Patrick Worrall on the Inspiration Behind The Partisan

Posted on 16th June 2022 by Anna Orhanen

In his stunningly crafted debut The Partisan, Patrick Worrall weaves a gripping, multi-layered and thought-provoking tale of espionage and resistance that spans the 1930s through to the Cold War and moves effortlessly across Europe, from Lithuanian forests to London jazz clubs, and from rural Siberia to Moscow's grimy underbelly. In this exclusive piece, the author talks about the inspiration behind the novel and the singular photograph that sparked the story at the heart of The Partisan.

The best decision I ever made was to marry a woman from Lithuania (I highly recommend it, if you get the chance). 
One of the pleasures of falling in love with someone from a different world is that you get to learn about it through them.
I was embarrassingly ignorant about Lithuania before I met my wife. I thought the language was Slavic and assumed that the tiny country's location, squashed between the historical Russian and German empires, meant that it would be a kind of mixture of those two cultures.
In fact, the Lithuanian language is nothing like Russian or Polish. It has preserved more of its ancient features than perhaps any other Indo-European tongue and bears a marked similarity to Sanskrit. 
Samogitia in the west of the country, where my wife grew up, has a fascinating, unique, history. It was the last place in Europe to convert from paganism to Christianity - in 1413, a thousand years after the first British saint was martyred!
These facts tell you something about the Lithuanians. They have a strong sense of their own identity and it is not easily wrested from them, though many have tried. It is the fate of a flat country with no natural barriers to be invaded regularly.
In the 1940s, Lithuania was occupied once by the Nazis and twice by the forces of Stalin. The sustained horror of those years is hard for us to take in now, I think, although it is of course still living memory for many people.
My wife's grandmother told me about her first husband - deported, as so many Lithuanians were, to a Soviet labour camp just after the end of the war. He walked back home from Kazakhstan - a journey of more than 1,000 miles. He knocked on his mother's door, expecting her to fall into his arms. She no longer recognised him.
Every family in the east has a story like that. Some of them would turn your hair white. I wanted to hear them anyway. This was history on a Wagnerian scale, with ordinary people I knew - family, friends and neighbours - caught up in it.
I went to an old fortress on the edge of the city of Kaunas that is now a museum. They had put on a temporary exhibition about partisans who fought in the area. Another moment where you are suddenly acutely aware of your own ignorance.
It turned out that there were many Jews who would not go meekly to their deaths and fled to the forests with stolen German guns instead.
And there were Lithuanians who would not submit to the Soviets after the war - a great many of these, enough to make whole swathes of the countryside ungovernable until the death of Stalin.
I read everything I could about them, these Forest Brothers, as they are called in all three Baltic States. This was the point at which a story that fascinated me but was essentially alien became personal. It intersected with British history. 
London was supposed to be training and supplying the Baltic partisans who resisted Soviet rule in the early '50s. But this was the age of the Cambridge spy ring. British intelligence was riddled with traitors and those brave men and women were betrayed to their deaths by my side.
Among the exhibits in the museum was a black-and-white photograph that hit me like a punch. Three teenage girls, posing with guns they had looted from Hitler's men. It was the expressions on their faces that captivated me. They weren't afraid of anyone. They looked like they were having the time of their lives.
I wanted to write the story of those young women and how it went for them, hiding in the woods and taking pot shots at the Germans. The tale grew in the telling and The Partisan became a bigger book. There is a chess game and a love story and a saga of espionage and revenge that plays out in the early 1960s, when the world was on the brink of nuclear destruction.
At the heart of it is one of the girls in the photograph. I have called her Greta and she represents the spirit of those times. An ordinary person who becomes extraordinary by refusing to give in to tyranny, even when the odds are overwhelming.
People often ask if my wife is the inspiration for that character. Is she a crack shot? A ruthless killer from the dark forests of western Lithuania? And I say, well, let me put it like this. . .
. . . if you don't buy the book, I'll tell her.


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