Truth, according to the dictionary, can mean several things including:
- the state of being the case, fact or actuality; and
- a transcendent or spiritual reality.
Truth in all its variety and slipperiness is, I think, the fundamental theme of Andrew Croome’s Document Z which won the 2008 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. This book, which chronicles the famous-in-Australia Petrov Affair about the defection of Vladimir (familiarly, Volodya) and Evdokia Petrov in 1954, began as a PhD Creative Writing thesis. Who needs a PhD in Creative Writing, though, when you have a publication offer instead?
At the end of the novel is a reference to an oral history that was conducted with Evdokia by the National Library:
This historian’s questions give her the space to betray Volodya, to admit his faults, to commit herself finally, to the truth. She doesn’t. The record is no all-important thing, and what exactly would be the point?
What indeed? After all, duplicity is what the book is about. Vladimir and Evdokia are MVD agents at the Soviet Embassy. This is their secret role, in addition to their formal embassy roles, and it puts them in conflict with the ambassador since, in effect, they work for two masters, the ambassador and the MVD headquarters in Moscow. Not an easy position to be in, particularly in a regime that thrived on suspicion.
Croome nicely structures the book, commencing with the dramatic attempt on 19 April 1954 by the Soviet authorities to return Evdokia to Russia. The book’s narrative form is multiple third person subjective, and this opening scene is viewed through Evdokia’s eyes: “Evdokia knew this crowd was for her. They were hunting her…”. She was wrong though. The crowd was with her and were “hunting” those who seemed to be taking her away. This opening chapter ends with the words, “Everything he had betrayed”. The scene is set to tell their story, and the book flips back to 1951 and their arrival in Canberra. From this point on the story is told through several eyes, particularly Evdokia’s, Vladimir/Volodya’s (who, Moscow thought, “could be well and truly trusted [my stress]”) and Dr Bialoguski’s (the man who worked for ASIO and who, through cultivating Petrov’s friendship, engineered the defection).
I enjoyed the book – partly because it was set in familiar territory, which is a bit of a rarity for we Canberrans, and partly because I was interested in the Petrov Affair. Croome seems, to the best of my knowledge, to have captured the era well. I loved the description of the Soviet Embassy wives going shopping…and he nicely evokes the polarisation of views between East and West/Communism and Capitalism that characterised the Cold War period. However, the book was a little unsatisfying too. I think it’s because Croome focusses a little too much on plot machinations for me – and yet the plot is not dramatic enough to support this. He does try to get “into” the characters but, for all his sound characterisation of the Petrovs, they are, at the end, pretty much as shadowy in terms of their “true” natures/desires/motivations as they were at the beginning. In the end, there’s not much drama in either the political or the personal story. It feels, almost, as though they were victims of circumstance – and perhaps they largely were.
And what were these circumstances? Well, they were largely the duplicitous – and fear-ridden – situation they lived and worked in. I had to laugh, early in the book, at the description of the embassy’s secret (MVD) section: “Somewhere, the roof leaked“. The book has many little ironies and paradoxes mostly playing on notions of secrets, lies, deception and betrayals, playing, that is, on a world in which truth is treated with rather careless abandon. By the end of the book we are, I think, no nearer the truth. We perhaps know some of the “facts” (albeit this is fiction!), but we do not “really” know the “spiritual reality” of these two people whose marriage seemed weak and who apparently lived a pretty sad life in exile.
I’d certainly recommend the book … it’s well written, and is a genuinely interesting portrayal of the case. But if you are looking for insights into the affair, I’m not sure you’ll find them here.
Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2008