Morality, survival come to a head in surreal Last Girl

“A madness descended upon me,” recalls Steponas Daumantas, retired Lithuanian professor and ex-writer, of his compulsion to photograph every dark-haired mother and baby he sees in the city of Vilnius. He seeks a resemblance — more than physical — to a Jewish mother and child whom he tragically failed 50 years earlier, and hopes to make amends if he can capture the right pair on film.

While it might seem like madness, this logic is borne out by the plot of Stephan Collishaw’s novel, “The Last Girl,” which is, like the fiction of Elie Wiesel, a blend of realism and the surreal.

Collishaw’s style is classically excellent, a brilliant evocation of the world of reality centering on Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, in the mid-1990s. Steponas visits its ghetto, renovated to leave no trace of the Holocaust, and lingers at the dilapidated old Jewish school.

Steponas, now in his 70s, sees a chance for atonement when he meets Jolanta, the last girl he photographs, who reminds him of a Jewish woman he knew before the war. Jolanta entrusts him with a novel written by her abusive husband, hoping Steponas can help find a publisher.

After she leaves, Steponas looks over the book. One passage catches his eye:

“Morality: In some other world — some other landscape — that word might yet resonate with meaning. But here there is only the need to survive. I hold your letter as though it will anchor me, but outside I can hear the crackle of flames and the sound of crying and know that I am lost.”

The battle of morality versus survival is the central dilemma of “The Last Girl,” in which the crackle of flames and the sound of crying are recurrent images.

Steponas gets drunk, leaves the manuscript in the café, and makes desperate efforts to find it, paralleling his earlier search for Jolanta.

He is a Christian, like his laundress Svetlana, the novel’s other point-of-view character. Both live in squalor and drink to drown out the past — specifically, betrayals that delivered friends and relatives into the clutches of ruthless dictators.

Retrieving the manuscript forgotten by Steponas, she tries to return it, but — seeing it as negotiable for the money her older son needs to emigrate — hides it.

Meanwhile her alcoholic husband, a truly grotesque character, plots with a friend to extort money from Steponas for its return.

Steponas is finally able to write his own confession, surmounting a guilt-induced block. It is then when the reader learns what prompts his searching.

The Jewish woman Jolanta reminds Steponas of is Rachael Mendle, a dark, beautiful, soulful girl he met and fell in love with shortly before the Nazi invasion. But their relationship ended when he unwittingly sparked a near-pogrom and flees to Wilno to attend its university.

When he met her, Rachael was engaged to a Jew; she couldn’t possibly marry a non-Jew, she explained to the wounded Steponas. But her fiance left to join a resistance movement, leaving Rachael and her child behind.

The fatherhood of that child is ambiguous. One suspects Steponas himself is the father, if the time scale is distorted to fit this interpretation. He and Rachael parted in 1938, the baby was born in 1940 and three years later she still seemed an infant.

Steponas’ guilt would have been all the heavier for the suspicion, even if unconscious, that the child he abandoned was his own.

“The Last Girl,” by Stephan Collishaw (320 pages, St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).