These days when a book is the click of a mouse away, it’s important to remember what suffering and hardship guided many great books to safe harbor in our hands.
Fifty years ago Boris Pasternak smuggled messages on cigarette paper to the Italian publisher of Doctor Zhivago. The publisher told Pasternak to trust the manuscript only to a courier who could produce the matching half of a torn bill. The Soviets went so far as to send a surrogate to Milan to intimidate the publisher, but the poet-turned-novelist and his publisher held fast, determined to see the work survive.
Another Soviet dissident writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, documented (see The Oak and the Calf) the lengths necessary for his manuscripts to make it out of the Soviet Union. The Gulag Archipelago’s three volumes were typed out at least four times by accomplices then glued into false book bindings, buried in backyards, concealed in the lid of a phonograph, and stored in the grate of a fireplace—in that case quickly lit when the KGB arrived, which it did.
One of Solzhenitsyn’s erstwhile typists, a librarian from Leningrad, produced multiple copies of manuscripts and squirreled them in secret places to be smuggled to the West. The KGB tracked her down, interrogated her for five days—leading to the discovery of The Gulag Archipelago and the Nobel laureate’s expulsion to West Germany in 1974. The librarian? She was found hanged in her tiny apartment.
The Soviets weren’t the only ones who knew how to gag free speech. More recently, the Chinese Communist Party jailed Liao Yiwu four years for his poem “Massacre” and subsequent writings on the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Officers repeatedly searched his house and took manuscript pages. Tortured in an overcrowded prison, and witness to inmate deaths at the hands of interrogators “as commonplace as rice,” Liao did the obvious thing and wrote a book about it. His preface to For a Song and a Hundred Songs begins: “I have written this book three times, thanks to the relentless obstructions of the Chinese security police.”
And what more shall I say? For time (and space) would fail me to tell of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Salman Rushdie, Naguib Mahfouz, or Liu Xiaobo, the 58-year-old 2010 Nobel laureate who languishes since 2008 in a Chinese prison. These men plus others faced the noose, escaped assassins, endured interrogations, witnessed beatings, wrote books in code then transcribed them all over again—so that you and I could read their works in a hammock by filtered summer light.
Their skill and determination to preserve the stories of humanity at its “absolute zero of existence,” as German novelist Herta Müller points out, gave them a compulsion for observation that proved both a way out for them and a way to record for our benefit. “Perception is a torment and the torment of perception is a blessing,” said Müller. Whether explicitly stated or not, all are yearning toward a higher authority than the state, a better country, and a truer hope.
This internet age, where every man and woman can be his own publisher, might appear to close the gap for the dissident writer, making censorship difficult. But the internet and social media are more suited to sprints of courage, and the works of these dissident writers are marathon runs, the result of years and lifetimes of risk. That’s why any oppressive state knows the most dangerous things of all are the ideas and stories told in books.