Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 352 pages; 2004.
How do you review a book that is a true 20th Century classic like George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four without simply regurgitating all that has been said before? Is there really anything more I can add to the mix? Probably not, but that won’t stop me telling you just a little about this brilliant dystopian novel, first publishing in 1949, and why I love it so much.
For those of you who have never read Orwell’s masterpiece (a term I don’t use lightly), it’s set in London in 1984. The city, which belongs to one of the world’s three superstates, is under Totalitarian rule and at perpetual war. Everyone lives under the watchful eye of Big Brother, children are encouraged to spy against their parents, and to even think “bad” thoughts is considered a crime.
Winston Smith, the narrator, works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting Times articles so that the ruling Party’s version of history, which changes on a daily basis, is always correct. But Winston is not like everyone else and considers that the continual surveillance and collective world view is oppressive and stifles individuality. He’s also alarmed by the number of people who are “disappeared” and re-written out of history because they haven’t toed the Party line.
When he meets the intriguing Julia and begins an illicit romance with her, he discovers that he is not the only secret “rebel”. But this liaison does not escape the Thought Police and Winston is thrown into prison, where the “secrets” of the Party are finally revealed to him.
I first read this book circa 1994 when I was studying journalism and I remember, quite clearly, the oppression resonating off the page. It was a dark, incredibly thought-provoking story, and with every turn of the page I could feel my whole world view being challenged on very many different levels: was history a true record of the past? was the news media so corrupt? were wars just a means to stimulate the economy and keep people in jobs? were the enemies of the West just a conspiracy invented to keep us living in fear?
Fast forward 15 years and I re-read the book as part of my book group last month. This time ’round, my brain, having already grappled with these new and alarming concepts, now concentrated on whether Orwell’s “predictions” had come true. And because I was less caught up in the overwhelming brilliance of the book’s scope and vision, I enjoyed the narrative, which is quite fast-paced, and the eloquence of the prose, which is sparse without ever becoming boring.
The thing that struck me most, however, was how much of this futuristic novel was deeply rooted in the time in which Orwell wrote it. There are echoes of war-torn London throughout this book, not the least in the following passage:
He remembered better the rackety, uneasy circumstances of the time: the periodical panics about air-raids and the sheltering in Tube stations, the piles of rubble everywhere, the unintelligible proclamations posted at street corners, the gangs of youths in shirts all the same colour, the enormous queues outside the bakeries, the intermittent machine-gun fire in the distance — above all, the fact that there was never enough to eat.
Obviously there’s a lot of stuff that feels incredibly prescient today: the so-called War on Terror and its resultant erosion of civil liberties; the increasing reliance on media spin, particularly by government agencies; and the ever-present CCTV surveillance, especially here in the UK (in 2006, there was one CCTV camera for every 14 people).
By contrast, Orwell’s prediction that the future would be sexless didn’t quite come off, and even the notion that you only had to alter The Times newspaper to rewrite history seems laughable given today’s preponderance of media outlets and formats, including the internet and mobile phone technology.
But, on the whole, this is a remarkable book, a kind of warning shot from the past, that still resonates and which will continue to resonate long into the future. If you’ve never read this book, I urge you to do so, and even if you have, it’s worth revisiting just to re-experience Orwell’s amazing vision.