At the height of the cold war, the CIA ran an initiative known as “cultural diplomacy”. Following the premise that “great art comes from true freedom”, the agency seized on painting, music and literature as effective tools for promoting the western world’s values, and funded abstract expressionism exhibitions and jazz tours. But when it came to the country that produced Tolstoy, Pushkin and Gogol – a nation that, according to a character in Lara Prescott’s impressive debut novel, “values literature like the Americans value freedom” – the focus was always going to be on the written word. And her subject, the part the CIA played in bringing Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece Doctor Zhivago to worldwide recognition, was the jewel in cultural diplomacy’s crown.
In 1955 rumours began to circulate that Pasternak, hitherto known largely as a poet, having survived a heart attack and Stalin’s purges, was ailing and politically compromised but had nonetheless managed to finish his magnum opus. The sweeping, complex historical epic – and simple love story – that is Doctor Zhivago had been a decade in the writing under the most adverse circumstances imaginable: the imprisonment of Pasternak’s lover, Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya; the death in the gulag of his friend and fellow writer Osip Mandelstam and the suicides of two others in his circle, Paolo Iashvili and Marina Tsvetaeva; constant surveillance and his own ill health. Because of its subversive emphasis on the individual and its critical stance on the October Revolution, no publishing house in the Eastern bloc would touch it. When an enterprising Italian publisher sent a secret emissary to Pasternak’s dacha, in miserable desperation the writer handed it over, with the inscription “This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.” The manuscript was smuggled out to West Berlin – and the CIA made their move. Their aim was clandestinely to publish a Russian edition and return it to its homeland.
This is remarkable raw material for a novel. Prescott’s book, the subject of a legal row after Pasternak’s great-niece Anna Pasternak accused her of plagiarising her own biography of Olga, has all the ingredients for a spy thriller. It has a great cast of characters and a wealth of historical detail to be mined, plus the potential for insight into a bizarre and compelling point in our history and, of course, a love story. Prescott’s first achievement is her identification of these qualities: weaving them into a complex and involving narrative is altogether more of a challenge, but she works hard and with considerable ambition to meet it, and entwines a surprising love story of her own invention.
Like Doctor Zhivago, her novel follows a number of characters’ viewpoints. There is Pasternak himself and Olga, whom we first encounter as she is arrested, pregnant with his child, and imprisoned for refusing to divulge what she knows of the book. Irina Prozdhova, the Washington-based émigré daughter of a man murdered by the Russian regime, has been newly recruited by the agency; Sally Forrester is an experienced spy and honeytrap or “swallow”. Both these women have secrets of their own. And, most engagingly, we hear from the communal voice of the typing pool of the CIA’s Soviet Russia division.
There are a couple of male walk-on parts, including, in the novel’s only properly bum note, CIA agent Teddy Helms, who courts Irina and whose brief section on a mission to Britain is so full of missteps (his MI6 contact referring to “the little Mrs”, English fish and chips being breaded rather than battered) that one begins to wonder if the author intends it as a riff on his obtuseness. And indeed there is a sly joke against the patriarchy woven into the plot: at a time when women were at their most invisible, expected to confine themselves to traditional roles, they made the best spies. It is the female characters who carry this adventure, from the pragmatic, loyal, indestructible Olga to the marvellous typists. With their Virginia Slims and Thermoses of turkey noodle soup, they make up a kind of smart, gossipy Greek chorus whose commentary begins and ends the novel.
Prescott may not be an accomplished prose stylist, but her characterisation is often deft. Her Pasternak is vividly flawed: histrionic, lachrymose but stubbornly lovable. Her research is thorough if occasionally a little too visible, and the portrayal of the love between Olga and Pasternak is poignant and convincing. Sold in 25 countries, with film rights optioned, The Secrets We Kept is set to be a publishing phenomenon; but more importantly, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
• Christobel Kent’s A Secret Life is published by Sphere. The Secrets We Kept is published by Hutchinson (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian