In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Šlepikas

Oneworld Publications, May 2019, 197 pp

Oneworld Publications, May 2019, 197 pp

In the author‘s note, Alvydas Šlepikas explains how his novel In the Shadow of Wolves, translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka, came to be:

The film director Jonas Marcinkevicius, who is no longer with us, suggested in around 1996 that we should make a documentary about the German children who had gone to Lithuania after the Second World War in an attempt to survive. It was then that I heard the German word Wolfskinder, ‘wolf-children’, for the first time. It wasn’t surprising that no one knew of the suffering those children had endured; even the Germans themselves knew very little about it.

Although the film never came into existence due to the lack of funding, several people contacted Šlepikas regarding the wolf children:

I got to know a woman who had also come to Lithuania after the war to look for a way to survive. […] Her first name was Renate. Renate told me about her experiences in the postwar years, about the people who had given her shelter. I found out many of the exact details surrounding those events, which may seem of little importance, but are in fact very important, in order to convey a sense of the horror and dreadful despair of those days.

Later, when the novel was finished, the real-life Renate refused to comment on the topic anymore.  In the Shadow of Wolves, then, is as a fictionalized narrative of a period of history not often discussed. Šlepikas invents – or recounts? – a grim historical narrative of hunger and survival set in the dead of winter, and explores the postwar relations between citizens of Germany, East Prussia (Kaliningrad), Lithuania, and the USSR mainly through a cast of displaced German children, whose fight for survival the novel depicts in uncomfortable but important detail.

Interestingly, the document-turned-into-novel aspect of In the Shadow of Wolves reminds me of a similar project conducted far away from postwar Europe: Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. In Luiselli’s narrative, as in Šlepikas’, we follow unidentified and unwelcomed children, children analogous to lice and flea, as some of the Soviet people remark in Šlepikas’ novel. For them, Germany equals Nazism, obviously due to the very fresh memories of war. Šlepikas explores the liminal space these lost children inhabit, their struggle from one place to another in search of food and shelter.

It is chiefly a disturbing narrative, even violent, but it is balanced with instances of kindness. It is hard not to root for these characters, and the novel is progressively more difficult to put down. While you could accuse the author of the kind of sentimentalism that is quite common in child-focalized narratives, I ultimately found it a rewarding read, and not only because of the author’s command of cinematic storytelling: the overlooked subject matter makes it all the more compelling. The English title of the novel, albeit a little melodramatic, fittingly captures the long shadow of shame cast over the wolf children and their descendants living today. I assume the real-life Renate, who no longer wanted to relate anything, is a case in point.