Anna is a Russian archaeologist with a keen love of the cello, while Vaso is an Indian student of architecture. They meet in Moscow in 1960 and fall in love. Both are motherless: Vaso’s mother died in childbirth and he was brought up by his sister JiJee-ma, while the reason for Anna’s mother’s absence is not revealed to her until adolescence. She was brought up by her somewhat sour Aunty Olga, and her father.
Moscow in the 1960s was very different to the way it is now. For those of us in the West, the Cold War images we saw were of dour officials stomping around in the Kremlin, ominous tanks in Red Square, and Evil Bad Guys in James Bond films. If we knew anything about life in the Soviet era, it was that everyday life was full of privations: endless queues to buy consumer goods; bad service in shops and hotels; censorship; surveillance; oppression of dissidents of all kinds including artists, musicians and authors; and hostility to the West. But Vaso seems blithe about all this. Influenced by his Uncle Triple K’s enthusiasm and India’s long tradition of socialism, he is fascinated by Marxism and its ideals. He finds Moscow intellectually and culturally stimulating and he thinks that Anna would be affronted by the overcrowding and poverty in India.
Before long, the disconnect between the couple’s political beliefs becomes evident.
I venture to say that only an author who has lived in Soviet Moscow as a long-term resident could write so convincingly about it. Between 1969 and 1978 Jaireth spent nine years in Moscow, and he captures perfectly that sense of resignation about their tortured 20th century history that seems characteristic of the Russian people. Arriving there as a tourist with many of the usual preconceptions and misconceptions, I was struck by the reticence to criticise the past even though they acknowledged that there was much suffering in what they call ‘Soviet Times’. (You can see this phenomenon if you go exploring Russian travel sites too). Anna’s father is reticent like this: a man given to long silences much like Vaso, he takes a long time to tell his daughter about the sufferings in his past and seems philosophical about them. It’s as if he thinks that such suffering is just what happens in Soviet Russia. There seems no point in bearing grievances about it …
The impact of these revelations have curiously little impact on Vaso. Anna thinks his fascination with Marxism is gullible and naïve. She wants him to recognise that the sense of alienation in Russian cities under Communism is just as profound as the alienation in bourgeois cities that Marx critiques. But even though Vaso becomes aware of the repression in Soviet Russia, he retains his admiration for Soviet life, and this persists as the years go by. His later references to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency (1975-77) show that as far as he’s concerned, repression is not confined to the USSR. But Anna sees it differently: at a performance of Dialogues with Socrates she recognises the courage it takes to stand and applaud the dissident Andrei Sakharov as the Soviet Socrates.
Nevertheless, Anna isn’t willing to interrogate Vaso about his political naïveté because he would ‘sulk’. Jaireth dissects this relationship skilfully: the narration alternates between Vaso’s first person version of events and Anna’s. From these it’s obvious from the start that Vaso loves Anna more than she loves him, and that she is not willing to invest enough in the relationship.
… I returned to my mattress and fell asleep at once. The next I knew I was awake and she was standing beside me holding a blanket. ‘I knew you wouldn’t ask,’ she said and pushed me over to make room for herself on the mattress. She turned her body away from me and I put my arm around her. I slept again, inhaling her with every breath.
‘I’m filled to the brim with you,’ I wanted to tell her first thing in the morning. But as usual it was she who broke the silence. ‘I saw you curled up on that mattress with the blanket lying on the floor and the pillow between your legs. “He must be cold,” I said to myself, and came to you.’
‘I love you,’ I said.
‘I know,’ she replied. (p. 31)
As both recount, the women in their families predict that there will be trouble: a cross-cultural relationship is hard, and these two are temperamentally unsuited anyway. Anna fears her own motivations: she doesn’t want to be the kind of woman who would make use of a man to be a passage to the West, but she longs to break free of the restrictions that surround her life in the USSR*.
In Anna’s version of events, there are ominous criticisms of Vaso. She is annoyed that he didn’t wear a jacket and tie to meet her father; she is irritated by his silences; there is implicit criticism in her comment that when he wanted her to go with him to India on a field trip, she couldn’t ‘drop [her] work just like that’ (p. 117). But raised in the cultural tradition of the good Soviet wife, she doesn’t want to reprise her mother’s mistakes. While Vaso is gone she is pursued by her former boyfriend Sergei who is unhappy in his marriage; to get away from him she flees into a cinema where by coincidence the film that is showing is The Cranes Are Flying, a postwar Soviet film about the loyalty of women who wait for a soldier’s return. Anna seems always torn between desire and duty.
Vaso is a romantic. Parted from Anna when he returns to India to design a village for a co-operative of coffee farmers, he wears two watches, one on local time and one set to Moscow time, ‘to keep in tune with the rhythms of her life’ (p. 121). He sleeps with a scarf she gave him and dreams of her, knowing that she would laugh at him for being so sentimental. He writes frequently, sending long, charming letters but there was ‘no question‘ of her finding time to write back ‘as frequently as he expected or desired‘ (p. 122). A semi-professional cellist, she thinks his taste in music is naïve. More significantly, he wants children and she doesn’t. The reader can tell that this relationship is doomed.
Subhash Jaireth is an author of poetry and non-fiction, but After Love is his first work of fiction. He lives in Canberra.
Elen Turner at the South Asia Book Blog found After Love ‘a very rich and intricate novel, deceptively measured on the surface, but harbouring immense emotional tension and passion’.
You might also like to read the Launch Speech by Paul Hetherington from the Paperchain Bookshop in Canberra. He makes some interesting observations about the contrapuntal form of the book.
*These restrictions manifested themselves in all sorts of ways for ordinary people. I was interested to learn from our tour guide that today’s Russian brides (many of whom we saw in parks and gardens and beside patriotic monuments) have simple, inexpensive weddings and spend up on a honeymoon. In ‘Soviet Times’ the weddings were as lavish as possible because there was nowhere the couple were permitted to go.
Author: Subhash Jaireth
Title: After Love
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge Publishing.