Sunday, December 01, 2019

The Secrets We Kept - Lara Prescott


After struggling with it for years, in 1957 Boris Pasternack finally completed Dr. Zhivago, the novel that would come to define his life. But, unfortunately for Pasternak and his countrymen, there was no way that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would allow the book to be published there. It is thanks to the efforts of Italian publisher Gianglacomo Feltrinelli that the Zhivago manuscript was smuggled out of Russia and published (in Italian) in 1957 to became a best seller in the West. Strangely enough, Feltrinelli, a left-wing activist and militant would himself go on to die while setting explosives during a botched act of terrorism in Milan just fifteen years later.

As if all of that were not already crazy enough, it turns out that America’s Central Intelligence Agency saw the book as a useful Cold War propaganda weapon. To that purpose, the Agency had the novel translated back into Russian and it produced just over 350 copies that would be handed off to vetted Russians traveling in the West. Lara Prescott’s historical novel, The Secrets We Kept, tells us just how that may have been accomplished – and what the results were.

Beginning in 1949 and ending in 1961, the story is told in alternating “East” and “West” segments. The “West” segments are told largely through the eyes of members of the CIA typing pool, a group of women who have trained themselves somehow to type documents without absorbing the real meaning of the words they put on paper. But not all of these women are what they seem – to a woman, for instance, they know much more about what is happening around them than their male superiors suspect they know. And they have secrets of their own, secrets with the potential to get people killed. 

Lara Prescott
The “East” segments, at least until characters start to cross over, are narrated by Boris Pasternack’s mistress, a young woman who does several years of hard time in the Gulag because of her association with the author. Without her help and the secrets she keeps for him, it is unlikely that Pasternack would have successfully completed Dr. Zhivago. Olga may have sacrificed years of watching her two children grow up, but her love and support for Boris never wavered for long, and their relationship was a deep and meaningful one for both of them. 

Favorite Quote: “They had their satellites, but we had their books. Back then, we believed books could be weapons – that literature could change the course of history. The Agency knew it would take time to change the heart and minds of men, but they were in it for the long game.” 

Bottom Line: The Secrets We Kept is based on an interesting piece of seldom discussed Cold War history, a period during which books and authors were important weapons in the propaganda war between Democracy and Communism. Lara Prescott has peopled the novel with a remarkable group of female characters that play key roles in the Doctor Zhivago story and how that novel became one of the key books of the twentieth century.  As evidenced by the three-page bibliography at the end of The Secrets We Kept, this is a well-researched novel, one likely to appeal equally to fans of historical fiction and to fans of books about books. If you are a fan of both types, this is your lucky day.

12 comments:

  1. Lot's of positive buzz about this book; hoping to try it in 2020. Glad u seemed to enjoy it.

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  2. I did enjoy it, Diane. For the first little bit, I was afraid it was not going to be the serious novel it turned out to be, but as I got more into the structure and Prescott's writing rhythm the pages started to fly by. Very good book.

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  3. Intriguing to put it mildly. I hope I can find this book.

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  4. I had no idea Dr. Zhivago had such a history behind it. Funnily enough, the book came up in a chat with my daughter and husband the other day. My husband read a fair bit of Russian lit years ago, which I have not as I struggle a lot with pronunciation of the names and remembering who is who. Mind you, this was 'years' ago, possibly I might do better now. I know your capacity for this kind of thing is supposed to decrease as you get older but I don't agree, I think I'm better at that now, possibly more patience and determination? I'm not sure.

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    1. I hadn't realized just how political the book was at the time either, Cath. Pasternack had to renounce the Nobel Prize when he won it, and it was only years later that his heirs were able to accept it on his behalf. I haven't read a lot of Russian literature for the same reasons you mentioned. I have a beautiful copy of War and Peace staring me in the face right now but I've already given up on it once before. I don't think I'm getting any better at keeping up with all those strangely-named characters.

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  5. I'm definitely a historical fiction and books about books fan. I haven't read DR. ZHIVAGO and actually know very little about the story, but this book sounds intriguing. I'll have to pick it up at some point. Glad you enjoyed it!

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    1. I think you'd probably like this one, Susan. Dr. Zhivago is a very political novel disguised as a sad love story. That didn't fool the Soviet communists, though...they still wanted Pasternack's head.

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  6. I love the sound of this one! And that quote...it's awesome. :)

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    1. It's a good one, Lark. That quote is kind of a throwback, isn't it? Nowadays it would be much simpler to smuggle propaganda messages across borders via thumb-drives, and the like. In the fifties, it still had to be printed and bound. Whole different set of problems involved.

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  7. Adding this to my list. Thanks for this one, Sam; I probably wouldn't have given it a second glance.

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    1. Same here, Jenclair. I only knew of it because I saw it on some list or another that I can't even recall now. I jot down titles like that all the time and put them on hold at my library. By the time some of them appear, I can't remember a thing about them. This was one of those, so I was kind of surprised by the whole experience. :-)

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