All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: A novel like crisply folded origami, intricate and well made

Claire Lowdon on the humble and bold second novel from Granta's "Best Young British Novelist" Evie Wyld.

All the Birds, Singing
Evie Wyld
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £16.99

“I had a funny feeling sometimes, as if I had been stamped and posted and they were waiting for me to be delivered at an important address. I may contain unusual information,” says Charlie Citrine in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. Evie Wyld, one of Granta’s “best of young British novelists 2013”, knows all about the value of unusual information – how vital it is to fiction. Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (2009), laid out the arcana of a Sydney cake shop, a busy marina and an Australian conscript’s experience of Vietnam. In All the Birds, Singing, the specialist subject is sheep-farming. It contains a huge arsenal of research that Wyld deploys expertly without fanfare.

Then there is the Australian landscape, which provides the backdrop to much of Wyld’s fiction – not unique information, perhaps, but unusual if you are British and rarely have to think about poisonous spiders or the sun. Although the prose never dazzles, Wyld writes landscape well. She cannily plays to her strengths, relying on sheer volume of detail and the evocative power of unfamiliar vocabulary (Utes, huntsman spiders, nudibranchs, goannas, and so on).

This is her modus operandi: patience, good craftsmanship, precision. Both her novels feel like crisply folded origami, intricate and well made. They employ the same structure, with two narrative strands developed in alternating chapters. In After the Fire, one story follows a father, the other his son. All the Birds, Singing introduces a variation. We are reading the story of Jake Whyte as told by herself. In one strand, Jake is a solitary sheep farmer on an unnamed British island; but in the alternate chapters she tells us the story of her young life in Australia – backwards.

So, we have two parts of the same narrative, told in opposite directions. It soon becomes clear that at the end of the backwards story – really the beginning – there will be trauma. There are terrible scars on Jake’s back but we don’t know how she got them. When another character wonders about them, she lies. We know because she tells us. “‘Was it a customer?’ he asks and I nod, letting the lie set in immediately.” Jake is never an unreliable narrator, just a rather unforthcoming one.

Wyld is at her best when exploiting the possibilities of this unusual structure. Jakein- the-present wants to forget her past: as she moves around her island sheep farm, we rarely hear her thinking about life in Australia. Yet the past keeps repeating for her like a mackerel supper. On page six, on the island, we see her checking her muscle tone. “It was still there even if I hadn’t sheared in months. Strong lady.” “Strong lady” is out of register somehow – and why is it italicised? We won’t understand until page 47, when, in the other narrative, years earlier, a boyfriend (with whomshe was briefly happy) calls her “strong lady” affectionately. On page six, then, it is a memory that surfaces unbidden, presumably painful in its sweetness. This effect is employed multiple times, without explanation. It is subtly, delicately done, as is Jake’s transition, in the backwards narrative, from experience to innocence.

The present-day plot line contains a mystery, too: something is killing Jake’s sheep, brutally. Foxes and local teenagers are discounted, pointing towards a more sinister solution. Both storylines – indeed, both novels – consist of inaction punctuated by bursts of violence. “I made my coffee and drank it looking at the wall. After some time had passed, I laid out my paperwork on the kitchen table and worked through it.” This kind of writing is only possible when underpinned by suspense. In this sense, All the Birds, Singing shares a dynamic with horror, although it is much more muted, much more tasteful.

Writing about nothing much happening is bold and difficult. Wyld mostly succeeds. Yet “tasteful” is not an unequivocal positive. It includes an implication that little is being risked, that rules are being adhered to. There are moments of real beauty: “Greg’s sheep are sleek and clean with no grazes, like they’ve been buttered.” She writes particularly well – bravely, clearly – about sex. “His cock hangs in that in-between state like the end of it is attached to a thread.” But there is also a lot of bricklaying: thick blankets of silence, legs like tree trunks, sweat on a face in pearls. “He made a pot and took it to the kitchen table and there was a small spillage, just a splash. He got two mugs. He placed the sugar on the table with a spoon and sat down.” Nothing is wrong here. Good foundations, perfect pointing. But it isn’t the Sistine Chapel.

A kookaburra inspects the Cattana Wetlands in Cairns, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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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