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Saulius Šaltenis: Kalės vaikai (Bees on the Snow)

I suppose the title is a good place to begin. The English title is quite a good one, once you know what it refers to. The book is allegedly set in eighteenth century Lithuania. It seems that there are clues to this which would be apparent to Lithuanians but less apparent to non-Lithuanians. During that period, according to the excellent introduction by Daiva Litvinskaitė of the University of Illinois, the Lithuanians suffered the Germanisation of a Lithuanian country, the plague sweeping through, the figure of a ruling king, and attacks by Russian soldiers. These issues all appear in the book.

One of the key events is the Germanisation as we shall see. One event involves the bees owned by one character, which are stolen by masked bandits,leading to this comment: Lord, what are we, after all? Drab Lithuanian-bred bees… Strangers plundered our honey; strangers threw us out on the snow. Of course, while this is a reference to the Germans, Šaltenis was writing this novel while Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union, and therefore under Soviet occupation. The analogy will not have been lost on Lithuanian readers.

However, as I said the English title is a good one but it is far from a translation of the Lithuanian one, Kalės vaikai. This means Sons of a Bitch which presumably was not considered suitable for the English-language title. It has multiple meanings as well as the obvious ones, referring to the past and present occupiers. All is also explained in the introduction. In particular, one scene stands out. The Naktinis family owned the tavern. Then the German family, the Grabė family, decided they wanted it and, by legal trickery, obtained it. The Naktinis were thrown out. When the Grabė family came to take possession, the Naktinis family meekly moved out. However, their dog, the bitch Ausa, was no respecter of the law and she attacked. She was severely beaten. However, with her dying breath, she sunk her teeth into Mr Grabė’s ankle, causing him much pain. Interestingly, his son was born with a similar wound on his ankle.

The key character is Pastor Kristijonas who dies early on in the book. He had got lost on Christmas night and was discovered with his animals, squeezed in behind the manger and resting quietly. The Bishop sent his emissaries to investigate. Mr. Kristijonas laughed at those serious gentlemen: he closed his eyes and passed away.

The book tells the story of the people of the village, including Pastor Kristijonas, his wife, Mistress Marija, the bell-ringer Karvelis, Fingerless Limba, who is both teacher and undertaker, and Lotė the Betrothed and her misbegotten child Jonelis.

Lotė was the owner of Ausa, the dog mentioned above and the only survivor of the Naktinis family, apart from her son. Her brothers were beaten and died. Her parents died. She was a drunk, deeply moved when the Pastor whispered that her son Jonelis would grow up to be a bishop. She was also highly skilled at needlework and produced some beautiful work. Because of her situation she was somewhat free with her affections.

One day, the young squire Šmitas came across Lotė and seemingly raped her, though it is not entirely clear that he did. Her screams attracted Karvelis, who was then a herdboy. Šmitas was the son of the old squire. Old Šmitas was small and preferred larger women. His wife, known as Stinkette, was indeed large and got larger. They had the one son. Rumours of their son’s misbehaviour led to Karvelis being bribed with land and money, which he eagerly accepted. An unfortunate vagrant was wandering round the village at the time and Karvelis is happy to identify the poor vagrant as the culprit and exonerate the young squire The poor vagrant pays the price, though Karvelis does feel guilty for the rest of his life.

However, sometime later – and not necessarily because of the attack – Lotė produces a son, Jonelis. She is now known as Lotė the Betrothed but never marries. The young squire will, in later life try to insist he was the father. Lotė neither confirms or denies this. We do know that she has an unhappy life though Pastor Kristijonas takes to her and tries to help and her needlework is admired.

The book is full of similar stories which cleverly intertwine with others. Why is Limba fingerless? There are various rumours, including one which sees him caught by the invading Russians at the end of the war. He is writing and when asked what he is writing, he told them that he was recording all of their brutality, scoundrels and bloodsuckers that they were, even though the skins of a thousand bullocks wouldn’t be enough for that. They tore up his writings and cut off his fingers.

As with many of the stories in this took, there is another version. He had been put in charge of Bergas’ paper mill during the war. Bergas owned the local shop and, by local standards, was rich. Fearing the invading armies, he hid all his valuables under the wood in the paper mill. One day, Limba received a visit from the two nieces of Bergas and a drunken orgy ensured, which resulted in a fire, burning the wood and the valuables. Bergas, when he reappears, pretends not to be annoyed but has his revenge on both Limba and his nieces. Of course, this story may not be true either.

In short, the book is full of similar, colourful stories, featuring the various villagers. However, the focus is on Pastor Kristijonas. He is a good man, stands up for the locals (unlike his successor) and more than once is in trouble with the bishop, despite saving the life of the bishop and others during the war.

The introduction suggests that some of the characters remind us of characters from fairy tales. I am more inclined to think that they remind us of characters from Russian writers like Gogol, though, in many ways, they have more depth than Gogol’s characters. Gogol is aiming at satire in, for example, Dead Souls. Šaltenis certainly mocks some of his characters, particularly the more powerful ones like the Germans, the squire and the bishop and his retinue. However, while not afraid to show their faults and foibles, he clearly has a deep affection for them, whatever their failings. Take Lotė, for example. She is called a slut and clearly has many lovers. However, we have to remember her background – her family kicked out of their tavern and home and all her family dying and she herself a victim of rape. She tries, not always successfully, to be a good mother. She produces beautiful needlework and seems devoted to Pastor Kristijonas. Inded, during the war she saves his papers (for which he is eternally grateful) keeping them hidden in her clothing.

Pastor Kristijonas had an easier upbringing though he nearly died of plague till his mother went to Death and made a deal with him, sacrificing herself and her daughters to save the men of her family. He is a good man. Even as he is dying (or already perhaps dead – the line between life and death is occasionally fluid in this book), he chooses the cheapest coffin for himself to the annoyance of the bishop’s emissaries. He looks after his wife, providing a widow’s house for her in case he predeceases her, which he does. He helps many of the downtrodden, Lotė in particular. But he also has his faults and his weaknesses. He may die but his influence lives on. Hey… hey… Death, where are your teeth? is the closing line of the book.

I though that this was a really first-class novel. It has a host of fascinating characters – I have only scratched the surface with the portraits of the villagers in this review. It tells lots of stories, some of which are clearly untrue. It shows the lives of the Lithuanian peasants of the era and some of the people who rule over them in some detail. Above all, it is never boring as something is always happening , some strange event is taking place, some character is behaving particularly badly or particularly well or, on occasion, both at the same time. One or more of the rich and powerful come a cropper – the bishop’s emissaries falling into a snowy pit is very well-done. It is witty. It is serious. It is storytelling at its best.

Publishing history

First published in 1990 by Vaga
First published in English in 2018 by Pica Pica Press
Translated by Elizabeth Novickas