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In the New Statesman this week: Autumn Fiction Special

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by the biggest names in British literature.

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by two British literary heavyweights, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Our own critical prizefighter Leo Robson argues that scientists and historians have captured the brains of these two writers, now in their mid-60s, bringing them to the point where facts overpower their fiction. You can read Leo’s review online now, as a taster of our Autumn Fiction Special, which also includes:

Lionel Shriver on The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Frances Wilson on the Booker-longlisted How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Eimear McBride on The Wake by Paul Kinsnorth, published by innovative crowdfunding publisher Unbound

Rachel Holmes on The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Olivia Laing on The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Neel Mukherjee on The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Ian Sansom on J by Howard Jacobson

And finally, although he enjoys reading Shark, the latest novel by Will Self, the NS’s critic at large Mark Lawson recommends it only to unemployed readers who have both “insomnia and a catheter”, because it is a “chapter-free, gap-less, italics-and-ellipsis-strewn chunk of 480 sides”:

Although driven by considerations of plotting and pace, the structure of a work of literature often also acknowledges the ease of the reader: the crime writer Peter James recommends short chapters so that people can read two or three before going to sleep. In that sense, the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break. But, in an era when publishers and reading groups exert so much pressure towards the soft read, Self (along with Philip Hensher and both Smiths [Ali and Zadie]) is saving the life of the hard read that rewards the attention demanded.

This week’s New Statesman, “The New Caliphate” is available in shops NOW. To purchase a copy, visit www.newstatesman.com/subscribe or visit the App Store.

And if that wasn’t enough to chew on, Philip Maughan has written a preview of the next clutch of new big-name novels, due out later this year:

The year’s most beautiful season is also the busiest for those in the book business. Canadian dynamo Margaret Atwood kicks off the second wave of notable titles this autumn with a new collection of dark fables, Stone Mattress, on 28 August (look out for an interview soon in the NS). Competing with her for the prize of hottest story collection of 2014 is Hilary Mantel (the deliciously titled Assassination of Margaret Thatcher lands on 25 September), Kirsty Gunn, whose Infidelities will be published on 6 November along with another Canadian, Eliza Robertson, who publishes her hotly-tipped debut Wallflowers on 16 September.

Virago will release the new novel by Marilynne Robinson on 9 October, the third instalment in the Gilead series, Lila, which tells the story of a rogue child coming to terms with her new life as a minister’s wife. Irish writer Colm Tóibín begins what might turn out to be a Robinson-style character survey in Nora Webster, when Nora, the sister who stayed behind in his 2009 novel Brooklyn, attempts to rebuild herself after a shattering bereavement.

On a break from producing the film script for Tóibín’s Brooklyn (which stars Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson, and will be released in 2015), Nick Hornby returns on 6 November with Funny Girl, the story of a Blackpool beauty queen, Sophie Straw, beginning to doubt whether she is cut out for the showbiz world. After the unearthly cool of Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin, Faber returns with The Book of Strange New Things, also on an extraterrestrial theme. Peter Leigh, an evangelical Christian, is a missionary expedition to the planet of Oasis, where he must translate the Gospels into a language comprehendible to the alarmingly enthusiastic natives.

The beginning of November sees the return of Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford’s most endearing alter-ego, surveying the damage done to his New Jersey home by Hurricane Sandy in Let Me Be Frank with You. Finally, on the slippery slope to Christmas, trains and planes worldwide to fill up with copies of Us, the new novel from One Day author David Nicholls, published in hardback on 30 September.

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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