Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on André Brink, Artur Domoslawski and Claire Kilroy.

With the Man Booker shortlist scheduled to be announced in under a month the review columns are still busily ingurgitating the long list. Last week many of the papers focused André Brink’s Philida, named after its protagonist, a black slave who decides to lodge a complaint against her lover after he reneges on his promise to free her.

Peter Kemp’s review in the Sunday Times was less than adulatory. Recurrent references to tight-knit artistry can’t conceal the fact that Brink gets himself into a hapless ­tangle” he writes, appearing actively affronted by the fact that “the obscene maltreatments of slaves are regularly mentioned but seem to exist in a different realm from the one in which she [Philida] dauntlessly overrides menace”, as a result of which the book “nullifies any sense of the danger and terror her real-life counterpart must have suffered.”

Other reviewers were more positive. Alex Clark writes in the Guardian that it is “an impressively nuanced and ambiguous piece of work” whose “strength lies in the delicate understanding of subtle shifts in power in the Cape Colony's teetering ecosystem”. With these shifts come similarly subtle plays on the reader’s affections: “Brink's achievement is to invoke a measure of sympathy for the fading Dutch colonialists as well” that for their slaves. Yet this doesn’t challenge Philida’s position as the heroine and whilst she “can occasionally feel like a mouthpiece for a rather overworked metaphor … she can also be brilliantly irreverent and almost ribald”. This playfulness acts as a good contrast against the book’s more haunting moments, and these elements of “light and shade that Brink has skillfully introduced into his augmented family history make for a compelling and memorable novel.”

Patrick Flanery, writing in the Telegraph, called it “moving story” that “vividly dramatises the courage required to lay claim to the protections of the law.” “Slaves – both male and female – are repeatedly reminded in Philida that their bodies are not their own”, yet “this is not to suggest that Philida is a passive victim. If she lacks the physical strength to repel unwanted attention from her owners, her command of language becomes ever more defiant.” Whilst it is “familiar territory for Brink”, whose earlier novel Chain of Voices explored a slave rebellion that is also referenced in Philida, and “a familiar story, it is one that must continue to be told, not least by white writers willing, as Brink is, to disinter the histories of complicity buried in their own ancestries.” For it turns out that Philida's "owner" Cornelis, is the brother of one of Brink's ancestors.

The marriage of fact and fiction also occurs in the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski, though somewhat more unfortunately considering his position as a journalist. As such, one of the primary concerns of Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life, biography by Artur Domoslawski, is to chart these inaccuracies.

Ian Birrell remarks in the Guardian that though “as a reporter, his actions were indefensible”, one cannot overlook “the brilliance with which he turned frontline journalism into a form of literature.” Thus, by the end of his “masterful” and “inquisitive” biography, “Domoslawski finally understands his friend and mentor: ‘Ryszard Kapuscinski – the hero of Ryszard Kapuscinski books – is also a fictional character.’” As a result of the the controversies unearthed, the biography “caused a furore when published in Poland two years ago” gripping the country with the “confirmation of collusion with the communist authorities. But what makes it so interesting is that the author does not shred Kapuscinki's reputation, not does he ignore the mounds of uncomfortable evidence. Instead, he peels away and probes with understanding, producing not just a fascinating biography of an important writer but also a subtle study of life under authoritarianism”. Though “at times Domoslawski's style, possibly due to its translation from Polish, seems almost self–consciously to echo its subject's writing”.

Marek Kohn’s review in the Independent, however, sees more of a contrast between the work and its subject. "It refuses to adopt the strategy favored by its author's friend and mentor", for whom the "harmony of the composition counters the disturbance aroused by his accounts of war and the physiology of power." Domoslawski "never spares his readers his discomfort and dismay … He is dedicated in pursuit of evidence… [and] leaves the surfaces unsmoothed and the edges jagged.” Though Kohn does note that “both the text and its subject are tissues of complexes, striving to construct themselves out of their own insecurities.” Despite this shortcoming, he calls the result the “first comprehensive reckoning” with Kapuscinski.

Though Claire Kilroy's The Devil I Know, the fictional testimony of an Irish moneylender named Tristram, isn't poised to court controversy in the way that Domoslawski's book does, Sheena Joughin notes in the Telegraph that “the cover of [her] fourth novel declares her 'a writer unafraid to take risks', which is undeniably true.” What she is doubtful about is whether the risks always pay off, pulling out one of the protagonist's quotes "what precisely the whole sorry mess goes to show – I cannot yet say” with the wry comment that “Kilroy’s greatest risk is perhaps that readers may feel the same way.” "The prose is peppered with puns, sub-Beckettian deadpan, and much inscrutable free-association" and "lacks drama, since Tristram is never excited by the boom his company facilitates, as he would have to be for his oddly insubstantial story to engage us."

Amber Pearson's review in the Daily Mail is less damning, calling the satire “energetic” and “at times genuinely creepy”. The novel “takes delight in literary allusions and diabolical puns, but despite the humour there’s real fury in her portrayal of the casual greed, corruption and wilful delusion that pervaded society ‘like the pox’, creating a belief in a kind of modern alchemy: the conviction that Ireland’s soil could be turned to gold.”

Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski is the subject of Domoslawski's biography (Photo: 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