Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov Poems (2013)
I was seven years old in 1954, and have dim memories of what Wikipedia bills as the Petrov Affair. Vladimir Petrov, third secretary of the Russian Embassy in Canberra, defected, and some days later his wife Evdokia followed suit, generating a dramatic front page photograph showing two burly Russians manhandling a distraught woman across the tarmac of Sydney aerodrome – tellingly, the woman has lost one of her shoes. It’s not clear that the Petrovs had anything substantial to reveal about Russian espionage, but their defection was a boon to the Menzies government’s anti-Communist machinations and has fired the national imagination, or sections of it, for decades.
The affair was the subject of Ralph Peterson’s 1959 play The Third Secretary, which was part of The Currency Press’s first Playtexts Series in 1971, in teh august company of Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous and Louis Esson’s The Time is Not Yet Ripe. Robert Manne’s exhaustive account, The Petrov Affair, was published in 1980, and again in a revised edition in 2004. The Petrovs feature offstage in Ursula Dubosarsky’s magnificent 2006 children’s book The Red Shoe. So far I was keeping up. Then Noelle Janaczewska’s Mrs Petrov’s Shoe won a Queensland Premiers Literary Award in 2006 (back in the days when the Queensland government gave money to the arts), and Andrew Croome’s Document Z got a gong in the NSW equivalent in 2010. How many books could one minor incident sustain?
I tried to read Andrew Croome’s book. It’s probably very good. But I couldn’t get past the first line of the first page, so strong was my reluctance to read one more word about the Petrovs. They may be our only spy scandal, I thought, but they’re just not that interesting. Yet when someone at our book club (the one where we swap books, not the one where we discuss them) offered Lesley Lebkowicz’ book of poems, I surprised myself by taking it home.
I don’t think any book could have completely dispelled my pre-emptive ennui, but this book came pretty close. It’s pretty much a verse novel, keeping a fairly tight focus on the two main characters, known mostly by their pet names Volodya and Dusya. It begins as they arrive in Sydney, seen from Dusya’s point of view:
Volodya is solid – more than a husband – an ally.
She touches his arm, feels its warmth, the play
of slack flesh over bone. Softness had long fled
his mind. He had seen hundreds shovelled
into their graves, thousands destroyed like ants
swept away by hot water.
The narrative takes us through the process of disaffection to their defections, their interrogations and then their dislocated new life. It ends, after Volodya’s death, with Dusya living with her sister Tamara in suburban Melbourne:
Dusya and her sister walk along the flat paths of Bentleigh
like any two women from Europe.
They’re on their way to drink coffee in the suburb’s first café.
They talk about whether to buy veal
for diner and watch The Bill on TV. Whatever
Tamara says makes Dusya happy – it’s hearing
her voice. Occasionally Dusya mentions Volodya
and Tamara looks at her
but says nothing. His name falls out of their lives.
So it’s as much the story of a relationship that plays out in extraordinary circumstances, a migrant story with higher stakes and the glare of publicity. The part of the story that struck home most forcefully for me is in the last two sections, ‘The Petrovs at Palm Beach’ and ‘The Petrovs in Melbourne’, where they continue with their lives after the drama, neither celebrated nor left alone. From ‘Sentences':
‘I am Petrov,’ he tells a fellow in Manly,
expecting some sign.
‘Congratulations,’ the man says and walks off.
His photograph regards him every day from The Herald.
What he’s done must mean something –
From ‘They know we are Petrovs':
The whole street knows they are Petrovs –
too many photos, too much publicity.
One journalist never leaves them alone.
He lurks in his car outside their house.
A kind neighbour builds a gate in their fence
so when the journalist comes, they slip out
through his garden.
In Russia it would have been different –
no one would have known who they were.
The verse is always clear and sharp as this. A lot of it is in unrhymed sonnets, but there’s much variety in form. If you haven’t read much about the Petrov Affair, and OK even if you have, this is a good story well told. If you want to read more about it, I recommend the excellent review by Sue at Whispering Gums.