The sale of George Orwell’s 1984 went up by 9,500 percent when Donald Trump took office. There is no figure available for India post 2014. Orwell saw the novel as a warning rather than a prophecy, but prophecies come true when warnings aren’t heeded. Who controls the present, he wrote, controls the past. Orwell is in the news again, 70 years after his death, as the man who – in the words of Christopher Hitchens – “faced the despotisms of his day with little more than a battered typewriter and a stubborn personality.”
Orwell didn’t change history, but he helped us understand it better. “One defeats a fanatic,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “precisely by not being a fanatic oneself, but on the contrary, by using one’s intelligence.” Orwell is invoked around the world wherever civil rights are endangered or human decency is stifled by a fanatical adherence to its opposite.
The word ‘Orwellian’ is used to mean tyranny and fear of conformism, but as Hitchens points out, a piece of writing described as ‘Orwellian’ recognises that human resistance to the terrors is unquenchable.
If the word wasn’t carrying too much weight already, ‘Orwellian’ could also stand for a style of writing both simple and powerful. To use his own words, it was transparent, like a windowpane.
As Winston Smith says in 1984, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
The point is, it does not matter if two plus two is four; what matters is that you believe it, and importantly, can say it without being beaten up for it. Truth exists beyond any party ideology. This was the wonder of Orwell’s writing. The literal – Animal Farm is a lovely children’s story, after all – and the profound co-exist harmoniously.
Some writers startle by fission, by breaking things up; Orwell went the other way, surprising by fusion, by bringing things together.
“In a time of deceit,” he once wrote, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” On another occasion: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” How did he know about us?
That’s the question populations fighting tyranny have asked for decades.
Two recent books have been published on Orwell. A biography (which belongs to the take-it-or-leave-it category), Orwell: A Man of Our Time by Richard Bradford, and the fascinating The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey which is well-researched and increases our admiration for Orwell.
It is a reminder that books don’t spring up in isolation but are products of a time and place and owe as much to a writer’s imagination as to what went before.
“I hesitate to say that 1984 is more relevant than ever,” writes Lynskey, “but it’s a damn sight more relevant than it should be.” To adapt Paul McCartney, when I find myself in times of trouble, George Orwell comes to me….
Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu