Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Book Review - Nest of Traitors: the Petrov Affair by Nicholas Whitlam and John Stubbs

Nest of Traitors : the Petrov Affair by Nicholas Whitlam and John Stubbs

Milton, Queensland: The Jacaranda Press, 1974     ISBN 0701607963

The Petrov affair, as it has become known, has - in the twenty-first century - become a footnote of the Cold War; a minor episode in the to-and-fro of the espionage activities of the Eastern Bloc and Western Allies.

At the time it was a major sensation in Australia, which had long been considered a backwater in most aspects of policy and activity in this struggle. Petrov's defection, and the Royal Commission into Espionage initiated by Prime Minister Robert Menzies in its aftermath, changed the political landscape in Australia, led to the toppling of Opposition Leader and head of the Parliamentary Labor Party Doc Evatt, and also led directly to the Labor Split, which consigned that party to opposition for another twenty years.

Therefore the circumstances of Petrov's defection, and of the Royal Commission, have been for many years a source of historical and political angst, not helped by the fact that - given the nature of what occurred - much secrecy surrounds the whole affair.

This book, written by the son of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (in fact published while he was running the country) and a journalist, certainly has an agenda to push. That agenda is, that if the defection wasn't actually staged by the Government, it was at least timed by Menzies to help him win the election in which the defection, Royal Commission and the spectre of Communism became major issues. The authors use a classic straw man set up to try and show that many of the documents that Petrov bought with him were manufactured, and that Petrov himself wasn't all that he claimed to be.

While there is little doubt that Menzies used the defection for maximum political advantage, it is also clear that Evatt did much to contribute to his own downfall. By choosing to represent his staffers, who became embroiled in the Commission, he became personally involved himself, and was obsessed with the idea that the documents - the infamous document "J" in particular - were forgeries, and that Petrov, far from being the MVD agent he claimed, was merely a lowly cipher clerk.

Whitlam and Stubbs rely heavily on John Burton and Michael Bialoguski's stories of what happened, and of course on the proceedings of the Commission itself. I find their excoriation of Petrov, based on the Commission's findings, a trifle naive; as even at the time it was clear there was material Petrov had brought with him that was not in the public domain. Many years after this book was written the publication of the Venona decrypts supported Petrov's version and shed light on such additional information that he provided the West. Burton is not an unbiased source, as he was closely allied to Evatt and the Labor Party, and also had strong views about whether Australia should in fact have it's own intelligence and counter-espionage service.

As a guide to the Petrov affair, this book needs to be read with reservations. As a guide to the political storm the defection caused at the time, and was still causing twenty years later, it's a fascinating time capsule.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Monday, 29 January 2018

Book Review - Tourmaline by Randolph Stow

Tourmaline by Randolph Stow

London: Minerva, 1991 (originally published Secker & Warburg, 1983)

ISBN 074939188X

I've stated before that I consider Randolph Stow one of Australia's great novelists. Tourmaline is a book of evocative splendour, mystery, tragedy and forbearance.

Set somewhere in the Western Australian Goldfields area, Tourmaline is a fictional town that once had gold, and water. While there is still gold to be found, the water has long since gone, and with it the town, with only a few stragglers living the ruins of a grander past. The story is told by "the Law", and aged man who resides in the ruins of the courthouse, surrounded by pages from old cases.

It is clear that nothing has happened in Tourmaline for a long time, with the only thing approaching excitement being the arrival of the monthly delivery truck from over the hills. It seems that this is Tourmaline's only contact with the outside world.

When the truck arrives and leaves behind a half-dead young man that was found on the road, things begin to change, and change rapidly. It soon gets around that the stranger, Mike Random, is a diviner, and many people begin to think he may use his skill to bring back the glory days. Only Kestrel, the publican, doesn't like him, partly because Mike has usurped his position as the leader of the community, but mostly because Mike has turned the eye of his "wife", Deb.

As the story unfolds (in the form of a "testament" written by the Law), the reader learns that Mike is a deeply troubled individual, wrestling with God. When he uses his skills to find a gold reef, the whole town helps with the mining and belief grows to a fever pitch. Meanwhile, Kestrel, after badly beating his alcoholic cousin Byrnie - an early acolyte of Mike's - and being himself attacked by Deb (who then leaves him), has left town and closed the pub.

Mike begins calling the townspeople to the (ruined) church in the evenings, where they engage in ecstatic singing and prayer. Some of the Aboriginals believe Mike is the reincarnation of the dreaming spirit, while the Law sees him as bringing the town together and giving it purpose. Only old Dave Speed the prospector and Tom Spring the storekeeper see Mike as a fraud.

The Law, after talking more with Mike, realises that, contrary to his early claims, he wasn't traversing the desert to get to Tourmaline at all, but in an attempt at suicide. Eventually the townspeople realise Mike is a fraud when he doesn't bring them the promised water. Then Kestrel returns and takes the mantle of leader of the - is cult the right word? - from Mike, who disappears back into the desert from which he sprang.

The last words of the Law's testament suggest that Kestrel too has failed to revive the town, as all returns to sand.

There are obvious themes in this book to do with belief and power, with the townspeople wanting to believe that water can return, and the diviner abusing that desire for his own selfish ends. Kestrel realises that Mike has exposed a weakness in the people, so when Mike's hold is broken he steps in. Other questions are also asked by chracters in this book: what do you need versus what you want? what is love and how do you know when you have it? is it good to live in the past? what is the nature of God?

The other hight point of this, and indeed of all Stow's work, is the expert use of language to paint a picture. His descriptive writing is fantastic, from the way he evokes a dry, dusty and dying town, to his evolution of the characters. The language used is simple but highly effective in conveying visual pictures. I particularly enjoyed both the evocation of the effectgs of sunlight and moonlight on the landscape and buildings of the town...."The sky is the garden of Tourmaline."

If you are at all interested in Australian literature, I can highly recommend all of Stow's books. This one is fantastic.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell