” Every writer, especially a novelist, whether he admits it or not, has a “message”, and everything, down to the smallest details, of his work depends on it. All art is propaganda” wrote George Orwell in 1940. “But not all propaganda is art.”
During the cold war Western intelligence agencies subsidized writers, sometimes very good ones. The CIA established literary magazines in France, Japan, and Africa. British intelligence commissioned works of fiction that supported the empire. Some authors consciously offered their pen to the state – others did not realize that governments or groups would promote their work.
Here are 5 books, all by notable authors, that according with the Economist they are works of propaganda in one way or another.
The Eyes of Asia – Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling’s role as a propagandist for the British Empire is often forgotten. In 1916 James Dunlop Smith, a British official, sent Kipling the personal letters of Indian soldiers fighting in France.
Smith asked Kipling to rewrite them with a view to eradicating any pro-Indian or revolutionary sentiment.
The Saturday Evening Post, an American magazine, published four between May and June 1917. (Three appeared in the London Morning Post.)
Kipling only put his name to them when he collected them together in a book, “The Eyes of Asia”.
The author told Dunlop Smith that, by rewriting the letters, he had “somewhat strengthened the spirit which he discerned behind them”. In fact, his revisions were more inventive
By turning the soldiers’ letters into fiction, he stripped them bare. He removed complaints such as “we are like goats tied to a butcher’s leash” and added admiring descriptions of a Britain filled with “gilt furniture, marble, silk, and mirrors”..
British intelligence liked what they read. Kipling asked Dunlop Smith if he found any “fault in the caste or mental conception of the characters.” Obviously not.
Many readers adored what one reviewer (writing about the novel “Kim”) called Kipling’s “positive, detailed and non-stereotypical portrait” of Indians. His role as a propagandist clouded his vision.
Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
During the Cold War the CIA tried to undermine censorship in the Soviet Union secretly promoting the circulation of banned books and magazines.
Spies promoted the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Nabokov. Their favorite author, however, was Boris Pasternak.
His novel “Doctor Zhivago” had “great propaganda value,” a CIA memo said in 1958. That might seem strange to say about a love story. But the CIA was interested not only in the “provocative character” of the novel, but also in the “conditions of its publication”.
Soviet literary magazines and publishing houses withdrew the book. One of them invoked Pasternak’s “viciousness” and “non-acceptance” of socialism.
An Italian literary talent scout smuggled the manuscript of “Dr. Zhivago” to Italy, where it was published in 1957. The CIA spotted an “opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what was going on with their government when an outstanding literary work by the man who recognized as the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country.”
The spy agency helped publish the book in Russian. It released more than 1,000 copies with the help of agents in eastern Europe and distributed them at the 1958 World Fair in Belgium.
He also hoped that the publication in the original Russian text would pave the way for Pasternak to win the Nobel Prize. He won it, but the Soviets forced him to deny it. He didn’t live long enough to see “Dr. Zhivago” become a blockbuster movie in 1965.
Guerrillas – Peter Mathiesen
When it was founded in 1947, the CIA hired many Yale University graduates. Peter Mathiesen was one of them. The agency sent him to Paris, where he used as a cover story that he was writing a novel, a story his CIA handler deemed “weak.”
“Partisans,” the second, follows Barney Sand, a journalist working in Paris for an American wire service, as he tracks down a former leader of the French Communist Party whom he hopes to interview. The man had helped Sand escape the Spanish Civil War when he was a child.
The novel presents such a detailed knowledge of the workings of the party that the Chicago Tribune, in a review, suggested that the author go to Moscow. However, his preference is clearly towards the West.
Sand begins to see the communists as selfish and dishonest– his patriotism grows.
The literary prose in which “Partisans” is written foreshadows the next step in Matheson’s career.
He founded the Paris Reviewa literary magazine, which he also used as cover to spy on leftist American artists and intellectuals who had moved to Paris.
The CIA thought this was a much better cover for his spy work. “Partisans” is not Matthiessen’s best work. He is the only author to have won America’s National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction.
But as Sant meanders around Paris, he reminds readers that Matthiessen observed his left-wing friends not only for the sake of art.
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
America banned Gabriel García Márquez from entering the country for three decades because of his involvement with the Colombian Communist Party in the 1950s.
However, Mundo Nuevo, a CIA-sponsored Colombian magazine, printed two chapters of his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude a year before the book was published in 1967.
The excerpts they did not include the book’s account of the “banana massacre” of 1928, in which the Colombian army, pressured by the U.S.or take action against United Fruit Company workers who were on strike; killed about 75 of them (some say up to 1000)
What Mundo Nuevo printed were descriptions of Colombia in the style that later became known as magical realism – the “marriage” of the realistic element with that of the fantastic. The magazine, which published mainly pro-American and anti-communist articles, thus appeared to be open to works written by leftists.
A CIA agent called the approach “fidelismo sin Fidel”, (Fidelism without Fidel -that is, Fidel Castro’s communist doctrine, without his anti-American revolutionism).
Garcia Marquez he was furious when he discovered that Mundo Nuevo was being paid by the CIA. In a letter to its editor, Rodríguez Monegal, he wrote that he felt like a horn.
“The Moon Down” – John Steinbeck
In June 1940, two days after France signed an armistice with Germany, John Steinbeck wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to create a system of “direct, controlled, and deliberate” propaganda.
Steinbeck followed his own advice, writing a story to inspire people in occupied Europe to rise up against the Nazis. “The Moon Down” takes place in an unnamed European country that has been taken over by a fascist force.
This imaginary place, Steinbeck wrote, is characterized by the severity of Norway, the cunning of Denmark and the logic of France. The invaders, led by Colonel Lancer, struggle to subdue a rebellion.
Members of the anti-Nazi resistance translated the novel and smuggled it into Norway, Denmark and France.
In 1945, after the end of the war, the king of Norway awarded Steinbeck the country’s Cross of Liberty for his contribution to European resistance movements.