Defectors. 1961 - a community of Western double agents, exposed and living in exile in Moscow. Notorious back home, avoided in Moscow. As one of them says, Moscow is the kind of place where you keep top yourself. So they meet up every night in hotel bars, discussing old times and trying to trap one another into making damaging statements. The spectre of Stalin hangs over everything; nobody quite sure whether Khrushchev’s new freedoms are real or not.
The exception is Frank Weeks. A former CIA agent, he has found a new role as a senior KGB officer, moving with apparent ease and confidence in Soviet Society. He speaks with confidence about the rules that the KGB must follow - hidden rules, unfair rules, but rules that he knows and navigates.
Frank has written a book about his life before and after his defection some 12 years earlier. Both the KGB and CIA seem willing to let the book loose into the wild, but Frank has asked his brother Simon, a publisher in the States, to come to Moscow to edit the text. This provides Simon and Frank with an opportunity to renew family ties while Frank’s KGB batman Boris providers a curious mixture of concierge and surveillance services. And needless to say, there is a Cold War plot of intrigue and betrayal that is well done.
The real strength of Defectors, though, is the portrayal both of the limbo faced by the western defectors, and by the privileged life of the KGB within the “bubble” they have created for themselves. They have access to luxurious restaurants, theatres, dachas, travel, the finest rooms in the finest hotels, cars, trains, hairdressers... They live with an acceptance that they are watched; they know and befriend the watchers. They accept that they may have to report on friends and colleagues and sometimes this will not end well, but they convince themselves that this is a necessary thing that would have happened anyway. And they also have to accept a rigid pecking order and clearly scaled privileges that come with increased status.
The secondary strength is the gradual ratcheting up of the suspense. What starts out as a very gentle - and literal - walk in the park becomes more and more tense until we reach a truly heart stopping and frenetic end. All the time, trying to guess who is on which side. That’s the thing with double agents - you can never tell which side they are on, and perhaps they themselves never really know. At least one of the characters - Gareth Jones, a gay British dandy - just seems to enjoy betrayal for its own sake.
Defectors is a bit of an anachronism, being a Cold War thriller nearly thirty years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. But in focusing on the Western defectors, it does something new; it breathes life into an already over-populated and rapidly dating genre in a way that would make Le Carre envious.
It’s a little known fact that during the Communist era, a small cohort of western migrants lived in the USSR. Not all were former spies; some were trade unionists and socialist activists who believed in the project and felt alienated in their homelands. And, of course, their families…
What the Light Reveals tells the story of one such family. It is the 1950s. Conrad Murphy is an Australian socialist whose name features in a Soviet document that was passed to ASIO by a Soviet double agent. He is then summoned to give evidence to the Inquiry into Soviet Espionage, at which point his life in Australia starts to unravel. He becomes practically unemployable and depends on family for handouts. His wife Ruby wants to support the family but with two young children it is not easy. The USSR offers hope for a better future.
Then the narrative switches to the early 1970s. Conrad, Ruby and the two boys are living in an apartment in Moscow. It is better than many in Moscow, but it’s not great. Conrad has a car, offered as both a freedom and a means of keeping track of him. Culturally, Conrad and Ruby are misfits – they are not trusted as Russians, and not granted the freedoms of foreigners. They are free to leave whenever they want, indeed they believe that if things go wrong they would be deported rather than prosecuted, but they have become disconnected from any life outside Russia. Conrad puts a brave face on things, but Ruby hankers after Melbourne. The boys, meanwhile, are almost completely Russian in their mannerisms, even if their names and heritage keep them apart from their classmates. This is brought into particular relief when Alex meets Sinead, an Irish student at the State University who is allowed the real freedoms of the foreigner.
The story, slowly unfolding, is tragic. The Murphys are caught in a limbo along with a handful of other western ex-pats – unsure whether to live a lie and pretend that everything is for the best, or whether to cut and run. And then family secrets and Conrad’s poor health combine to bring matters to a head.
The writing is fantastic. The evocation of the Soviet Union as a place to live, a place where people worked, studied, lived and loved is spot on. This is not a land of snow and spies, it is not a place where people are afraid to grumble. Rather, it is a place of bureaucracies and petty resentments; informants serving more as irritants than sources of terror. Although, when needed, the terror is capable of rising from the mundanity of everyday life.
What the Light Reveals is a story of wasted life, trust and mistrust, belonging and not-belonging. There are clever parallels between the Murphys’ relationship with Russia and the relationships within their own family and their tiny circle of friends and comrades. There is the tawdriness of the loyalty to ideals, embodied in a worthless badge presented to Conrad as a hero worker for his services to translating engineering manuals. The Moscow adventure has brought Conrad and Ruby absolutely nothing, and at huge human cost.
The ending, the return to Melbourne, brings sunshine and relief – the smell of barbecues and the sound of the waves lapping the bay-beach at St Kilda. The past 15 years represent an aberration, a period of statis where the world developed but the Murphys merely aged.
This is a terrific novel; the perfect length and with a perfect pace. The characters are real and flawed; the world is three dimensional; the contrasts are evoked with brilliance. It’s not so much the story – it has only one major shock – it is the way it is told that makes this such an outstanding work of fiction.
The Zoo is a farcical romp through the last days of Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union.
Yuri is a twelve year old boy who claims to have suffered some form of brain damage as a child, leaving him a functional idiot. He can see everything that goes on around him, he can learn facts, but he hasn’t the guile to understand people. Yuri takes everyone at face value, all the time. By a quirk of fate, he ends up meeting Stalin who likes having a confidant he can trust completely. So he immediately appoints Yuri to be his food taster, thereby necessitating Yuri’s witnessing of the last days of the Great Leader’s life.
And this is not a glamorous end to a glorious life. Basically, Stalin is holed up in his dacha with this inner circle (Beria, Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov), all of whom want to usurp the crown. These five do not like each other, they do not trust each other, but they end up spending all their time together watching films and playing drinking games. The plotting, aside from the crazy drunken antics, the stunt doubles follows Harrison E. Salisbury’s 1983 account of Stalin’s last days faithfully. It is a surprise – indeed a frustration – then that Christopher Wilson insists on using near approximations of the protagonists real names. Stalin (man of steel) becomes Iron-Man; Beria becomes Bruhah; Molotov especially irritatingly becomes Motolov, etc. It feels like it is cheapening what could otherwise have felt like a satire to take seriously.
Because, underneath all the drunken japes, this is a pretty good study of the paranoia of a brutal regime waiting for its leader to die. As a kitchen cabinet, the regime has the power of life and death over anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path, but yet remains powerless to bring about any meaningful social or economic change. Stalin himself is portrayed as a tired, sick and unsatisfied man, troubled about the legacy he would leave. He was lonely and desperate for unguarded, non-judgemental company, yet he had created a world in which only an idiot boy could fulfil that function. If anything, Yuri’s role was that of the mediaeval court fool, speaking truth to a king by dressing it up as wit.
In a neat story arc, we see Yuri come from ordinary society to mix with the elite; and then we see him return to ordinary society. It feels like completing a circle, albeit a rather sad circle because, as Khrushchev says to Yuri: “Poor child… You see it all. Yet you understand nothing”. But in a way Yuri inhabits a fool’s paradise. Right up to the end, as his world disintegrates around him, Yuri still remains optimistic.
This really is a great read. Short, lively, humorous but thoughtful. Yuri’s narrative voice is fabulous and his perpetual innocence is captivating. Stalin’s inner circle is well drawn and Beria, in particular, is a standout character – vain, foppish, ambitious and sadistic. He is a well-rounded psychopath. Given the way history played out, it might have been interesting to dwell just a little more on the character of Khrushchev whom history has treated with affection – it would have been nice to explore his role in the purges, his role in the Ukraine and his personal relationship with Stalin a little more closely. But this is a minor complaint in a tight and entertaining novel.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a fictionalisation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and its impact on a group of families who were connected or become connected. It is a complex work relying on multiple points of view and different strands that connect the narratives. But, incredibly, it works. The complexity never confuses; Darragh McKeon keeps all the balls in the air, never colliding.
This is fiction. The reader has to keep remembering that, because the level of detail gives an authenticity and authority of a work of factual documentary. We don’t know for sure how people responded when the reactor exploded; we can’t know what steps were taken to cover things up; or whether the human scale of the clean-up was as McKeon suggests. His narrative is, though, very plausible.
The novel captures not only the nuclear disaster, but also evokes the stagnation of a collapsing empire. These days, it is easy to forget just what a closed, controlling society the USSR had been. In 1986, most of the population remembered the days of Brezhnev; many would have remembered Stalin and the fear of an all-seeing secret police and a state that was intolerant of individual political expression. This is depicted in the lives of Grigory, an ambitious doctor, and Maria, his estranged wife who had worked as a journalist before being banished to a life of drudgery on the factory floor. At the same time, the USSR had been in economic stagnation for many years and had just seen the death of three leaders in three years. They didn’t know it at the time, but the Soviet Union would be dead in five years’ time. In the novel, people were openly telling jokes at General Secretary Gorbachev’s expense and the men from the ministry were obviously powerless to control the aftermath of Chernobyl.
McKeon uses Maria’s nephew, a weedy piano prodigy called Yevgeny, to represent the future. Yevgeny understands the rules of the playground bullies and adheres to them just enough to minimise the damage he will inevitably suffer. But he opts not to play within the system he is given. He has to decide whether to follow the route his mother and aunt have mapped for him or whether to seize his own destiny, by fair means or foul.
There is heartbreak as we see the personal cost of the nuclear tragedy. The man trying to save the door on which his children’s heights have been marked, on which he laid out his parents and grandparents to wake. The families broken apart. The joy and pain of reuniting with lost loved ones only to watch them die of radiation sickness. And this is all set against the turmoil of the changing state; old certainties being broken; plots and dreams being smashed as years of incremental positioning are swept aside in the tidal wave of change.
All That Is Solid is astonishingly well told; creating a perfect blend of the universal and the immensely personal. The final, short section is very different and quite unexpected. But it does tie the past and the present together.
This is a breathtaking first novel and if there is any justice, it will win prizes.