Stephan Collishaw: How the brutalised become brutal in their turn

Morality, war crimes and British xenophobia: novelist Stephan Collishaw talks to James Urquhart
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The Independent Culture

While writing his second novel, which tackles the 1980s Soviet military offensives in Afghanistan, Stephan Collishaw saw the twin towers collapse. Yet it was not America's subsequent invasion of Afghanistan that uncannily reflected the themes in his work, but the later conflict in Iraq. "I was watching the news while redrafting Amber and an American soldier was parroting just what the Soviet propagandists had promised 20 years previously in Afghanistan: that they were there to do good, the people welcomed them, foreign insurgents were causing the instabilities." The insurgents fighting the Soviets were the mujahedin, armed by the US with Stinger missiles. How the world revolves!

While writing his second novel, which tackles the 1980s Soviet military offensives in Afghanistan, Stephan Collishaw saw the twin towers collapse. Yet it was not America's subsequent invasion of Afghanistan that uncannily reflected the themes in his work, but the later conflict in Iraq. "I was watching the news while redrafting Amber and an American soldier was parroting just what the Soviet propagandists had promised 20 years previously in Afghanistan: that they were there to do good, the people welcomed them, foreign insurgents were causing the instabilities." The insurgents fighting the Soviets were the mujahedin, armed by the US with Stinger missiles. How the world revolves!

Set mostly in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, and Jalalabad on the Pakistani border, Amber follows the conscript Antanas in his reluctant hunt for a looted amber bracelet that his friend Vassily smuggled out of the war zone. This pursuit is made harder by Antanas's horror of stirring up any of his deliberately suppressed memories of the combat's betrayals and vicious losses. The urgent tempo is in keeping with the broken health of its traumatised main characters.

"I wanted to stress the effect of brutality, and how the brutalised become brutalisers in turn," Stephan explained when I met him in the incongruously serene setting of a country hotel. Stephan didn't visit Afghanistan during his research but got plenty of evidence in Vilnius; he met his wife Marija there in 1995 and frequently returns to visit family and friends. Marija's brother Almas, hospitalised within a month of conscription by bullying within the Soviet army, is still severely disabled. "Soviet soldiers went to Afghanistan with the best of intentions. They built hospitals and schools and opened up opportunities for women. But once you get sucked into routine brutality, for which the Soviet army was notorious, any noble intentions become worthless."

There are parallels between this failure of integrity in Amber and Collishaw's debut, The Last Girl, in which an old man tries to atone for his moral cowardice from 50 years earlier, when he abandoned his Jewish childhood love to the ghetto. Both books are fuelled by vodka, cigarettes, regret and the haunting legacy of war, but Stephan admits to "over-intellectualising" his first venture into print. He wanted Steponas, the central character, to be anguished about his actions under Nazi occupation, but also to be a metaphor for wider Lithuanian denial.

"I spent a lot of time exploring the rather seedy ghetto area when I first moved to Vilnius. The Jewish school had been derelict since World War Two. Nothing had changed, but the community that it served had vanished. World Heritage funding was beginning to renovate the area, but I think Lithuanians have never fully come to terms with what happened to the Jews. It seemed to me that they were plastering over their history with plaques for tourists."

Despite this conviction, he is reluctant to judge. "The South African process of truth and reconciliation is a great beacon. At the end of my novels I hesitate to come down in judgement because I cannot see what good it will do. I see no benefit to humanity in prosecuting sick old men accused of war crimes, but I do think that a telling of the truth would be useful. I struggle towards a moral view of how Lithuania ought to behave now, and I find myself incapable of achieving it."

We were becoming sombre, despite the beer and the magnificent sunset. I wondered, given the turbulence of Lithuania's postwar history (including a bitter partisan war against Stalin in the 1950s), whether last month's accession to the EU would herald a period of international stability for the country?

"Certainly," Stephan brightened, "and especially for my family, who up until now have been treated on a two-tier system." His Lithuanian wife had encountered terrible visa difficulties when they had moved briefly to work in Spain before migrating to Stephan's native Nottingham. He has first-hand experience of migrant work and is disgusted by British xenophobia concerning European workers. Stephan wrily reminds me of Lord Tebbit's infamous promotion of cycling. "Why should it be acceptable for the British to go out and look for work, but not for other nationals?"

Even Lord Tebbit would have to be impressed by Stephan's industrious migration from a working-class background, through a spectacularly failed comprehensive education, night school, a degree and planned doctorate before settling to a dual career of writing and teaching. Sacked as a trainee accountant for spending too much time in the toilets reading Jane Austen, he went on to study English and History at Goldsmith's in 1989 and had "a fabulous time", hanging around with his brother Mat Collishaw, who was in the same cohort as Damien Hirst. Trusting Mat's opinion as an established artist, Stephan gave him the only copy of his first manuscript which, Stephan is convinced, he promptly left on his London train. "But it was a crap novel," he adds.

"We're all moral cowards," is his final comment. "Our situation is the same today. We see what is happening on TV but choose to switch it off and go down the pub and get on with our lives." No wonder he is reluctant to judge his characters.

To order a copy of 'Amber' (Sceptre £17.99) for £16.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or post your order to: Independent Books Direct, PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP

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