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Fiction General

Woman in Bronze

by (author) Antanas Sileika

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Jun 2005
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2005
    List Price

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Out of print

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Tomas Stumbras grew up in war-torn Eastern Europe: a dark, rainy land of misty hills and valleys, where the whispers of the ancient gods and devils are still heard by ordinary people. He is a god-maker, a sculptor with a gift for turning dead wood into protective saints for use in prayer. But it's 1917 and even remote Lithuania feels the transforming effects of World War I. Caught between the destruction around him and his own drive to create, Tomas must abandon the stability of home and family and strike out on his own.

Tomas moves from his thatched wooden farmhouse to the vibrant streets and artistic community of Paris in the Roaring Twenties, where temptation and jealous are right around the corner from brilliance, beauty and fame. Working as a carpenter in the Folies Bergere, he encounters the dance sensation Josephine Baker and falls for a lovely chorus girl. But even when he finally achieves his dream and becomes an artist, he discovers that success demands sacrifice. Even when you find art and love, infamy and betrayal aren't far behind.

Epic in scope and beautifully evocative of time and place, Woman in Bronze reveals a life lived in extremes. It tells a story of love found and lost, creative endeavour and the price of celebrity and stardom.

Excerpt from Woman in Bronze
Easterners flooded into Paris, and it hummed with Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Romanian, and many other languages among the porters and labourers. Tomas also saw many English and Americans, always rich, usually laughing, and often drunk. Waves were washing over the city from all ends of the world, churning into a froth in which even a talented person could drown.

About the author

Antanas Sileika is a Canadian author of five previous books of fiction as well as a memoir. Working as a Canadian journalist of Lithuanian descent, he became involved with the movement to restore Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union. His collection of short stories, Buying on Time, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and the Toronto Book Award and long-listed for CBC’s Canada Reads in 2016. His books have repeatedly received starred reviews from Quill & Quire and been listed as among the one hundred best books of the year in the Globe and Mail. He has reviewed books for print, radio, and television and he served as the director of the Humber School for Writers until retiring in 2017. He currently lives in Toronto, ON.

Antanas Sileika's profile page

Excerpt: Woman in Bronze (by (author) Antanas Sileika)

The Battle of art is very much like war. All fame goes to the leaders, while the rank and file share the reward of a few lines in the order of the day; and the soldiers who die in the field are buried where they lie – one epitaph must do duty for a score of thousands.
–Henri Murger, The Latin Quarter

Part One
The Seasons

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
–John Donne, “The Sun Rising”

The Rainy Land

Foreigners called the land by many different names, but in their own language, the local people called it the rainy land, as if they still remembered some sunnier country their ancestors had come from. Mists and showers were more common than clear days, and massive thunderheads rolled across the low green hills and valleys from spring until fall. The ancient gods were still very close to ordinary people in this part of Europe. Lightning strikes were so frequent that the old people placed prayer books or crucifixes on the windowsills to protect themselves, or fell to their knees to say the rosary if they were caught outside in a tempest. 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 green and rainy country was one of the great forests of Europe. In the deep wild woods, the last aurochs lingered and wood bison snorted and huffed among the giant oaks and thorny undergrowth of the forest floor. The grand dukes and grafs and great landowners rode out from their dvars, hunting among the moss-covered fallen trunks and peat bogs for game that had disappeared from the rest of Europe hundreds of years before. Half-wild woodland people cultivated small clearings in the forests where they planted tiny fields of rye and flax and dried the skins of beaver, fox and marten. Somewhere in this forest lay a line beyond which the animals ruled, the wood bison and the bear, the wolf and the polecat, the boar and the stag, and if the hunter stumbled beyond this line, he might be ripped apart or trampled by the true citizens of the forest.

Time moved more slowly in the rainy land, whose people had been the last in Europe to accept Christianity. They had done so cleverly, with a sort of peasant cunning, to throw off the invading crusaders who were intent on building a Northern Jerusalem. The inhabitants took on Catholicism and clutched it to their breasts like stolen treasure. But the Christian saints and martyrs joined, rather than displaced, the old gods of sun and thunder. The woods and the fields remained full of demigods, and also full of devils.

For a time in the Middle Ages, the people of the rainy land had reared up like angry beasts to charge to the Black Sea in the East and to crush the Teutonic Knights in the West. Eventually they joined with Poland to form a great eastern union, the terror of Moscow. But over the centuries, the rainy land seemed to melt into Poland, and in time, Poland itself began to diminish, too, as it was nibbled by Prussia, Austria and Russia. Finally, Empress Catherine took one last bite, and Poland disappeared. The rainy land became a remote czarist province.

The rainy land slumbered, forgotten by everyone in the West except Baron Munchausen, whose adventures there nobody would believe, although the locals would have found nothing extraordinary in anything he said. The place stirred as Napoleon marched through twice, but his passage changed nothing. Then came brief flames of revolt in the nineteenth century, after which the countryside was covered with gibbets, reminders of the futility of resistance. The forests filled with fleeing rebels who died there or adapted to the woods to become new forest folk, feral after decades in the wilderness.

One such man, a rebel of 1831 named Stumbras, came out of the forest years later and bought the land for his farm with money of uncertain origin. He stank of the swamp, and may well have been part woodland monster. If he was a monster, he was a shrewd one. The thirty hectares he bought were fertile, and the ancient town of Merdine was conveniently close by if one needed to obtain some product of civilization, such as lamp oil or matches. Once Merdine had been a fortified city, a bulwark against the crusaders, then a provincial market, and finally, in Stumbras’s time, a crumbling country town that was shrinking into a village.

While surges of momentum prevailed in the West, where railways and factories sprang up, the law of inertia endured in the East. The Stumbras sons and grandsons prospered modestly generation after generation, innovating slowly, adding a chimney to the house to replace the primitive hole in the thatched roof, and adopting the long-handled scythe to replace the short one.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the village of Merdine gave little sign of its ancient prominence except for the church and the empty cellars of a ruined fortress on the hill. The village was made up of fewer than two hundred wooden houses of squared timbers, huddling close to the narrow sandy roads. It did not even have a proper main street, just a collection of twisting alleys. The heart of a very old town remained, but all of its outlying houses had been lost to the encroaching fields and orchards. The local manor house stood beyond the village, a fine building of yellow brick and fanciful turrets, inhabited by Graf Momburg, the descendant of a German who had done favours for a friend of the czar. The estate had seen better times. Most of its fields had been sold off to enterprising peasants, and the raging old graf was busy drinking up what remained.

The only vestige of glory in Merdine was the church just down from the remains of the old fortress. The town wags claimed Merdine was the safest place in the world to commit adultery because the couples could perform the sin in the castle ruins and then roll down the hill to say confession in the church below. Barring a lightning strike on the way down, they could have their earthly pleasures and their divine ones as well.

Napoleon himself may once have remarked on the beauty of the Renaissance church, but the place had been remodelled twice since he’d passed through. White plaster had been laid over the brickwork, but it never held very well, and came off in patches the size of a woman’s palm. Green moss grew up the walls on the cemetery side, and smelled strongly of urine. No clerical interdiction seemed able to control the bladders of the town drunks, with the exception of the most prominent drunk among them, Graf Momburg, the German, who felt that as a Lutheran he shouldn’t piss on a Catholic church.

Editorial Reviews

“Bravo, Sileika, for capturing this struggle for artistic integrity in a compelling and highly readable novel.”
Edmonton Journal

“At turns magical, funny, sad and powerful, it explores the unexpected results of artistic ambition and envy.”
Quill & Quire (starred review)

“The novel, written in a deceptively easy prose, is superbly told, and Sileika is a keen dramatist.”
The Globe and Mail

“Fuses rich storytelling with a palate of mixed historical and fictional characters that results in a book dripping in both its sights and sounds as well as the intricacies between the character’s relationships. Antanas Sileika carves a superb tale of one man’s drive through continuous obstacles of heartbreaking struggles and emotional triumphs, taking the reader along for the memorable ride.”
Calgary Herald

“A jazz-age La Bohème with a plot featuring the usual operatic subjects: illicit passions, jealous rages, tumultuous crowd scenes, tormented artists, dramatic reversals of fortune and lots of dead bodies. The lights, the promise, the debauchery and the virile young talent so essential to Paris in the ’20s are all on display…. Its evocation of a bygone era, the story’s tragic sweep, and the kind of high romanticism that sees the hero turn away from his moment of triumph — have a grandiosity and pathos any verismo composer would love.”
The Vancouver Sun

"What makes one artist rise to the top and not another? Antanas Sileika has written a tender, clear-eyed fable about the unknown artist in each of us."
—Susan Swan

Praise for Buying on Time:
“A moving and entertaining collection. . . . Sileika handles the stories with a deft touch.”
Quill & Quire

“The book welds humour, tragedy and personal embarrassments in a colourful and memorable way.”
The Globe and Mail

“I can’t imagine what sort of disagreeable person would not enjoy this collection. The stories are funny, discerning, sharply observed and unobtrusively well-written.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

Praise for Dinner at the End of the World:
“A thought-provoking first novel, unflinchingly funny, complex and delightfully unconventional.”
—Diane Schoemperlen, The Globe and Mail

“The stories in this novel are wonderfully written, superbly told, full of passion and pathos and moral purpose.”
—Wayne Grady, Toronto Star

Other titles by Antanas Sileika