Reportage

The Olden Days - The Russian poet’s visit

The story of the Russian poet's visit to Brisbane began with a dinner invitation from Kevin Windle, general editor and chief translator of the contemporary Russian writing series I was working on during the dark days of the Bjelke-Petersen era. As well as the Russian translations, I was editing a wide range of other works for an unassuming university press in a low, brick building attached to a bookshop at the University of Queensland.

One of the first things I'd learned from Kevin was that Soviet-approved literary works had to resonate with ‘socialist realism' – as opposed to ‘formalist individualism' and art for art's sake ‘bourgeois modernism'. The safest subject for writers, Kevin said, was the ‘Great Patriotic War' in which the Russians lost at least twenty million, and which we now refer to by its alternative but equally weighty title of World War II.

Kevin's invitation was to an all-expenses-paid dinner at Lennons Hotel to entertain a couple of visiting Russians, one of whom was a poet. Kevin had been delegated by the department to look after them.

‘Will they speak English?' I asked as an idle after-thought, already looking forward to a slap-up meal at the hotel where everyone from the Beatles to US President Lyndon B. Johnson had stayed.

‘I doubt it,' Kevin replied, ‘but I can translate for you.'

The Soviets, he said, would be identifiable by the distinctive cut of their suits. He was right, too. The poet was tall and rangy, and gave the impression he'd be more at home on a tractor than trussed up in a suit. The other bloke – presumably the poet's minder – was thick-set and more cosmopolitan looking. He bantered breezily with Kevin in Russian while our poet looked around at the spacious foyer.

As we sat down to dinner, Kevin gave me some background on the poet. Apparently he specialised in lyrics on rural themes and the heroic challenges of Russia's harsh northern winters. He hailed from a far-flung Soviet province, the name of which I didn't recognise and certainly couldn't pronounce.

From working with Kevin, I had learnt to laboriously transliterate the Russian Cyrillic alphabet so that the Russian words could be read and compared with the translation when necessary. Mostly we'd discuss whether to use British or American terms, such as ‘lorry' or ‘truck'. Finding idiomatic equivalents for Russian slang proved to be the most challenging part of our editorial deliberations.

Kevin spoke Russian fluently, and every now and then threw me a few tidbits of the conversation. This was a cue for the poet to grin in my direction. As we waited for the meals to arrive in the almost deserted dining room, the poet of the north began to thaw somewhat.

‘He says the summers are all too brief,' Kevin translated, ‘and that the frozen ground breaks their ploughs.' At this, the poet smiled again and went on with his rural musings.

‘It's so cold where he comes from,' continued Kevin, ‘that the whole family sleeps on top of the kitchen stove.'

I must have looked sceptical because Kevin immediately elaborated my incredulity for the benefit of the poet, who laughed heartily, showing widely spread teeth under his high, tanned cheekbones. His hat rested on the table, an unnecessary precaution against Brisbane's mild winter.

After dinner, and the obligatory vodka or two to celebrate our respective great and friendly nations, the poet suddenly got up and disappeared. The conversation faltered, and the minder found himself with no one to mind. I quizzed Kevin about the Soviet Writers' Union and its control over what was published. He'd already explained to me that Soviet writers, once accepted by the union, no longer needed to worry about sales like writers in the West.

‘Paper supply is the only limiting factor,' he'd told me. ‘The state-run publishing enterprise receives a paper quota each year to enable approved works to be printed in vast quantities – sometimes hundreds of thousands of copies or more.'

The longer the poet was away, the edgier his minder became, fiddling with his bread knife and folding and refolding his red table napkin. He stared at the poet's hat, which now marked the empty place at our table. The friendly mood seemed to have evaporated and the minder looked around, scanning the dining room as if searching for a clue. Then he too got to his feet and disappeared out the door.

‘What's up?' I asked my translator.

‘The minder – he's KGB,' was all Kevin said.

Eventually the poet and his minder returned, having perhaps averted an international incident. A literary defection would have been a first for Brisbane. The prospect of a sunny winter must have been appealing. Or maybe our poet had heard about the bulldozer-driving premier's agrarian socialist tendencies.

 

EVERY DECEMBER WITHOUT FAIL, I received a Christmas card from my contact at the Writers' Union, Anatoly Melnikov, who negotiated contracts for our Russian translations. Several years after the incident at Lennons, in addition to Anatoly's usual greeting came a curious message scribbled on the card: ‘Sorry, I used your name in one of my SF stories set in Australia. Forgive me! Sincerely, Anatoly Melnikov, 52 Vorovsky St, USSR Writers' Union, Moscow.'

Enclosed was a copy of the Writers' Union monthly journal, Soviet Literature, published simultaneously in eight languages. A with-compliments slip drew my attention to page 160 and the story ‘The Ballarat Burglary' by none other than Anatoli Melnikov. He had indeed hijacked me for a part in his highly improbable science fiction story. It was no literary masterpiece, and seemed to have been written in the era of H.G. Wells. I was Craig Munro, the ‘representative of the Australian government' at an international press conference to discuss the overnight disappearance of three steam locomotives from a railway museum. Whoever took them, however, had a sense of humour, replacing them with atomic-powered trains capable of a thousand kilometres an hour. Extra-terrestrial intervention was suspected.

Fast forward a few years and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down – apparently without extra-terrestrial assistance. Joh Bjelke-Petersen was out, globalism was in, and suddenly the old Soviet dream of world domination looked as fanciful as one of Anatoly's atomic-powered locomotives. 

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