Dan Piepenbring reviews How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart for The New Yorker

“How to Read Donald Duck,” published in 1971, was an instant best-seller in Chile. But, in 1973, Augusto Pinochet seized power from Allende, in a violent military coup; under Pinochet’s rule, the book was banned, as an emblem of a fallen way of thought. Donald and Mickey Mouse became champions of the counter-revolution. One official pasted their faces on the walls of his office, where, under his predecessor, socialist slogans had once hung. Dorfman watched on TV as soldiers cast his book into a bonfire; the Navy confiscated some ten thousand copies and dumped them into the bay of Valparaíso. A motorist tried to plow him down in the street, shouting “Viva el Pato Donald!” Families of protesters swarmed his home, deploring his attack on their innocence while, less than innocently, they hurled rocks through the windows. In the fifties, Dorfman’s family had fled to Chile to escape an America gripped by McCarthyism; now he would return to the U.S. an exile from Chile. He wouldn’t go back for nearly two decades.

Meanwhile, the world grew curious about “How to Read Donald Duck.” The book was translated into nearly a dozen languages, including English, and sold half a million copies. (John Berger lauded it as a “handbook of decolonization.”) But American publishing houses blanched at the prospect of a lawsuit from Disney, which was known to litigate early and often. In 1975, a small imprint agreed to a modest run of about four thousand copies. The books were printed in the U.K. and shipped to the U.S. But, when they arrived in New York, Customs impounded them, on suspicion of “piratical copying.” The books reproduced panels from Disney comics without permission. Customs invited lawyers from both sides to plead their cases. Disney argued that parents might pick up the book thinking it was a bona-fide Disney publication, unwittingly delivering radical propaganda to their children. Customs ultimately sided with the authors—but, citing an obscure nineteenth-century importation clause that was intended to curb the arrival of counterfeit books from abroad, the agency admitted only a miserly fifteen hundred copies into the U.S. No publisher tried again until this past fall. A new edition, from OR Books, offers Americans a new chance to discover, as the book’s translator, David Kunzle, puts it, “the iron fist beneath the Mouse’s glove.”

Read the full review here.

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