Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Jonathan Sacks, Simon Mawer and Andrew Blum.

The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning by Jonathan Sacks

The purpose of Jonathan Sacks’s book is not to prove the existence of God, writes Ziauddin Sardar in the Independent, but to demonstrate that it is “quite possible for a rational person to hold religious beliefs”. With “extensive erudition”, Sacks tours the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity and addresses the thoughts of atheists and philosophers in his quest to promote tolerance and challenge religious dogma, which he sees as a primary cause of evil in the world.

Sack’s central argument, that the meaning of a system must lie outside that system, is problematic, says Sardar: “It is easier to argue for the need for something beyond, more difficult to argue for a deity… It would have been more original to argue why God is needed in the first place.” The message that science and religion, explanation and meaning, are complementary is also unoriginal: “Sacks is rather unfamiliar with the rich heritage of Islamic discourse on reason and revelation,” says Sardar.

The exploration of classical Greek and Hebrew thought, though, is “quite brilliant”. Sacks makes “mincemeat” of the “primary school” arguments of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, says Sardar. And he shows “courage and integrity” on the problems of institutionalised religion: “the warning about the entrapments of power and the need for humility will not sit easily with his colleagues – here in Britain and in Israel. That, in my opinion, only enhances his stature.”

Writing in the Guardian, Richard Holloway agrees: “The compelling thing about Sacks is the passion with which he insists that only God can save us from the tragedy of nothingness.”

The book’s Wittgensteinian argument that “the universe cannot mean itself, only that which lies outside it” leads to an “awkward place”, admits Holloway. For Sacks, the fate of civilization lies in its answer to the God question: while "individuals can live without meaning, societies in the long run cannot". He thus makes the “large claim” that only God can supply the meaning we need. But “what makes Sacks such an attractive combatant in today's wars of religion is the passion with which he engages in the conflict,” says Holloway. “His argument may not persuade, but his passion almost does.”

 

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer’s novel about a bilingual girl recruited into the Special Operations Executive, the Second World War European spy network in which 39 women operated, is not without precedent, writes Alex Preston in last week’s New Statesman. Echoes of Sebastian Faulks’s Charlotte Gray abound as Marian Sutro, Mawer’s heroine, leaves her francophone childhood and embarks on a life of danger and excitement as “Alice”, a secret agent dropped into south-western France. The “conceit of nomenclature males the reading of what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward book more difficult and interesting,” says Preston. It forces us to “think about our own role, as readers, in the construction of these simulcra of real people.”

Writing in the Telegraph, Philip Womack calls the book “slick and thrilling and grown-up, like a slightly seedy uncle who smokes, drinks whisky and is always off seeing a man about a dog.” A spy is not necessarily an attractive protagonist, he says, but Mawer “gives us some compelling insights into Sutro – above all, her bravery, and her almost elemental need for risk, as when she jumps out of the plane.” The writing is “smoothly sophisticated” and “full of well-observed phrases,” he says.

“Mawer's wartime textures are extraordinary,” agrees Rachel Cooke in the Guardian: “no page ever reeks of the library; his set pieces are so beautiful you want to read them two or three times over.” While The Girl Who Fell from the Sky cannot match Mawer’s Man Booker-nominated novel The Glass Room, it is “beautifully done”, the precision at times rendering the author “more cartographer than novelist”. The heroine would have been more interesting had she not been “predictably beautiful”, says Cooke. But the overriding message is one of hope: “as numinous as faith, and twice as powerful… you apprehend its loss even as the strange ecstasy of it drives you on.”

 

Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum

“The answer to what the internet is,” writes Helen Lewis in last week’s New Statesman, “is cables – and what’s inside them, which is pulses of light flashing a million times a second.” In Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet Andrew Blum journeys across Milwaukee, Texas, Wisconsin, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and even Cornwall to satisfy his curiosity about the internet after a squirrel chewed through his broadband cable, slowing his connection. He wants to know: what happens when you send an email? Where is your Facebook page when you’re not looking at it? What exactly is the world wide web?

Blum sees cables that join together, speeding up the US internet by a fraction, cables that run under the sea, cables in underground hoses in New York. We “occasionally stray close to a good anecdote,” says Lewis. The “sloppily dressed” man who sparked terrorism fears when he appeared at a data centre in Oregon in 2004 requesting huge amounts of data turned out to be an employee from Google. The company is fiercely private as rivals are desperate for information about its engineering.

The most important question raised by the book, though, is never asked, says Lewis. There are mentions of the precariousness of the internet – an engineer from Texas-based Nanog (North American Network Operators’ Group) admits he once cut off Australia because it didn’t pay its phone bill. But if the web is so fragile and so vital, are we doing enough to protect it? “As we put ever more of our lives into ‘the cloud’,” she asks, “are we sure it’s safe there?”

Google's computer centre in the Dalles, Oregon (Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer/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