Yiyun Li's first novel, Kinder than Solitude, is set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Photo: Getty
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China’s Chekhov: Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

The sophomore novel from the author of story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Kinder than Solitude
Yiyun Li
Fourth Estate, 312pp, £16.99

In her award-winning story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and her superb first novel The Vagrants, Yiyun Li writes about how human relationships have endured or been crushed by China’s chaotic reality.

However, it is in America that Li’s importance as a writer is established. She is a MacArthur fellow and one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to watch. None of her works has been published in Chinese. And even though she didn’t move from Beijing to San Francisco until she was 24, she writes solely in English. “Chinese is rather an inhibitory language for me,” she has said. “I don’t have a Chinese vocabulary for most emotions because I grew up in this environment where emotions were not encouraged.”

Kinder than Solitude, like Li’s first novel, is about the unspoken emotional fallout of a young woman’s death in a small community. While The Vagrants revolved around the execution of a dissident during the Cultural Revolution, Kinder than Solitude is set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Shaoai, a belligerent student awaiting punishment for her part in the protests, is mysteriously poisoned.

The story begins with the arrival of Ruyu, an unloved orphan who moves in with Shaoai’s family in a close-knit quadrangle in Beijing. Shaoai spares no effort in making her feel unwelcome, but her young friends Moran and Boyang (the only boy) happily take her under their wing. The three friends are the prime suspects in Shaoai’s poisoning although no one is charged with the crime. The novel evolves like a thriller that depends less on whodunnit than on differing emotional consequences for the three suspects: “A secret that never heals makes a person, however close, a stranger,” says Ruyu, “or worse, an intimate, an enemy.” Ruyu’s calm, inscrutable voice dominates the novel, and those around her. Her aggressive stoicism unsettles the community much more than the protests. “Intimacy and alienation,” writes Li, “both required effort beyond Ruyu’s willingness.”

In the two decades it takes for the poison to disfigure and finally kill Shaoai, the three friends enter their own quiet and insistent versions of solitude. Twenty years on, Ruyu dispassionately studies “her bruised body in a mirror so that she could have a better sense of the pain she should feel”. Moran becomes “a weary impersonator of all that one was not”. Boyang, the only one to stay in Beijing, cruises the streets as a cynical womaniser. As Li reveals the ways in which the emotionally destitute see themselves, judgements become harder to pass, conclusions murky and elusive.

Distance provides some perspective. Both Ruyu and Moran move to the US, making Kinder than Solitude one of the few times that Li’s fiction has left Chinese soil. Though America doesn’t generate the vivid descriptions that light up Beijing, this cultural shift provides a platform for Li to examine afresh the notions of fate and culpability.

As a child, Moran was once reminded of an old Chinese saying: “An egg never wins when it hurls itself against a rock.” It helps explain why she and Boyang find Ruyu’s fatalism so beguiling and, ultimately, contagious. In America, however, it is utterly baffling. To her waspish San Francisco employer, Ruyu is a curio rather than a threat, her chronic stoicism almost comical: “Disappointment is for those who begin with a plan, those who sow seeds and refuse to accept the barrenness of life.”

Although the lives and landscapes of this book become bleak indeed (marriages fall apart, no children are born, disconnection is the default), Li’s insight and humanity breathe beauty into the barrenness. And, despite the aimlessness of the characters, the plot is powered by the underlying mystery of Shaoai’s poisoning that, when resolved, poses forceful questions about agency and blame.

If it seems like Li is sidestepping politics, she isn’t. Her novel is published during the 25th-anniversary year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and its smaller tragedy seems interchangeable with the one that overshadows it: “One day neighbours in the quadrangle would refer to this time as the days when Shaoai had been mysteriously sick, as they would speak of the May afternoon when an army tank was overthrown and burned down at a nearby crossroads, or the day in June when Teacher Pang’s cousin pedalled three bodies on his flatbed tricycle from the Square to the hospital.”

Kinder than Solitude lacks the colourful personalities of The Vagrants, and at times the characters’ isolation can be a little overbearing. Yet this is also where Li’s writing is most powerful: her penetrating, understated sentences perfectly capture the muted feelings of her characters. No wonder she has been called China’s Chekhov.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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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