2009, 345 p.
‘Document Z’ opens with an image instantly recognizable to Australians-of-a-certain age, even if we were not born at the time. It’s the image of Evdokia Petrov on the tarmac of Mascot Airport, flanked by a burly man each side of her, clutching her handbag, hand across her chest as if she is heaving, with one shoe lost. For those of us brought up in the black-and-white certainties of Menzies’ world, it captures the fear of the Communist enemy: that they’ll come and get you and hustle you onto an aeroplane.
But whatever misconceptions we attach to the picture, it is not the full story. She was not so much frightened of the men, as frightened of the crowd surrounding the plane, and she was a woman torn just as much by conflicting emotions as the physical presence of the people surrounding her. What a dreadful situation to be in. Her husband and fellow-spy had defected and was no doubt talking to the Australian agents about her; she was frightened for her family back in Russia, and she was wary of official censure when she returned irrespective of her husband’s actions.
The title ‘Document Z’ plays on Documents H and J that were tendered to the Royal Commission that followed the Petrov defection. I wonder if it is, as the title rather cheekily suggests, the last word- certainly since Robert Manne’s book The Petrov Affair, the debate seems to be over.
The book is a fictionally reimagined telling of the Petrov defection from the perspectives of the participants- Evdokia, her husband Vladimir, Michael Bialaguski the doctor go-between and the various agents on both sides. Croome has obviously done his homework (occasionally a little too obviously) and I marvel at his courage in describing a time long before he was born that is still within living memory today- lots of scope for slips and false notes there. He captures well the sterility of 1950s Canberra with the claustrophobic and enmeshed atmosphere of the Soviet Embassy enclave.
I’m not sure if it’s a failing of the book, or the nature of the relationship he is describing, but there is a flatness to the relationship between the Petrovs themselves. They worked alongside each other, and they shared the same career trajectory for better and for worse but there’s an emptiness at the core of their marriage as Croome depicts it. And again we run up against the dilemma with writing within a historical event, but I feel that Croome has shaken free of those restraints. I was puzzled that he didn’t use ‘that’ picture on his front cover (cost? copyright?) but it liberates him from having to stick only to the historical sources. If the relationship is sterile perhaps he meant it to be, or perhaps he could not, for whatever reason, make it otherwise.
I enjoyed this book, and this is from someone who loathes spy-novels. I liked the atmosphere- the juxtaposition between the bright light outside and the whispers and fears inside.