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Book Review – Document Z by Andrew Croome

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I find it hard to decide what to try to read these days. Ought I try to fill the many gaps in my literary education by reading names like Doris Lessing or Jeffry Eugenedies? Should I try to get into something older? Find a SF author I’ve hitherto ignored, like China Mieville? I like reading award winners, not so much because I expect them to be better than other books, but because I get a brief illusion that I am pursuing a task that might one day be completed. A finite goal, like my earlier goal to read all the TAG Hungerford award winners. I think there are about ten, and I might have read six of them. So the new Vogel, then. Andrew Croome’s Document Z.

The first thing I should say is that I was acutely aware of the timeline of this particular award, the 2008 Vogel, as I had considering entering a novel of my own into this particular award. I’m now glad that I didn’t, not only because Document Z is clearly better, but because there were probably 50 other better books in that year’s pool too. The Vogel was and is a fairly lucrative award, worth something like $20,000 in an ordinary year, but as 2008 was the 50th anniversary of Vogel’s bread in Australia, the award was upped to $50,000 ($25,000 of which was an advance from Allen & Unwin). Nice work if you can get it.

Document Z tells the story of the ‘Petrov Affair’, which in later years would become par for the course in Year 12 TEE History. I studied this topic a decade ago, and yet I had managed to forget 95% of the details by now. The novel opens with Evdokia Petrov being hustled onto a plane before an angry crowd. The year is 1954. She makes it to the plane and then we backtrack to 1951. The main setting for the early part of the novel is the newly-minted Soviet embassy in the newly-minted national capital, Canberra. Document Z is told using multiple viewpoint characters, which is a technique I approve of. The prose is descriptive but prosaic. It gets the job done and doesn’t draw attention to itself. Like the book itself, the words are a means to an end.

Evdokia’s husband is Vladimir Petrov, employee of the Soviet embassy and also of the MVD, or Ministry of Internal Affairs. He’s a spy, in other words. Australia’s own intelligence agency is of course ASIO, and is often referred to as ‘the competitors’ in this novel. As the novel unfolds, we see that Vladimir and Evdokia make for an interesting and ultimately ideologically opposed pair. While he is gregarious, she is circumspect. Where she is zealous, he is ambivalent. Where he is sloppy and corrupt, she is meticulous and living in fear of her Soviet masters. The dimensions of this relationship make for one of the strongest aspects of the novel, not only because it impacts on the plot itself, but also because, well, it’s interesting. That’s about the highest compliment that I can give a book–that it interested me. And Document Z did.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Vladimir Petrov, ‘Volodya’ to his friends, is a very corrupt man. He is fond of gambling, racketeering, and visiting prostitutes. Oh, and of course drinking. And yet he remains a likeable figure. Croome achieves this by showing us much of this from Petrov’s perspective. Meanwhile, various petty intrigues are going on at the embassy, one of which leads to the ambassador being replaced. These intrigues demonstrate how the Russians live in a climate of fear, never knowing when they might be recalled to the motherland and maybe the gulag. Petrov manages to upset the applecart by allowing his dog to wander around the embassy. He alone seems unperturbed by the events around him.

Hovering around is Michael Howley, the ASIO man, who gets a few chapters to explain how he is tasked with spying on the embassy and its various goings on. He seems to be an honest sort. And then there is Michael Bialoguski, a shady doctor who proves to be anything but. Bialoguski seems to be working on both sides at best, and purely on his own side at worst. He is manipulative, greedy, and lacking courage. If I have a criticism of how he is characterised by the author, then it is that it is all to obvious that we are to dislike him, and to see through his stragetems instantly.

If I haven’t spent much time describing the plot in the first half of the novel, it’s because there isn’t much of one. I felt that the first 150 pages of so lacked narrative drive, that there was a certain ‘so what?’ factor to the proceedings. Had the second half continued in this fashion, then I might have struggled to finish the book. About the ‘so what?’ factor, I got the sense that Document Z was a novel about politics, but not a political book. Soviet Russia is twenty years dead. Why the need for this book, retelling what is now a minor footnote in Australian history, now? Was it simply that the ASIO documents had been declassified, thus providing a wealth of useful material for a novel? You couldn’t say that Croome tries to endorse a particular ideology here. And so Document Z is a very safe novel. It has nothing to say about the decade it was written in, except in that it vaguely disapproves of the Stalinist machine (and why shouldn’t it?).

Stalin’s death in 1953 alters the political landscape irrevocably and propels this novel into action. In the power vacuum left in his wake,  Lavrentiy Beria, the supposed successor, is deposed. Suddenly, everyone at the Australian embassy is seeing shadows. Meanwhile, Bialoguski is threatening to quit working for the Australian goverment if he isn’t paid more money. Everyone is on their toes–except Petrov, who manages to wreck an embassy-owned car while drunk. Somewhere in here he manages to say that ‘The Russian people are ruled at bayonet point’ (p 173), which might help to explain his erratic behaviour. Something in Petrov is broken and can’t be repaired.

I won’t try to explain what happens in the second half of the novel, except to say that it concerns a famous defection. Here Croome really comes into his own. The real conflict, as it happens, is not so much between the MVD and ASIO, still less between Communism and Democracy, but between Evdokia and Vladimir Petrov. And here is where Croome has ultimately succeeded with Document Z–he has managed to infuse the personal and the political, and to explicate how one informs the other. Here the author achieves something that all authors must strive for and not all achieve–he makes the reader care.

Document Z ends fairly weakly, but then this too is true to life. Here, at novel’s end, I began to envisage the difficulty that must have confronted Croome when trying to shape these events into a narrative. After all, novels do not depict life, or reality, but instead exist on their own little plane of existence where loose ends must be tied and the motivations of characters laid bare. In summary, this is a very solid read, technically very well written, but a little obscure, at least at first. This is a book about political history and yet one that has no politics of its own. Croome has succeeded in bringing history to life in a way that my Year 12 History textbook never could. Had this book existed at the time that I wrote my TEE History paper, my reading it would have aided me immensely (as an aside, reading John Pilger’s The Secret Country did exactly that, and my History score skyrocketed accordingly). This is the way to learn history–not as a series of facts, but as narrative, even if an imagined one. And yet I still don’t know what the purpose of this novel is. Some might argue that it was a story begging to be told, or that Croome has given this history to a new generation of readers, but I don’t really believe that. And so I remain slightly perplexed.

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