In the Critics this week

Gessen on Amis pere, Gray on Ballard, Drabble on Rowling and Robson on the Booker.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray considers a new collection of interviews with the novelist J G Ballard. Ballard’s political views often inspired perplexity, Gray notes, though “why a writer presenting a view of life that subverts humanist pieties should be expected to defer to conventional political wisdom is not clear”. The conversations gathered in this book remind us, Gray concludes, that “Ballard’s stories are metaphors, not literal renditions of events – actual or realistically possible … [They are] creations of the imagination that expand our sense of possibility and affirm the renewal of life.”

In the Books interview, Rachel Haliburton talks to A N Wilson about his new novel The Potter’s Hand, based on the life of Josiah Wedgwood. Wilson’s father was a director of the Wedgwood pottery firm and he tells Haliburton that the novel “did come from a deep part of myself. So in that sense, it was very easy to write.”

Also in Books: novelist Margaret Drabble reviews J K Rowling’s first work of fiction for adults, The Casual Vacancy (“Though Rowling claims there is comedy here, there is not much to laugh about”); Helen Lewis on Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (“Ben Goldacre is angry, and by the time you put Bad Pharma down, you should be too”); Rebecca Abrams on The City of Abraham by Edward Platt (“the tragedy of Hebron lies not in its mythic history but in entrenched ideologies that make the possibility of coexistence increasingly remote”); Hans Kundnani reviews Günter Grass’s diary of the year 1990, From Germany to Germany (“Grass [was] hopelessly out of step with the mood in Germany”); Oliver Bullough on The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski (“Poland’s war was so terrible as to almost defy summary”); Daniel Tyler reviews Judith Flanders’s The Victorian City (“Flanders captures the variety and colour of 19th-century London, stirring admiration and indignation by turns”). PLUS: the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson assesses the shortlist for this year’s Man Book Prize. The chair of the judges, Sir Peter Stothard, has, Robson avers, “been making the right noises and an unabashed seriousness about literary debate has always been not incidental but central to what makes the prize worth having and even cherishing.”

Our Critic at large this week is the Russian-born American writer and co-editor of n+1 magazine Keith Gessen. Gessen writes about the friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, which was the laboratory for Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim, published in 1954. “Amis began Lucky Jim as a book about Larkin,” Gessen notes. “Jim Dixon in the end is an Amis-Larkin hybrid who manages to be sweeter and more engaging than either of the men on their own. They were both Lucky Jim.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke praises Best Possible Taste, the BBC’s Kenny Everett biopic; Antonia Quirke is beguiled by the World Service’s Boston Calling; Alexandra Coghlan vists the Beethovenfest in Bonn; and Ryan Gilbey reviews Taken 2, in which Liam Neeson confirms his transformation into an action hero. PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals.

Kingsley Amis in 1967 (Photograph: 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