Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Will Ellsworth-Jones, Robert Macfarlane and John Updike.

Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones

Banksy is an endlessly intriguing figure. This latest inquest into the man’s life asks probing questions of the Bristol-born artist’s life and legacy. “[Ellsworth-Jones's] book isn’t a biography, exactly,” write Tim Roby in the Telegraph, “it would be hard to write one when you’ve opted not to reveal the identity of your subject.”

Wynn Wheldon, writing in the Spectator, found much to like about this “competent, broadly sympathetic and enjoyable book”. He finds it an entertaining and informative story of a man Wheldon himself is charmed by, yet oddly uncertain about. “Will Ellsworth-Jones’s book hardly reveals ‘the man behind the wall’,” he writes, “but it does make clear how voracious a beast the art market is, and charts lucidly the way in which Banksy, a brilliant organiser, has tried to manipulate it to his own ends”.

Peter Conrad, in the Observer also finds the title of Ellsworth-Jones’s book slightly wanting, noting that the author does more to enhance the myth than he does to deconstruct it.  “Breaking the promise of its subtitle, Ellsworth-Jones's book catches no glimpse of the man behind the wall. All he can do is contribute to his mystique …But as in the case of Father Christmas, the legend, as Ellsworth-Jones says, is ‘better than the real thing’". He does, however, find the more journalistic probing of larger questions about the artist admirable. “Ellsworth-Jones writes perceptively about the 'ethical dilemmas' created by Banksy's marketing techniques… [Banksy] is shown by Ellsworth-Jones to be as capitalistic as his hero Damien Hirst. Banksy once wondered whether an artist should make money from work that was intended to draw attention to world poverty, and solved the problem by calling it ironic.”

 

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane is a man known for his long walks and thoughtful prose. His first book, Mountains on the Mind, was what Rachel Cooke, writing in the Observer, called a “meditation on altitude”. His next, The Wild Places, was the story of “all that is left untamed on our islands”. The Old Ways, she writes, is “a book about the consensual, habitual manner in which paths are formed and maintained down the ages,” one that “now completes this loose trilogy on the various ways we're shaped by landscape”.

Cook calls this collection of tales from Macfarlane’s rambles along the trails of the British Isles “an unwieldy rucksack of a book”, flitting as it does from location to location, from Sussex to the outer Hebrides, Tibet to Palestine, tracing the footsteps of famous poets and meeting tramps, travellers and shamans. On a walk with the author, Cooke acknowledges his great capacity for naturalism and romanticism: “The thought occurs that Macfarlane doesn't stumble on enchantment; he creates it. It is as though – batty as this sounds – it follows him about, the landscape and even the weather rising to meet the challenge of his prose.”

Sam Leith, in the Spectator, finds Macfarlane’s prose equally enchanting and joyfully unforced. “There’s little more tedious in a novel,” he writes, “than ostentatiously fine writing…It’s normally bad writing. But fine writing — in the sense of precise, careful and original prose; lyrical without being pretentious — does exist. Macfarlane is an example of it. His virtuosity isn’t unobtrusive, but his tics of style become familiar without drifting, quite, into mannerism or gimmickry.”

He applauds Macfarlane’s inspiring use of language and capacity to conjure up scene, setting and sentiment, and to engage the reader. “You see these trees and pathways; you hear those birds. And there really are few prose writers who take such a poet’s care with cadence…. . If you submit to its spell you finish it in different shape than you set out: a bit wiser, a bit lonelier, a bit happier, a whole lot better informed, and a bit more tempted to pop in to Millets.”

 

Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism by John Updike

This collection of essays and criticism cuts a nice cross-section from the journalism of the late John Updike. Adam Mars-Jones writes for the Guardian: “Once or twice in the book Updike excels himself, once or twice he falls short of his own standards, and once or twice he produces work which stands at an odd angle to his usual preoccupations.” He is particularly impressed with Updike’s witty and surprisingly enjoyable musings on golf. “The pages on this subject provide some of the book's high points," he writes. “This is an America not much written about in the last half-century, not even by Updike.”

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times praises Updike’s literary versatility: “Updike was that rare creature: an all-around man of letters, a literary decathlete who brought to his criticism an insider’s understanding of craft and technique.” Although she notes it “lacks the deeply thought-out literary essays” of previous anthologies, as well as containing a few “disposable scraps of writing”, overall she concedes that it “offers the reader plenty of palpable pleasures, reminding us of the author’s sorcererlike ability to evoke the worlds other artists created with a simple wave of his wand, and his talent for making scholarly topics feel utterly immediate and real.”

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst uses his review for the Telegraph to celebrate a writer whose “prose had the sort of swaggering brilliance that surpassed his readers’ expectations and left them wanting even more”. Again, he sidesteps the “weaker pieces” and chooses rather to focus on Updike’s deft critique of artists and writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Vermeer. “It will be required reading for Updike’s many fans,” he concludes, “but it also serves as an excellent pick ’n’ mix introduction to his omnivorous intellectual range.”

A piece of Banksy artwork gets shelter under a plastic cover in North London, May 2012 (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
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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