible portrait of "The Rainy Land", the dark landscape that forged the Lithuanian character. Tomas, one of the younger brothers in a large farming family, who live outside the old town of Merdine, possesses not only an acute eye for his surroundings but also a natural talent as a "god-maker," a carver of the wooden statues of saints popular with locals. As one of the last peoples to convert to Christianity, "the ancient gods were still very close to ordinary people."
Lithuanians, a "forest people," practice a version of Catholicism that is mixed with a great deal of superstition. "The rosary was no guarantee of safety. If you were struck by lightning and could still move, you were to heap earth over your chest so it could pull the electricity out of your body. The trick did not work if you were already dead." This folkloric tone marks Sileika's early chapters with gentle, albeit doom-laden humour. Tomas's grandmother, Kotryna, sees a small devil lurking in her large oven, the very creature she saw years ago as a young bride. "Too gentle for his own good," Tomas is suffering from his "hard" father's act: he has smashed all of Tomas's statues. Against her best instincts, and on a Sunday, she reads the cards for her teenaged grandson and sees his fortune: "a ladykillerwho will travel, but never in comfort." Later that afternoon Grandmother Kotryna is discovered, burnt to a crisp in her own massive clay oven. Fifteen-year-old Tomas does not assume any responsibility for this somewhat farcical death, although he had walked out in a temper when she refused to reveal all that she saw in store for him, leaving her vulnerable to the noxious demon.
In this episode Sileika establishes the nascent outsider status of his discontented hero. Attractive to virtually every woman on earth, Tomas remains an observer, not only in his own family, but ever afterwards, wherever his adventures take him. After the death-by-goblin suffered by Kotryna, Sileika shuts one stylistic door-on folklore-and opens another, showing how raging 20th century politics affected the villages and countryside in the Rainy Land. Shockwaves from cataclysmic events in Russia and in Europe roll into distant Lithuania; nationalists, communists, and armed renegades arrive to disrupt rural life to a new and disturbing degree.
The local "Graf", a remnant of the German ruling elite who'd treated the country as a German fiefdom, arrives one night, very drunk, at the Stumbras farm. Before dawn he is dead, along with two roving soldiers who had come to the snow trench Tomas's elder brothers had built. All the brothers are involved in the deaths, and the dramatic, snow- and cold-drenched scene reads as if it has basis in historical fact. When, before long, new tragedy arrives with the pregnancy-and subsequent death by brutal abortion-of a servant girl who is carrying Tomas's child, the Rainy Land fairy tale comes to an end. Tomas flees the ensuing village scandal, his brothers supplying him with enough money to help him on his way-contrary, he notes, to the tales in which the elder brothers rob the younger of his patrimony. Wandering in a dark swamp, Tomas passes a test, like the good apprentice he is, and in an episode redolent with myth, escapes capture and murder by Polish troops, by proving his artistic mettle to their commander. Next he lands in a Warsaw church factory workshop. None too soon, Tomas arrives in Paris and greets the modern world.
In these chapters, which form the centrepiece of the novel, Sileika delivers a series of portraits of artistic Paris in the 1920s. Picked up by the slim and intriguing Jenny, a dancer at the Folies Bergeres, Tomas lands a job as a carpenter at the famous revue, just when his last funds are running out. Here he meets Josephine Baker, the electric performer from America who had all of Paris mesmerized. By now we are used to Sileika's fictional rhythms. He mixes the improbable but delightful-in this case Tomas's white-knight rescue of Josephine Baker from a stage contraption that threatens her life-with the brutally real. On the one hand there is the fairy tale-the "Woman in Bronze" of his title-who is Baker initially, and who, eventually, through dint of hard work and many disappointments, becomes the bronze tribute to Jenny that is Tomas's first masterwork after years of study. On the other hand, there are the brutish realities behind even the sheen of life in 1920s Paris: the corrosive ambition that destroys the friendships Tomas makes with fellow struggling artists, and the corruption in Paris itself, equal to anything he left behind in Lithuania. A fitting symbol of the moral stink Tomas confronts-too late-are the cesspits hidden beneath the beautiful old streets where Alphonse, a nave and doomed fellow Lithuanian toils by night, in order to fund his studies as a lithographer by day. The magic number of three deaths occur before Tomas must flee Paris as he did his home in Lithuania.
Narrowly escaping European violence and corruption for the last time, Tomas at last reaches Canada, a land "too vast to be encompassed by a single appellation." Once, in Paris, when he was a young man ruled by artistic ambition, "He saw only [his homeland's] terrible backwardness and longed to escape from it to another, more luminous country." Years later, even when he briefly finds the luminosity he seeks in Paris, he discovers he cannot wholly escape Lithuania, which has entered his soul. "Paris was a kind of mould into which he had been pouredand it made him into a new man." But when he looks back on the loss of his youthful love, he is filled "with melancholy, the dominant emotion of the land he had come from." This melancholy will never wholly leave him, and in his new home-which suddenly shines with the kind of good fortune Sileika has bestowed on this wanderer more than once-strangers will doubtless ponder his background, and wonder about the places he's been that he refuses to talk about.

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