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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Last Night of the World – Joyce Wayne

Joyce Wayne and her new novel Last Night of the World

The relationship between the West and Russia has remained troubled for over a century. Both are unable to overcome deep-rooted animosity that is based on an unwillingness to understand the perspective of the other side.

Winston Churchill, who had termed Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” at the height of World War II, realised that the compromise of befriending Stalin to defeat the Nazis was a mistake and quickly made amends.

The ensuing Cold War that lasted for a better part of the 20th century caused the world to be divided into two distinct camps, inimical to each other and one that precariously co-existed (with stockpiles of nuclear weapons aimed at each other) in the maniacal Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

The collapse of Soviet Union in the 1990s did bring about a temporary truce and cooperation, but that didn’t last long, and Russia under Vladimir Putin has taken the relations to a new nadir. If it was the annexation of Crimea some years ago that brought the two on the verge of a war, it is the poisoning of a former spy that has caused an unprecedented diplomatic row. The West and Russia always find a reason to bicker.

Communism is dead everywhere, and it’d be hard to find a serious defender of the October Revolution a century later.  Although one is pleasantly surprised to find a strong and sizeable section of the millennials who prefer socialism to the inherent indecency of a form of government where the government appears keener to defend a corporation's right to profit rather than defend the rights of a human being to live.  

For a considerably long time, there were many across the globe who were convinced that the communism represented the best and the most representative form of a government that was of the people, by the people and for the people, and that only the communists ensured a true form of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Stalin’s murderous excesses shattered those illusions quickly and decisively in the developed world, and the socialist fantasies harboured by the elite in West were abandoned hastily. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic Gulag Archipelago exhausted the last remaining illusions about communism, although it was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon that became a precursor of the narration of disillusionment with the communist dream.

And yet, in large parts of the developing world in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the communist ideology successfully took strong roots and flourished for many decades after the West flushed it out and came down heavily on its sympathisers. The exile of Charlie Chaplin is a stunning example of this reappraisal. 

The cruel fate of the communist sympathisers in the Western societies has not found adequate representation in popular culture or literature. Yes, the excesses of the McCarthy have been periodically portrayed in Hollywood films because Joseph McCarthy, the philistine, had a blacklist of Hollywood personalities branded as communist sympathisers.

While reading Joyce Wayne’s Last Night of the World (Mosaic Press, April 2018), I couldn’t help but think of the swift and sudden extinguishing of the communist dream. Joyce’s second novel evocatively brings alive the story of the post-World War II Soviet Spy Scandal, which rocked Canada and ushered in the Cold War.

The novel combines the racy pace of an espionage thriller with a mellow unfolding of love and loss. It’s a gripping narration of the inner and outward journey of Freda Linton, a young Jewish woman, who flees the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis, and works for the Communist cause only to be used and disillusioned; Freda is a survivor who sacrifices all and gives everything that is hers in return for chimerical longings.

I was unaware of the spy scandal that rocked the Canadian public life in the 1940s. The novel was, therefore, educative. It recreates a murky and sordid world of comrades who are spies and is centred on Freda, the spy who is used by the Canadian Communist Party on behalf of the Soviets to ensnare highly placed public figures in the Canadian establishment to get hold of secrets that would assist the communist cause. Freda is a true example of naïve commitment to a lost cause.

Nikolai Zabotin, Freda’s boss and lover, and a charming functionary in the high-powered world where diplomacy and politics meet, dispatches her to the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories to get nuclear secrets that would assist the Soviets in building nuclear weapons. Zabotin has to decide on which side of history he wants to be and guide Freda accordingly. 

What they decide will determine their future and the future of the world.

The novel brings to life an era that saw large sections of the Canadian establishment branded as anti-national and how it is permanently banished into oblivion even though nothing concrete was ever proved about their alleged involvement. 

The tragic case of Fred Rose is a classic example of how public mood can be and is swayed away from the truth to grievously harm people who don’t necessarily subscribe to the prevailing dogmas of the day.

Donald Trump is re-enacting McCarthyism in America right now, and nobody is able to stop him. Paraxodically, he is Putin's friend.

Last Night of the World also recreates the world of Jewish newcomers fleeing the Nazis in East Europe. The section that describes the Nazi cruelties on the Jewish people are terrifying and one has to stop reading and take a break. The pathos is palpable in the compromises and adjustments that Freda has to make in the brave new world where she has to sleep unwillingly with men (invariably much older) for what is considered as greater good.

The book is structured as tightly woven, breezy spy thriller. And it retains its momentum and pace throughout. However, the climax, set in Chernobyl, is really the pièce de résistance. Joyce’s imagination, as well as creative prowess, take flight here while depicting the desolation of the place devastated by the nuclear disaster; she creates imagery that has the quality of ethereal otherworldliness.

Last Night of the World is an important book because even though it is about an era long gone in Canadian history, it is a stark reminder that we are never too far from facing such hostilities suddenly and for no logical reason.

Read an extract from the book here: Extract

Buy the book here: Last Night of the World 

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