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24 January 2023

From Don Paterson to Brigitte Reimann: new titles reviewed in short

Also featuring Pegasus by Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud and Sensational by Ashley Ward.

By Oscar Williams, Tom Gatti, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Michael Prodger

Pegasus: The Story of the World’s Most Dangerous Spyware by Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud
Macmillan, 336pp, £20

Every technology of liberation has been “turned into a tool of repression as well”. This is the guiding maxim of Claudio Guarnieri, an ethical hacker who plays a starring role in Pegasus, a thrilling account of the development and exposure of the world’s most powerful “spyware”. Guarnieri’s maxim rings true both for the internet and the cyber-weapon at the centre of this book. Pegasus was developed by an Israeli tech firm to weaponise smartphones against their owners. They promised that it would aid crackdowns on sex traffickers, terrorists and criminal gangs, and liberate their victims. But like most cyber weapons, Pegasus has also been used for less worthy means, to spy on political dissidents, activists and journalists, such as Jamal Khashoggi, who agitated against corrupt regimes.

The French reporters’ book documents in meticulous detail the lengths they and their consortium of publishing partners went to in order to expose the abuse of Pegasus by governments around the world. It is a timely reminder of investigative reporting’s power, that the right to privacy has been gradually eroded and that few other liberties can survive without it.
By Oscar Williams

Toy Fights: A Boyhood by Don Paterson
Faber & Faber, 384pp, £16.99

Don Paterson is a prize-winning poet but poetry barely gets a look-in in this memoir of his life up to the age of 20 – music looms too large. Born in Dundee in 1963, Paterson was brought up on a “scheme” (housing estate) in a musical home: his jobbing-guitarist father opened for the likes of Shirley Collins and John Martyn. Having failed at piano, trumpet and trombone, the 14-year-old Paterson – whose tastes were heading jazz-wards – stopped skirting his dad’s shadow and “succumbed” to the guitar.

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“Succumbed” is apt because Paterson’s childhood is defined by struggle, surrender and survival. His school, the grimly named Baldragon Academy, is a place of violence and abuse. His spell of “religious mania” leaves him wracked with guilt. And in his late teens the “endless horror” of a schizophrenic episode leads to hospitalisation, and an epiphany: “You knew that the ego was a construct… because you’d watched it dismantled.” It’s clear from the garrulous footnotes of this witty, forthright memoir that even in middle-aged literary respectability, Paterson’s battles – with enemies ranging from the woke left to trendy prose poetry – continue.
By Tom Gatti

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Siblings by Brigitte Reimann, translated by Lucy Jones
Penguin Classics, 144pp, £12.99

The first work by the cult East German author Brigitte Reimann to be published in English is a striking portrait of what it feels like to be young, idealistic and crushed by the systems around you. It is 1960. The siblings of the title are Elisabeth, an artist, and her brother Uli, who tells her he plans to leave their home of East Germany and defect to the West. Elisabeth is devastated, not only because she fears the weakening of their relationship, but because his desertion is a betrayal of the communist state in which she has so much faith.

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This translation of Siblings (it was first published in German in 1963) marks 50 years since Reimann’s death, aged just 39, 16 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her depiction of the complexities of nationhood are remarkably modern, and her portrayal of the sibling bond unnerving and tender: “We had interlaced our fingers in either affection or weariness.” Elisabeth sees her generation as principled compared to her parents’, who didn’t do enough to stop the Nazis’ rise to power. Yet Uli’s threatened departure stirs in her resentment entangled with longing for a life she will not allow herself to even imagine.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Sensational: A New Story of Our Senses by Ashley Ward
Profile, 320pp, £20

According to the animal behaviourist Ashley Ward, humans are more nuanced creatures than we believe. We do not have just five senses, he says, but as many as 53, with our sensory receptors acting “like an army of hyperactive stenographers” sending messages to the brain, which turns them into meaning. This book is a diverting and information-rich gallop through the quirks and rationales of our sensory refinement.

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Sight, for example, may use up more brain computing power than the other senses combined but it is nowhere near as refined as our sense of smell – we can detect the equivalent of a single drop of chemical in two Olympic swimming pools. Meanwhile, touching another person leads to an improved immune system and releases chemicals that calm us, which is why fingertips have 240 nerve fibres per centimetre while the torso has just nine in the same space, and why touch starts in the womb. In fact after fact, Ward uses the senses to explain everything from why we kiss to how we maintain our balance. We owe our senses everything, he says; it is a combination of their barely fathomable complexity that enables us to negotiate the world. 
By Michael Prodger

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This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better