Who would have thought that the Zen-saintly author of The Snow Leopard might have been a spook?
If the FBI was a bunch of working stiffs, the CIA was a patrician fraternity—at least back in the early days, when its members were recruited from the dining halls of Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. So it was that when George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, and Harold Humes cooked up the Paris Review as a high-flown literary journal, they landed CIA funding in a number of guises, including direct payment for keeping an eye on what the expat community was up to in those early years of the American-Soviet rivalry. Fifteen years later, writes Guernica founding editor Whitney in the opening pages of this lid-blowing account, Humes would have regrets, for “any association with the super-secret spy agency—notorious for coups, assassinations, and undermining democracy in the name of fighting communism—tainted the reputations of those involved.” But that was 1967, when things began to go south, and not just in Vietnam. In 1951, it was another story; the agency was handing out fistfuls of money to youngish intellectuals in an odd episode of “publishing exuberance,” all with an eye to beating the Soviets at the culture game. Whitney enlists an unlikely cast of characters, including Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda (“in an acrobatic feat, the CIA’s campaign to discredit Neruda did not preclude it from using his work to gain the trust and readership of Latin Americans”), and James Baldwin, all caught up in this net. If the story of the CIA’s involvement in the publication of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago is already well-known, many other incidents in Whitney’s narrative will come as surprises, few of them entirely agreeable. But in the end, the plan seems to have backfired inasmuch as many of the principals, Matthiessen included, drifted leftward and became fierce critics of their sponsors and the government behind them.
Another odd episode steps out from the Cold War’s shadows. Riveting.