In the Critics this week

Žižek on Batman, Leo Robson on McEwan and Tracey Thorn on the novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

Revolt, violence and class struggle are the themes jostling to the fore of this week’s Critics pages, most explicitly in Slavoj Žižek's essay on Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise.

Žižek writes that “The Dark Knight Rises shows that Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicaments of our societies.” “The trilogy of Batman films follows an internal logic … they show in short, how our civilisation has to be grounded in a lie – one has to break the rules in order to defend the system.” Its villain, Bane "reveals himself, as the critic Tyler O’Neil has put it, to be 'the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99 per cent to band together and over-throw societal elites’.” Yet “the occupy Wall street (OWS) movement in reality was not violent… the film absurdly misrepresents its aims and strategies.” Just as telling is Žižek's examination of Batman’s wealth, “arms dealer and speculator – this is the secret beneath the batman mask. How does the film deal with it? By resuscitating the archetypal Dickensian theme of a good capitalist who finances orphanages (Wayne) versus a bad, greedy capitalist.” Yet for “all the characters, Batman included, morality is relativised and becomes a matter of convenience, something determined by circumstances. It’s open class warfare – everything is permitted in defence of the system when we are dealing not just with mad gangsters, but with popular uprising.”

One imagines that among the 1 per cent cheering into their gold-dusted popcorn at The Dark Knight Rises are those described in Tim Burt's book, Dark Art: The Changing Face of Public Relations, which the NS's reviewer Elaine Glaser believes to be “revealing – perhaps unintentionally so – about how corporate ‘leaders’ and bankers really think.” “Burt’s despatches from the world of corporate self-justification show how precarious our poor, put-upon multi-millionare chief executives feel themselves to be.” Their answer? PR, which "treats" us to “better performances of corporate probity while the reality occurs someone else.” “While business and finance may feel under attack from public opinion and a hostile media, those institutions wield more power than ever. And if big money continues to hire clever people such as Burt, malpractise and corruption won’t even see the light of day.”

Though the messages of PR and The Dark Knight Rises may be pure fantasy, Harriet Sergeant’s book Among the Hoods: My Years with a Teenage Gang examines a demographic that really did explode into violent rioting last summer. Alan White says of it: “read this book and the events of August 2011 make a whole lot more sense,” and though “not revelatory, this is still a magnificent book.” Yet the picture painted bears no resemblance to the dark masses of Batman. “Harriet Sergeant… who does most of her writing for the Daily Mail… was never going to convince us that three years she spent in the company of a south London gang was a daring foray into a hard-to-reach societal fringe. She’s just a concerned mother who befriends some very troubled young men and tries to help them.” The result is “a tale that will provoke harrumphing from both sides of the political spectrum.” “How the right will wail as she increasingly sympathises with the gang, begins to conclude that there is no option for them other than commit crime to survive." "But how the left will gripe when they see, time and again, examples of how their values have let these children down.”

Another tale of politicised violence is the IRA thriller Shadow Dancer. Ryan Gibley notes that “surprises that could have been cataclysmic tend to register here as muted tremors, which is not to say the movie isn’t powerful – only that Marsh is unfashionably interested in aftershock, rather than explosion.” As “a film that insists its characters are unknowable is in danger of relegating them to enigmatic specks in the distance but Shadow Dancer gets the balance about right, maintaining the urgency of [IRA agent] Collette’s predicament without explaining or sanitising her.” This subtlety carries through to the film’s exposition and characterisation, with “pregnant glances filling in for pages of dialogue.”

A quiet tale of conflict and espionage also forms the setting of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, which follows the story of a young woman who works as a spy during the Cold War. Like much of McEwan’s recent work, Leo Robson finds that it “rewards rereading, but not reading” as “a triumph of the most negative kind, a novel  that turns out to have been tiresome for a good reason.” “Ample precedent has taught the reader not to trust McEwan’s books any further than one can throw them (the thicker ones tend to be sneakier). His every sentences seem capable of slipping its skin to expose another.” It also “follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic” and his trademark “belief in the indispensability of solid, not to say exhaustive, scene-setting.” “It is knowing without being exactly postmodern. Another way of describing it is that McEwan is trying to resolve the conflict between humanism and postmodernism.”

Amongst these stories of earth shaking conflict and social upheaval, Tracey Thorn’s eulogy to the shy and underrated writer Elizabeth Taylor is a welcome respite. She notes that, “as in all great writing, the joy lies in the closeness of the observation.” “This reserve informs the very style of Taylor’s fiction, in which subtly, economy and understatement reign supreme. Even her humour – and she is an extremely funny writer – is dry and precise.” “She finds interest and drama in the tiniest details, the dustiest corners of our lives, and in revealing these details so accurately and gracefully she transforms the mundane into something vivid; she makes sometimes dull lives seem worth noticing, and so worth living.”

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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