Robin Williams in 1998, after receiving an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting. Photo: Getty
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Using art to understand life: not everything you can imagine is real

From Robin Williams’s death to the Arab Spring, we have to resist the urge to impose simple storylines on complex events.

Among the many tributes tweeted in the wake of Robin Williams’ death on Sunday night was one by actress Evan Rachel Wood, featuring an image of the Genie (voiced by Williams) embracing Aladdin in the 1992 Disney animated film, accompanied by the caption “Genie. You’re free”. The tweet was retweeted over 100,000 times and an unattributed copy of it an hour later tweeted from the official Academy of Arts and Motion Picture Sciences account outdid that, with over 320,000 retweets. For most people, these were touching tributes, remembering the late actor in a manner that connected with most of his fans, particularly those who first came to know him in the early 1990s. There were others though, especially suicide awareness activists, who criticised it for a supposedly dangerous romanticisation of suicide. I too was a bit put out by this blithe summation, however well-intentioned, of a life tragically ended, something that Williams’ friends and family – who are, we ought to remember, the ones actually bereaved – may not subscribe to. It also seemed that suicide was being recast, in an oddly crass manner, as a quintessentially Hollywood act of self-realisation. The butterfly emerging from its pupa, as it were.

It might seem a little harsh to criticise Wood or The Academy’s social media button-presser for their fatuousness – maybe it just came natural for them to conceive of a tragic event with the vocabulary and tropes they were most familiar with. After all, the lexicon of condolence and sympathy shared by most people and repeated every time a friend or acquaintance is bereaved is one that is as universal as it is limited. There may also be a tendency of people who are involved in the production of art and entertainment to see forms and hear echoes of those works in every life and sometimes in world events. Occasionally the tendency can give rise to insensitive formulations, such as Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s rambling opinion, delivered soon after 9/11, that the attacks on the World Trade Center “the biggest work of art there has ever been”. No amount of protesting and clarification about context was ever going to later undo those words in the minds of the general public.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s assertion that the first Gulf War “did not take place” on account of its existence for westerners as a media event was taken by many in the English-speaking world as proof of a decadent Left Bank philosophe bringing an abstract epistemological template to bear on an actual war. Few of those commentators were aware though that Baudrillard’s essay used as an anchor reference Jean Giraudoux’s 1935 stage play La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place). Giradoux’s historical allegory is relatively unknown in English-speaking countries, where it was, in any case, staged under the title Tiger at the Gates. While Baudrillard’s thesis was one of a notional “virtual” modern war, rather than the failed inter-war diplomacy that Giraudoux skewered, the post-structuralist instinctively reached for the cultural vocabulary to mount his argument. It was not really his fault that the connotations were obscure to most outside of France.

I have to myself admit to having a predilection for “narrativising” contemporary events in a way that makes them appear to be lifted from fiction or drama, though, in some cases, the coincidences make it easy to do. Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Booker in 2010. The titular slap is one given by an adult to someone else’s brattish five-year-old at a suburban barbecue in Melbourne. And so follows a contentious tale of disputes and fallings-out among a group of friends each steadily advancing, at different stages, into parenthood. The Slap is a disappointing novel, its vivid portrayal of working-class and immigrant life marred by some woefully leaden prose and the seismic promise of the title’s action never materialises. A real-life slap however in late 2010 would have far-reaching consequences worthy of a great novel.

In December of that year in Sidi Bouzid, a dusty, economically stagnant town deep in Tunisia’s interior, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed university graduate was trying to eke out a living illegally selling fruit and veg on the town’s main square. One afternoon he was accosted by a policewoman and told to pack up his wares and go. It was Bouazizi’s third arrest for illegal hawking but this one was the most humiliating, because, according to his family, a female municipal office slapped him on the face. The youngster returned to the square, doused himself in petrol outside the governor’s office and set himself alight. Bouazizi died of his injuries eighteen days later, by which time he had been visited in his hospital bed by an increasingly nervous Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, and anti-government protests had spread across the country. In the week that followed Bouazizi’s death, Ben Ali addressed the nation twice but was eventually pushed to step down by the military; he and his notoriously corrupt family then fled to Saudi Arabia.

We all know what happened next – Egypt rose up in arms and overthrew Hosni Mubarak after almost three decades of authoritarian rule. Then there were protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and finally, Syria, each of which western and Arab powers took differing attitudes towards. It was the most momentous world-historical chain of events since the fall of the Berlin Wall in over two decades earlier. Like the events of 1989, it was actually the result of a cumulated process of historical facts and events (protests over food prices and the police murder of another youngster, Khaled Mohamed Saeed, could as easily have tipped the balance in Egypt in mid-2010) but it also had a similar air of narrative concision about it. As events unfolded, with many of the protagonists active in real time on Twitter and Facebook, you felt you were witnessing something epic. One of those protagonists, the young Emirati journalist Sultan al-Qassemi, tweeted upon his first post-revolution visit to Cairo that he felt like he was meeting characters from a favourite novel. Events since then, of course, took a more sinister twist in Egypt, with the SCAF’s bloody crackdowns on protests, rising sectarian violence, a military coup that dares not speak its name and we are now left with a situation where the country’s foremost novelist Alaa al-Aswany is a vocal supporter of the current repressive government. As Syria spiralled into an increasingly horrendous civil war, which has in turn overspilled into Lebanon and Iraq, the exhilaration at being at such a close vantage point to unfolding history has sharply receded. This is not to say that the uprisings against sclerotic totalitarian rule were a bad thing or that the sour turn so many of them took was inevitable, rather than the result of specific political actions or choices. What is true though is that there is a clear limit to the amount of narrative jouissance to be had from observing “interesting times”, least of all from a safe distance. Ironically, the only one of the Arab countries that rose up in rebellion that looks to be still in reasonable shape is Tunisia itself; the north African country has not been spared civil strife, with economic crisis, political assassinations, stand-offs with Salafists and encroaching Islamisation in universities, but it has largely managed to address those crises peacefully, by consensual rather than conflictual means.

This tendency to see narrative or artistic forms in real life, just as Fibonacci sequences are revealed in natural life-forms, is understandable enough. Even the way we experience and remember our dreams is quite probably beholden to our cultivated sense of narration. The power and genius of great (and even sometimes minor) art lies in its ability to map, mimic and project everyday and historic reality, sometimes unwittingly so, long after its creator’s death. Consequently, art and literature provide us with the tools and the vocabulary to interpret and understand reality. It is not for nothing that words such as “Dickensian”, “Kafkaesque” or “Orwellian” have passed into general usage and their resonance is understood even by people who have never read the works of the writers in question. Even minor literary characters such as Svengali, Nicolas Chauvin, or the supporting players from Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (which coined the word “robot”) serve as linguistic functions for interpreting the real world that lies beyond the page. It is worth remembering though that that real world is mostly messy and inchoate and can rarely be shoehorned into the confines of what are the arbitrary conventions of narrative and artistic form. It might be tempting to sense in tragic images or events culled from news headlines echoes of Shakespeare, of Michelangelo or even of horror films and disaster movies. Maybe it is best though not to lose the run of yourself when you do so.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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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