Vesna Goldsworthy’s finely wrought third novel explodes into life early on with a shocking scene in which Misha — the boyfriend of our protagonist, Milena Urbanska — returns from a short, tough spell of military service, initiates a game of Russian roulette (‘the only Russian thing I could face right now’) and blows his brains out.
It is 1981. Misha and Milena are children of the political elite in an unnamed capital city in the Eastern Bloc. As such, they are afforded privileges their compatriots lack: palatial homes, preferential treatment, western luxuries as seemingly innocuous as cans of Bitter Lemon from Italy and imported tampons, instead of ‘the scratchy home-produced sausages of grey cotton waste encased in a flimsy net that… soaked through before you could say “period”’.
These are evidently insufficient compensations, however, for additional surveillance and pressure to toe the party line. After Misha’s tragic exit, Milena buries herself in translation work for the country’s maize production until she’s asked to translate at a poetry festival, where she meets Jason Connor, a handsome Irish poet. She lends him her father’s coat; a few days later they have sex on her father’s bed. Jason asks her to return to London with him, but Milena stays behind, endures an abortion, then follows him several months later.
Appropriately enough, Iron Curtain is split in two halves, the first set in the East, the second in London. The initial fascination of witnessing life behind the Curtain is matched by seeing 1980s England from an outsider’s perspective. When Jason smuggles Milena into his spartan hall of residence, with its ‘coffin-sized’ bed, she says: ‘The enormity of the move I had made was somehow brought home by the smallness of the room.’ Even the Shepherd’s Bush flat they borrow from Jason’s banker friend is an underwhelming ‘basement that could have been used for fungiculture’. The food is no better (‘no one in my country, not even social parasites or dissidents, had to endure this kind of salami… this kind of rubber bread’), nor the people, weather, lack of central heating and job market. The Iron Curtain becomes a mirror of distortion, showing the buckled reflections of East in West and vice versa.
Goldsworthy was born and raised in Belgrade but has lived in the UK since 1986 and has a keen eye for the eccentricities and nuances of the English language:
‘Quite’ had no exact parallel in our language. That it could mean both ‘to the utmost’ and ‘only moderately’ seemed itself, well, quite English.
In labour with twins, Milena feels ‘betrayed’ by her English, finding the pain ‘unspeakable’; as a new mother, she talks to her babies in her ‘mother tongue… strange and new, the words flooding back after so many months of using them only in my thoughts’. It’s not only the English language that betrays Milena; the English people, with their values of class, connections and capitalism, will too.
Goldsworthy artfully evokes the 1980s, while also drawing on a mythic past for her subject matter of love and betrayal. Milena is a Medea figure, helping her Jason on his quest — his poetry collection is entitled The Argonauts; his father is called Aeson. Just as the mythical Medea flees Colchis for Athens in a chariot sent by her father, the sun god Helios, so Milena eventually leaves London on a plane sent by her father, who, with godlike power, promises protection. This Medea need only take Jason’s children to the East to hurt him.
The tidy resolution is menacingly undermined, however, by the book’s prologue, set in Berlin in 1990, in which Jason, now a successful poet, gives a speech celebrating the Curtain’s fall. A future without the Curtain will be one in which Milena loses her power over, and protection from, Jason. In Milena’s ultimate failure to return to her previous life, Goldsworthy offers a neat metaphor for the impossibility of translating back to an original, and also adds a final layer of uncertainty that makes this potent novel all the more compelling.
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