Six Books You Didn’t Know Were Propaganda

The Economist on these books: ALL ART is propaganda”, wrote George Orwell in 1940, “but not all propaganda is art.” Few people would argue with the second part of that aphorism. There is nothing artistic about the dreadful ramblings of “Mein Kampf”. But the first seems true only if you are using a broad definition of propaganda. These days great works of art rarely set out to serve the purposes of a government. They may promote causes, but that is not normally why people esteem them. The books on this list, however, partially vindicate the first part of Orwell’s assertion. Governments or ideological groups either encouraged their authors to write them or promoted their writings for political ends. During the cold war Western intelligence agencies subsidized authors, sometimes very good ones. The CIA set up literary magazines in France, Japan and Africa. One purpose was to counter censorship by autocrats. Another was to make global culture friendlier to Western aims. British intelligence services commissioned works of fiction that supported empire. Some writers consciously offered their pens to the state; others did not realise that governments or groups would promote their work. Here are six books, all by authors of merit, that are works of propaganda in one way or another.

The Eyes of Asia by Rudyard Kipling:

Rudyard Kipling’s role as a propagandist for the British empire is often forgotten. British intelligence recruited the author during the first world war to write fiction that sought to undermine Indian nationalism. In 1916 James Dunlop Smith, a British official, sent Kipling the private letters of Indian soldiers fighting in France. Smith asked Kipling to rewrite them to erase 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 put his name to them only when he packaged them together in a book, “The Eyes of Asia”. The author told Dunlop Smith that in rewriting the letters he had “somewhat amplified the spirit [he] thought [he] saw behind” them. In fact, his revisions were more inventive than that. In turning the soldiers’ epistles into fiction he sanitized them. He excised complaints like “we are like goats tied to a butcher’s stake”, and inserted admiring descriptions of Britain as filled with “gilt furniture, marble, silks, mirrors”. British intelligence liked what it read. Kipling asked Dunlop Smith whether he found any “error in caste or mental outlook in the characters”. It appears he did not. Many readers have admired what one critic (writing about the novel “Kim”) called Kipling’s “positive, detailed and non-stereotypic portrait” of Indian people. His role as a propagandist clouded his vision.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

During the Cold War, the CIA sought to undermine censorship in the Soviet Union by secretly promoting the circulation of books and magazines. The spies sent the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Nabokov. Their favorite author was Boris Pasternak. His novel “Doctor Zhivago” had “great propaganda value,” declared a CIA memo in 1958. It may seem surprising to say that about a love story. But the CIA was interested not only in the “challenging nature” of the novel, but also in the “circumstances of its publication.” Soviet literary magazines and publishing houses suppressed the book. One of them invoked Pasternak’s “meanness” and his “non-acceptance” of socialism. The Soviets did not like his religious fervor. An Italian literary talent scout smuggled the manuscript of “Doctor Zhivago” to Italy, where it was published in 1957. The CIA saw it as an “opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what’s wrong with their government, while a fine literary work by the man recognized as the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country.” The spy agency therefore published the book in Russian. She distributed more than 1,000 copies with the help of agents in Eastern Europe and distributed them at the Belgian World’s Fair in 1958. She hoped that publication in the original Russian would pave the way for Pasternak won the Nobel Prize. He got it, but the Soviets forced him to refuse it. He didn’t live to see “Dr. Zhivago” become a hit film (pictured above) in 1965.


Partisans by Peter Matthiessen

When the CIA was founded in 1947, it hired many Yale University graduates. Peter Matthiessen was one of them. The agency sent him to Paris, where he used as cover the fact that he was writing a novel, a story his CIA handler in the city deemed “weak.” Matthiessen actually wrote a novel in Paris, in fact two. The second, “Partisans,” follows Barney Sand, a Parisian journalist for an American news agency, in search of a former leader of the French Communist Party whom he hopes to interview. The communist had helped Sand escape the Spanish Civil War when he was a child. The novel displays such detailed knowledge of the workings of the party that the Chicago Tribune, in a review, suggested its author return to Moscow. Yet his sympathies are clearly with the West. Sand comes to view communists as selfish and dishonest; his patriotism grew. The self-conscious literary prose in which “Partisans” is written foreshadows the next stage of Matthiessen’s career. He founded the Paris Review, a literary magazine that he also used as a cover to spy on left-wing American artists and intellectuals who had settled in Paris. The CIA felt this was a much better cover for its espionage work. “Partisans” is not Matthiessen’s best work. He is the only writer to have won the American National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction. But, meandering around Paris, Sand reminds readers that Matthiessen observed his leftist friends not just for the love of art.-

Read Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi, an Iranian émigré and English teacher, rose to fame in 2003 when she published her memoirs about the Islamic Revolution. “Reading Lolita in Tehran” was an immediate success in the United States, spending 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It is the exciting story of eight Iranian women who meet secretly to study the novels of Nabokov, Gustave Flaubert and Henry James. Ms. Nafisi’s students are children of the Islamic Republic who are rebelling against its book bans and the “putrid and deceptive hyperbole” of its rhetoric. This description does not apply to “Reading Lolita”, which deserves the admiration given to it. However, it owes a debt to institutions that are not typical of literary memoirs. Ms. Nafisi thanks the Smith Richardson Foundation, which seeks to “advance U.S. interests and values ​​abroad,” for a grant that helped her write the book. It is only through “literature that we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes,” Ms. Nafisi writes. For Western readers, “Reading Lolita” is illuminating, as the literature was for its students. He also supports a harsh judgment on Iran’s theocracy, which America continues to hope will be influential.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

America banned Gabriel García Márquez from entering the country for three decades because he was involved in the Colombian Communist Party in the 1950s. He briefly belonged to a party cell. However, Mundo Nuevo, a Colombian magazine financed by the CIA, published two chapters of his masterpiece “One Hundred Years of Solitude” a year before the book’s publication in 1967. The excerpts did not include the story of “A Hundred Years of Solitude.” Banana Massacre” of 1928, in which the Colombian army, pressured by America to take action against striking United Fruit Company employees, killed about 75 of them. What Mundo Nuevo published were descriptions of Colombia in the style that later came to be called magical realism. The magazine, which mainly published pro-American and anti-communist articles, showed that it was also open to works written by members of the political left. A CIA agent called this approach “fidelismo sin Fidel,” the communist creed of Fidel Castro, Cuba’s leader, without his anti-American revolutionism. García Márquez was furious to discover that Mundo Nuevo was in the pay of the CIA. In a letter to his editor, Rodríguez Monegal, he writes that he feels cuckolded.

Black Moon (The Moon is down) by John Steinbeck

In June 1940, two days after the signing of the armistice between France and Germany, John Steinbeck wrote to Franklin Roosevelt, the American president, to ask his administration to implement “immediate, controlled and thoughtful” propaganda “. Steinbeck followed his own advice by writing a story to inspire the people of occupied Europe to rise up against the Nazis. “The Moon Is Down” takes place in an unnamed European country that has been invaded by a fascist power. This fictional place, writes Steinbeck, is characterized by the severity of Norway, the cunning of Denmark and the reason of France. The occupiers, led by Colonel Lanser, struggle to subdue an uprising. Members of the resistance against the Nazis translated the novel and smuggled it into Norway, Denmark and France. In 1945, after the end of the war, the King of Norway presented Steinbeck with the country’s Cross of Liberty for his contributions to European resistance movements.

Source: The Economist, Nov 2023