M J Neary Interviews Antanas from The Gate of Dawn
Antanas is an important supporting character in The Gate of Dawn, a historical novel set in 1880s Lithuania under Czar Alexander IIII. Everything about Antanas, from his physique to his birth story, is loaded with political and cultural symbolism. Born in a misty remote rural estate called Raven’s Bog to a tyrannical Polish landlord and a Lithuanian serf girl, Antanas is a product of violence and exploitation. Even though his early childhood coincided with the abolition of serfdom in the Russian Empire, the new decree did not spell immediate liberation and promise of a better life for the child. The newly liberated serfs had no skills to survive outside of the familiar system, however abusive it was. For many of them, the exploitation continued for years after serfdom was officially abolished.
A stubborn and willful child, Antanas endured harsh physical punishment. His natural father also had a legitimate heir, a tenderhearted boy named Thaddeus, only a few years older than Antanas. Thaddeus is timid, impractical, apologetic and inclined to alcoholism. After inheriting the state, Thaddeus insists on working side by side with his workers, yet he is not very good with his hands and prone to accidents. On another hand, his half-brother Antanas is a very skilled worker. There is no task on the farm he cannot handle, but his favorite place on earth is his smithy. He is referred to as a Baltic Hephaestus while working the forge. Antanas is calm, disciplined and sober.
Even though Thaddeus views himself as a benevolent protector of his people, Antanas is the one who looks after Thaddeus. There is no animosity between the half-brothers. After decades of tyranny under the previous owner, life at Raven’s Bog is peaceful and bucolic – despite the repeat crop failures, infant mortality and money shortage. Then, out of the blue, comes a miraculous solution to their ongoing financial problems: Thaddeus marries a fifteen year old German heiress whose father died a gruesome death in a factory fire. At last, the debts can be paid. The farm is no longer at risk for being repossessed by the Czar’s officials. But there is a price to pay. The new mistress of the house is arrogant and condescending. She looks down on Polish and Lithuanian customs and rejects Thaddeus’ democratic views. Her arrival upsets the familiar flow of life. For the first time in his life, Antanas feels his heart fill with hatred – the kind of hatred he did not even feel for his biological father. How much longer will Antanas tolerate this high-born intruder?
MJN: Forgive me, Antanas, I do not have any vodka or moonshine for you.
AD: (grimly) I don’t drink with strangers or Czarists – those who use Cyrillic alphabet. I’m headin’ to the smithy after this, and I don’t drink before work – unlike my master. His fondness for the bottle nearly cost him his hand. He nearly sawed right through it!
MJN: Master Thaddeus Dombrowski is not just your landlord. You share a blood tie.
AD: That’s right. We were fathered by the same man – the same brute, to be precise. Thaddeus’ mother was a Polish noblewoman, the lady of the manor. And my mother was a Lithuanian peasant girl. I had no more rights than any other serf born at Raven’s Bog. I have scars from the whip to prove it. You should see my back. It looks like upturned soil after a plough.
MJN: But your half-brother Thaddeus treated you with compassion. He always tried to relieve your suffering.
AD: It did him no good. One time, as I was standin’ tied to the fence after a lashin’, he gave me water. Before long, he was right there next to me, blood oozin’ out of his own back. Our father was quick with the whip. He thought nothing of whippin’ his lawful son.
MJN: Wasn’t serfdom abolished by then?
AD: (laughs grimly) Freedom didn’t come to Raven’s Bog overnight.
MJN: What happened after the death of your father?
AD: Master Dombrowski took over the estate. We were free to go to the city. There was nothing tyin’ us down to Raven’s Bog except for some horrid memories. Yet we stayed. Out of loyalty to the young master. He had no idea how to work the land. He would’ve starved to death.
MJN: Your land is breathtakingly beautiful.
AD: That it is – on the surface. An artist’s paradise and a farmer’s hell. But it won’t yield its gifts to just anyone. Neither Poles nor Russians can grow anything on it. To converse with the Baltic soil, you must trace your roots to that soil. You have to cajole it, bargain with it, to sing incantations. We have a song for every job we do. Then, only then will the soil sing back.
MJN: Why do you continue addressing Thaddeus as “master”? Didn’t he give you permission to call him Tadek?
AD: That he did! He gave me permission to do many things. But if I call him Tadek, the rest of the farm hands would’ve started calling him that, and there will be no order. I want the lads to remember that Master Dombrowski is still the lord of the manor, even though he lets us eat the same table.
MJN: Tell me about Master Dombrowski’s first wife.
AD: Lady Jolanta? She was the humblest, kindest woman. Four of her children died at birth. The last one took his mother with him. They’re all buried at the family cemetery. When you see four tiny graves in a row marked with wooden crosses, you’ll know those are the Dombrowski children.
MJN: And what did your master do after the death of his first wife?
AD: He married that German child bride, whose father – a textile magnate, no less – died in a fire. It’s a relief for the master to have the money to pay off the debts, no doubt.
MJN: Did you know that Lady Renate drew a sketch of you in your smithy? She saw you as some sort of Baltic deity.
AD: The haughty German witch had nothing better to do than prowl around the estate, pokin’ her nose where it doesn’t belong. She despised our customs.
MJN: Master Dombrowski started building a church on his property, so his people would not need to travel far to go to mass.
AD: He hasn’t had much luck so far. He’s building a Christian temple on pagan soil. The old gods keep resistin’. They are the true rulers of this land.
A self-centered, only child of classical musicians, Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the US at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town. Notorious for her abrasive personality and politically incorrect views that make her a persona non grata in most polite circles, Neary explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.
Her debut thriller Wynfield’s Kingdom was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. After writing a series of novels dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict, she takes a break from the slums of London and the gunpowder-filled streets of Dublin to delve into the picturesque radioactive swamps of her native Belarus. Saved by the Bang: a Nuclear Comedy is a deliciously offensive autobiographical satire featuring sex scandals of Eastern Europe’s artistic elite in the face of political upheavals. Her latest Penmore release, The Gate of Dawn is a folkloric tale of conspiracy and revenge set in czarist Lithuania.
Note from the author:
The novel is based on real events that took place in the region of Dainava – currently Northeast Lithuania, the land of the author’s paternal ancestors. The novel transpired as result of many trips to the family estate and conversations with her biological father.
Below all text, you will find a photo gallery of the area in which The Gate of Dawn is set. Lithuania is a beautiful, historic country! Enjoy!
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Further on, you will find images of the area in which The Gate of Dawn is set.
The Gate of Dawn (Lithuanian: Aušros Vartai, Polish: Ostra Brama, Belarusian: Вострая Брама) is a city gate of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and one of the most important religious, historical and cultural monuments.
It was built between 1503 and 1522 as a part of defensive fortifications for the city of Vilnius, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It has also been known as the Medininkai Gate, as it led to the village Medininkai south of Vilnius as well as Aštra broma, which derivative for the Lithuanian language wordaštra meaning sharp. Of the nine city gates, only the Gate of Dawn remains, while the others were destroyed by the order of the government at the end of the 18th century.
Some historical Lithuanian villages have been left “intact” as historical landmarks. The village images are much as the author’s family village would have looked. There are some shots of the bog outside the author’s family house.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gate_of_Dawn. Retrieved August 28, 2016.
Additional comments from the author:
[This is] what Raven’s Bog really looked like. And there are some landmark cathedrals and churches referenced in the novel, like St. Anne’s, St. Peter & Paul’s, and obviously, the iconic The Gate of Dawn “Ausros Vartai”. That’s where everything starts. On Castle Street, fifteen year old Renate meets a young Jewish painter. Remember: it’s NOT a Lithuanian novel without a handsome Jewish painter. It just isn’t. A few German businessmen. A few Russian officials. A few Polish landlords. And a few Lithuanian peasants.
The following photos are of a preserved historic village.