Reviews Round-up

The critics' look at Lehrer, Rogan and Haidt

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel follows the fate of 39 passengers escorted to a lifeboat after an explosion on their ocean liner, Empress Alexandra. Writing in The Independent, James Kidd finds it “a giddily gripping read” which is “denied much in the way of broad context, the plot is driven largely by the 39 characters, who quickly form alliances and enmities, often on little more than a glance or a glare.” Determining links between the narrative and reality, “The Lifeboat becomes a metaphor for conceptions of truth, innocence, identity, class, gender, religion, love, and indeed existence itself. Grace [the novel’s narrator] reminds us that, in the end, we are all in the same boat, whether we like it or not. And, try as we might, no one leaves this one alive.”

The Telegraph’s Anthony Cummins holds reservations as to the depth of the stories protagonist, stating that “the lack of definition to Grace lowers the stakes attached to the ever-present jeopardy.” He also perceives less metaphorical substance to the novel, believing that "you could see The Lifeboat as an allegory of female self-determination under patriarchy. Squint hard enough and there’s one about US foreign policy, too.” For The Guardian, Justine Jordan hails the novel as “a fascinating portrait of a determined, free-thinking young woman, and an inquiry into the puzzle of personality. How much can we bear to know about ourselves? What do we decide to remember?”

 

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

In his most recent book, the journalist Jonah Lehrer examines the science behind the art of creativity, drawing on Bob Dylan, Pixar and Post-it Notes, amongst others. Writing for The Guardian, Steven Poole finds fault with the author’s idea that Dylan’s lyrics “make little literal sense”: “The amazing presumption of Lehrer's description, the shattering banality of its explanation, and its mystifying stupidity are all entirely characteristic of a phenomenon best branded "neuroscientism".” Continuing, he declares that “Lehrer's neuroscientistic method consists of paraphrasing brain-imaging studies, grossly inflating what can be properly inferred from them, and so purporting to explain "creativity" or "imagination".” For Poole, this book is a “peculiarly unhelpful self-help.”

The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani feels that in avoiding “gauzy hypotheses and gross generalizations”, the author “proves an engaging tour guide to the mysteries of the imagination and the science of innovation.” She hails the clarity of Lehrer’s concepts which “makes them accessible to the lay reader while dispensing practical insights that verge on self-improvement tips along the way. With these suggestions, his book implies, you too might be able to maximize your creative output.”

 

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

The social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, explores the behavioral trends of morality within poitics and religion. Beginning as an essay in why people vote Republican it has evolved into “an old-fashioned liberal plea for tolerance”, according to The Observer’s Ian Birrell. Nonetheless, “what makes the book so compelling is the fluid combination of erudition and entertainment, and the author's obvious pleasure in challenging conventional wisdom. One minute he draws on psychological experiments to defend Glaucon, the cynic in Plato's Republic who argued that people behaved well only because they were scared of being caught. (Here Haidt gives dishonourable mention to Britain's MPs, so happy to abuse expenses when they thought no one was looking at their moats and duck ponds.) The next he is enlisting the Scottish philosopher David Hume to challenge our "rationalist delusion". He asks a series of strange questions – is it wrong to eat your dog if you run it over by accident, or to perform sexual intercourse on a dead chicken? – to prove how people rely on intuition to find answers, then produce reasons to justify them.” Although, this results in Haidt “glossing over the uncomfortable conclusions of what he is saying.”

Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Gary Rosen believes Haidt’s “practical aim is modest: not to bridge the divide between left and right, atheist and believer, cosmopolite and patriot, but to make Americans, in all their diversity, more intelligible to one another.” Moreover, he “has the added virtue of encouraging a degree of humility in righteous, partisan minds of every stripe.” For The New York Times’ William Saletan, the author “seems to delight in mischief.” “The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don’t start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected. They suppress forms of self-expression that might weaken the social fabric. They assume interdependence, not autonomy. They prize order, not equality.”

The cover illustration for 'The Lifeboat'
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge