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What happens if you find the people who owned your second-hand books?

Second-Hand Stories by Josh Spero follows the author as he tracks down the previous owners of his books.

It is a lovely idea and you wonder why it hasn’t been done before: tracking down the previous owners of your second-hand books, talking to them if they’re alive, telling their stories if they’re not. You find out, if possible, what the books meant to them, how they came by them, the circumstances under which they parted. You have the potential for a series of poignant narratives; and besides, who hasn’t ever felt, however fleetingly, like doing the same?

Naturally, you pick up this book and flick through it before reading it, to see what books have been chosen, rather in the spirit that you look at someone else’s bookshelves, if they’re interesting, and it dawns on you that each of the 11 books that Josh Spero has chosen is a textbook for either Latin or ancient Greek. This rather makes one wonder how the interest may be sustained. Classics may be coming back into fashion, in a way, but it is still somewhat . . . niche. Moreover, those of us who were obliged to study the subject at school do not invariably have fond memories of the time spent doing so. No one who ever learned, with feeling, the rhyme “Latin is a dead language, as dead as dead can be,/It killed the ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me” ever forgets it, yet strangely there is no place for it in this book.

However, it is worth persevering. It becomes clear early on that Spero is an engaging narrator, sympathetic to the characters he interviews (with one exception, which I’ll return to) and alive to the risks involved in his enterprise. He reproduces one of the answers given to him by email by the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, whose surname he had seen inscribed inside Latin Prose Composition by North and Hillard: “It was one of those maddening school textbooks that pupils have to buy and then find that they use them so sporadically . . . that the cost seems a waste.” Bathetically, Spero is told that the book probably belonged to Felipe’s son, Sebastian, and here things get interesting, as we are given an insight into the kind of life that is not as stellar, not as successful, as Felipe’s.

Seb (as he calls himself) has enjoyed – not that that is the word – a career on the stage and screen that largely involves appearing in turkeys, while watching contemporaries from Eton become stars. He flicks through the Latin grammar and says: “You sit in front of it and think, ‘I’ve got to translate this wretched piece of prose into Latin’ – that’s not dissimilar to what it’s like writing the plays I’ve written.” As most lives are, in one way or another, failures, a random sample such as this is going to reflect that.

Not that all the lives are failures. An old Penguin Classics edition of The Odes of Pindar was inscribed by Cecil Maurice Bowra, the translator, to Peter Levi, a one-time professor of poetry at Oxford. That chapter is illuminating and touching about Levi (who, despite his fascinating life, poetic gifts and great personal charm, could be said by some to have been a failure of a sort) and full of valuable insight into the donnish mind, capable of the kind of cruelty that can allow even its victims to describe their own minds – as Levi did – as “second-rate”. (It is the interview with a supposed friend of Levi’s that pushes Spero to uncharacteristic rage.) Then again, we also have the lives of Tom Dunbabin, a Special Operations Executive agent in wartime Crete, unambiguously heroic, and Donald Russell, still keeping his hand in at Latin verse composition in Oxford and a former code breaker in the Japanese section of Bletchley Park.

But the final note of this odd but touching book is, ultimately, failure: the worst kind, the suicide of a contemporary of ­Spero’s, James Naylor, dead at 24 (you can tell how his story is going to end early on and it doesn’t make it any easier to read; but it is no less worthwhile). I suppose this is inevitable and it is the randomness of fate that is the driver, as well as the unspoken subject, of this book. And there is, even after the sadness, a sweet perkiness about the prose, the kind of diffident charm that can be associated with classics scholars. As Spero reminds us, his surname is Latin for “I hope”. “I think this explains a lot,” he says. Maybe it does. 

Second-Hand Stories by Josh Spero is published by Unbound (336pp, £14.99)

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

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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