Cold Warriors is a surprisingly accessible and compulsive read, not least because of its cast list: George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Boris Pasternak, Graham Greene, Anna Akhmatova, John le Carré, Mary McCarthy, Andrei Sinyavsky, Václav Havel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gioconda Belli and many more. Some of these players were idealists and ideologues, others direct participants at the level of active espionage and even combat. White begins his narrative proper in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War, interweaving the stories of Orwell, Koestler and the poet Stephen Spender. All three were to greater or lesser degrees fall guys, idealists who volunteered to fight Franco’s Axis-backed fascists only to find themselves reluctant bedfellows with the Stalinists. Each of them ended up being – metaphorically – shot in the front by Nazis, stabbed in the back by hardline Communists, or used as unwitting stooges of the CIA. Their stories are properly cinematic, full of clandestine cross-border flights, double-crossings, arrests, internments and interrogations. All produced major works as a result of their experiences, in Orwell’s case numerous essays and journalistic dispatches, plus defining books such as Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and 1984.
Throughout the literary Cold War, the great object of desire for Moscow and Washington was the Nobel Prize in Literature. Back in 1933, Stalin had been livid when Maxim Gorky lost out to Ivan Bunin, a Russian émigré who had fled the USSR. In the pre-détente Cold War period, victories for Americans – William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954) and John Steinbeck (1962) – further irritated the USSR, while the triumph of Pasternak (1958) and Solzhenitsyn (1970), fierce critics of the regime, offset Mikhail Sholokhov’s 1965 success. Although White passes over it in his otherwise splendidly readable and insightful book, the announcement of the 1953 winner cannot have gone down well in the Kremlin. The prize that year went to Winston Churchill, not just a literary but a real Cold Warrior.
It’s a big subject. White wants us never to forget that ‘the Cold War was a conflict of truly global scope’, and though not pretending to be comprehensive, his research is impressive, presented in crisp, efficient prose with an eye for the encapsulating detail. Even so, his parameters are a bit loosey-goosey. While prepared to bring Nicaragua into his sphere of interest, he strangely neglects to travel further south, most glaringly to Chile, where the CIA’s overthrow of the communist president Salvador Allende merits just half a paragraph... Perhaps the subject is too big. That said, Cold Warriors fascinates in the areas it does choose to cover, and serves as a nostalgic reminder of a time when literature was a life-or-death matter.
As well as telling the story of how literature was weaponised during the Cold War, White’s book rattles through a series of biographical studies of a dozen or so authors whose lives were affected by the conflict. For the Western writers, the stories often follow the same pattern of initial enthusiasm for Communism followed by disillusion... White mostly writes in a neutral, functional prose, which is well-suited to deadpan comedy – he is especially funny on Ernest Hemingway’s self-aggrandising attempts to muscle in on the centre of the action whenever possible, and the discrepancies between Hemingway’s accounts of his exploits and the mundane reality – but his style really comes into its own when dealing with more emotionally charged material... It frequently grips like a thriller, even in the sections in which White is dealing with intellectual ideas rather than blackmail and violence. It will serve, too, to remind writers of how lucky they are to live in a free society – and perhaps induce a little nostalgia for the days when people thought they were worth shooting.
Orwell’s story is hardly unfamiliar, and although White retells it with gusto, he has nothing new to say. Similarly well known are the stories of, say, Koestler, a former communist whose book Darkness at Noon (1940) became the defining fictional evocation of Stalin’s Great Terror, or Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) remains a chillingly effective description of life in the gulag...As a study of literary culture during the Cold War, White’s book is a mixed bag. He enjoys biographical gossip, but has surprisingly little to say about what his chosen characters actually wrote. All the same, his book raises some haunting questions. What would you and I have done? After all, few of his characters escaped complicity with their political masters. Under Stalin, in particular, non-cooperation meant an early appointment with a firing squad. And even Orwell, despite his saintly reputation as a teller of truth to power, was happy to prepare a list of cultural figures he considered “unreliable”, among them the historian EH Carr, the actor Charlie Chaplin and the future Labour leader Michael Foot.
Cold Warriors reads like a thriller. Here is Greene peeling leeches off his neck on a jungle ambush with the Gurkhas in Malaya in 1950. Here is McCarthy landing in Saigon with her best Chanel suit to cover the Vietnam War in 1967. She admitted she could “hardly tell a grenade from a pomegranate”. Here is Hemingway in Cuba in the 1940s running his “Crook Factory” of informant card sharks, bartenders and priests (they failed to unmask a single Nazi) and loading his fishing boat with bazookas, machineguns and grenades to hunt U-boats off the Cuban coast (he sank no submarines)... What I will most remember from this ambitious, intelligent, searching history are the words of Isaac Babel recalling the day the Soviet secret police knocked on his door before dawn. Thinking of the manuscripts seized from his desk, all he could say was: “They didn’t let me finish.”