In the Critics this week

John Burnside celebrates chance encounters with animals, Ray Monk looks at Wittgenstein, Alice Gribbin interviews John Banville and John Gray reviews Rowan Williams's ventures beyond the wardrobe door.

The Critics section of this week's New Statesman opens with John Burnside's ode to animal encounters, “of the fleeting, gorgeous exchange of a look” that is "an occasion of quiet, if short-lived joy." He laments that “real animals, wild animals, have all but passed from our lives.” “There is so little of the wild in us.” This is tragic because as “Paul Shepard has said … I suspect the greater loss is of another kind – the way a local fauna links the concept of self and the uniqueness of place in different cultures. The loss of non-human diversity erases nuances in identity. We are coarsened by the loss of animals.’”  In Burnside’s opinion this coarsening means that “Nature poetry has become more urgent than ever,” praising in particular William Stafford’s “laconic and unsettling” Travelling through the dark, which asone of the most beautifully dramatised moments in modern poetry, creates a scene in which the only live thing seems to be the car engine, and the man.”

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

Under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red.

A similar outlook can be found in Rowan Williams’s The Lion’s World: a Journey into Narnia. As John Gray writes in his review, “Williams argues that theism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint. Pointing to the central role of animals in [C S Lewis's] Narnia [novels]”. “‘The passionate campaign against nature itself is typical of the most toxic kinds of modernity’ – in which human beings are set apart from all other creatures, then invested with the special rationality needed to subjugate and remodel the world.” Williams's book is a “concise, pellucid, richly thoughtful study [which] can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone, whatever their beliefs or lack of belief, who is interested in fundamental questions about the places of humankind in the scheme of things.” Gray is uncertain of the relevance the book’s epigraph, which echoes Wittgenstein’s aphorism “'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof on must be silent’… a maxim that has attracted a good deal of criticism … it has never been entirely clear what the gnomic philosopher meant.”

Serendipitous, then, that Ray Monk has the answer to this exact question. “Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important.” “For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture” and “not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words.” Monk explains that is why Wittgenstein puzzlingly referred to himself as a disciple of Freud. Furthermore, he sees these strands of thought as embodied evocatively in a recent exhibition, Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Photography. “The exhibition began with its most intriguing item: a composite  photograph made up of four portraits or Wittgenstein and his three sisters. At first, it looks like a picture of a single person … enabling one to see directly the very strong family resemblances that existed between these four siblings.” Monk emphasizes that this notion of ‘family resemblances’ “is cruical to Wittgenstein's later philosophy”.

Alison Gribbin's interview with John Banville on Ancient Light, his latest novel about a 12-year-old who has an affair with his best friend’s mother, also has some philosophical and Freudian moments. Banville tells Gribbin: "The older I get, the more I realise writing is a process of dreaming… we like to imagine we’re in control, but actually we’re not. I think I’m less the writer than I’m the written.” He also clarified the assertion he made on Radio 4 that "writing sex into a novel is impossible" by saying that “the act is wonderful but writing about it is terrible … The erotic always tends to affection, love or negative things. You can’t write about fantasy without being ridiculous. I would love to write a pornographic book- I think it’s a great challenge.” Watch out E L James! Considering the inherent eroticism of the subject matter, combined with the strong first-person voice, Gribbin asks Banville if we are supposed to long for the interiority of the mother. He replies that “the point of Mrs Grey is that she lives on the surface.” “Nietzsche says: on the surface, that’s where the real depth is. It’s true. All a work of art can do is present the surface. I can’t know the insides of people.”

One might imagine then that Banville would be as enthused as Ryan Gilbey about a moment in the film Take This Waltz, in which a husband “gazes through the window at Magot [his wife] – her lips mouthing the words to a song that he cannot hear, her head moving to a rhythm that is inaccessible to him and likely always will be.” Gilbey, however, was less enamoured of the movie as a whole, arguing that actress Michelle Williams is "sometimes all that separates Take This Waltz from Amelie.”

Last, but not least, Brian Dillon reviews Will Self’s latest, and Man Booker-longlisted, novel Umbrella, about the Encephalitis lethargica epidemic, which sucked “victims into somnolence, torpor and coma." "The patients had not merely spun down into slow-mo; they had been seized first with a variety of tics and tremors, clawing motions and darting eye movements. In this sense, as Will Self discerns, theirs was a suitably modern, even modernist, affliction.” As such “Umbrella is as much a novel about the historical slump of modernist fiction – and its potential reanimation – as it is about the fates of encephalics.” “Yet Umbrella is not exactly a pastiche of modernist styles, nor… an effort to recharge those modes at one century’s remove… its relationship with modernism is as much a matter of historical allegory as structural or textual affinity.” “All of which suggests that Umbrella is a complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern, its art and their discontents. This being Self, though, there is also a great deal of humour.”   

Author John Banville, interviewed in this week's New Statesman (Photograph: Getty)
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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