Boris Pasternak wanted to tell a love story and what came out was a dissent. There are books that more than to read are made to explode. They are like Molotov cocktails: written to throw them against the “establishment.” The Russian poet, the most celebrated of his generation, aspired to a great work, but the only thing the USSR expected of him was a conformist novelist. When he sent the manuscript to the publishers, he found the rejection in response. He soon realized that this indifference was not a literary judgment, but a political opinion. “Doctor Zhivago” slept in a drawer until Sergio D’angelo, an Italian journalist who wandered in search of talent around the country, showed up at the door of his dacha to ask for a copy. He identified himself with his name, but especially as an emissary of the famous “signore Feltrinelli”, the editor who would end up turning that title into a “best seller”.
Pasternak did not hesitate to deliver it despite the prohibition of the Soviet authorities to publish any work in a foreign country without their prior authorization. Men are not made only of rational judgments. Also of bravery. He must have thought. So he followed the impulse of his instinct. Of course, when saying goodbye to that foreigner, he pronounced one of those phrases to be carved into a lintel: «They are invited to my execution». It was the origin of a legend that now includes the American writer Lara Prescott. “The secrets we keep” (Seix Barral) is the chronicle of how a book warmed the Cold War and put a regime in check. It was not new. “The encyclopedia” of Diderot and D’Alambert was the shoe operation that undermined absolutism, although it never meant a face-to-face between two superpowers. And less than the caliber of the United States and the USSR, more than two countries are two continents. «Books are still dangerous in places under totalitarian governments. There they continue to be banned today. And imprisoning authors. Books influence people’s mentality. They can change many visions. They are powerful in that regard. And in a place like the USSR, where literature has always had so much weight and has immense respect for those who write, I was not surprised that a work like that had an impact on society like the one it had. Literature could be a weapon at that time, ”says Lara Prescott.
The author does not only narrate the vicissitudes that triggered the publication of “Doctor Zhivago” for its creator, his lover and his wife. What she narrates is the actual operation that the CIA launched from the spread of this work in the West. He tells, through the voices of several women, how the United States undertook the task of infiltrating this book in the USSR, where it was prohibited. He not only worried that it would be distributed there. He also worried about printing pocket editions that were easy to transport and went unnoticed at the border. Washington had initiated a plot to discredit his enemy in his own land and through a Russian work and a Russian writer. Fate had put that opportunity on a tray. «The CIA did not consider that this could dismantle the Soviet regime from one week to another. But they bet on long games. They believed that, in the end, citizens would question the men who ruled them. Actually, what they did was sow a seed. Although the author also highlights a contradiction in this particular cockfight between representatives of communism and capitalism: “The United States was very hypocritical. He appealed to freedom and operated under the principle of defending that freedom, but did not encourage it inside. It is still today. We want to be free, but we close borders, we cut established freedoms and we are retreating in conquests that we had achieved. Now we are less free than at certain moments in our immediate past. It is a dangerous time if you are colored, have a certain sexual inclination or are outside the norms that certain governments want. To illustrate, it refers precisely to the time in which his work unfolds: the fifties. «Then we suffered the McCarthyism, the rights cut, and you could have problems if you were suspected of harboring leftist ideas. Many citizens felt oppressed and often went blacklisted or marginalized. My mother, without going any further, was taught to hide under a table in case of a nuclear threat. The Soviet danger served to limit freedoms.
A woman in the gulag
Lara Prescott describes in this plot the relationship between Boris Pasternak and her lover, Olga Vsévolodovna Ivinskaya. As the Russian authorities could not lock up and punish the novelist, an action that would have raised an international scandal, he decided to take revenge on him by sending it to the gulag. There, the woman who inspired Lara from her book and who on the big screen embodied that beauty between delicate and wild that was Julie Christie, suffered the pale machitar of the labor camps. Her blond hair lost its shine and color, her face became caked and her expression filled with wrinkles. Her body lost the voluptuousness that seduced her partner (he was then 56 years old and she was 23), and when they released her, after three years of captivity, the two met between hesitations. He wondered if she wanted the man with thin, tired hair she had derived from, and she would continue to be attractive to the writer beyond her beauty. The two continued together until Pasternak died and, as Prescott says, Olga was becoming stronger and more decisive for Pasternak.
But this novel is also a reflection on the role that literature plays in the eternal game to defend democracy. «It is true that the Soviet Union does not exist today, but totalitarianisms are still booming. They still exist today. That war is not yet decided. The books have had a lot of influence in those nations, but their mission, in this sense, has not reached the end. The war against dictatorships continues. The rise of Putin has brought these kinds of problems back to the minds of many people. There the writers, the journalists, the homosexuals and the lesbians are still chasing each other. And books continue to be censored and banned in these kinds of regimes. This is something that should be known much better in the West ». To Prescott, lNationalisms and populisms base their policies, and their booms, on «feeding the division between the individuals of a society. They try to separate us, to denigrate some sectors of the population, such as immigrants. Instead, literature tends to erase differences, and try to keep everyone in touch. The essence of the United States, which just makes us stronger, is that we came from different places, that we are today a varied society ». The author also comments on some of her current fears, such as the control of society by large technology companies: «With these companies, they can control books. Then we would ask ourselves what kind of ideas reach the public ».
Lara Prescott’s novel is divided into the Western and Eastern sides. In the United States, he describes how women, many of them better prepared for jobs than their male colleagues, were cornered in espionage services even though they “knew how to keep secrets better than they did.” For the writer, «the spying world has been sexist. The women have been relegated, they were put a glass ceiling ». According to Prescott, this is visible even in espionage books and films, where women are reified, as in James Bond films. «Here I claim the role we had in reality. They were the center. But in the most acclaimed novels of this genre, the weight of men is still overwhelming. I hope this changes little by little. In my work, many of the spies I describe are inspired by real people. Even many facts that may seem strange to the reader are true.