There is a valley tucked away deep between the hooded hills of Lithuania beside an olden river called the Issa where devils live. Devils of the past, of mistakes and errors and a violence not uncommon to village men and tragedy not unknown to the women in that misty place between superstition and faith, between the hard lines cold and secure of Christianity and the dark fog of paganism old but still reassuring when the new forms are tried and found wanting.
This place is the Issa Valley, about which Czeslaw Milosz writes one of his two novels (for Milosz is, of course, a poet). The novel speaks somehow to the auto-biographical, for the Issa does not exist – but might be the real-life Nevezis River where Milosz spent his own childhood. The novel churns with life and with a poet’s love of imagery and of the power of words to find in each of us what ails us and that for which we yearn to both at once extirpate and complete.
The Issa Valley is so extraordinary because there is nothing special or grand about it. The backdrop is not set against great wars or epic deprivation; the story is not one of struggle against the odds or valor unto heroism. It is the story of Thomas, a boy growing up in a lost corner of the Soviet Union, along a river shadowed by the east. A story about the mistress of a village priest who finds only one final solution as a response to her sin; about a madman whose violence is not uncommon; and about jealousy and rage and the simple needs of peasantry which is also somehow poetic because it is human – and we are all human after all.
The Issa Valley is a coming of age story which reminds us of where we came from, we who are so often busy and have the cacophony of modern life ringing in our ears and chasing away the quiet of the valleys and dales from which we also originate and which we would do well to remember, if only we could find the courage.