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[812] Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

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Revisit of this classic in light of the recent events that implicate the assault on individual freedom and freedom of speech in Hong Kong

“Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.” (Book Three, II, 249)

1984 is bleak and eerily prophetic. It is sadly more relevant today. Written in 1949, Orwell asked himself what Britain would look like if it fell prey to either one of the totalitarian creeds that dominated the mid-20th century. From this basic inquiry ensued a speculative dystopian novel, 1984. The novel creates a world so plausible, so frightening, so complete that to read it is to experience another world, in which

all the beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived. (Book Two, IX, 210)

Winston Smith lives in a country where individual thought is banned, where emotion is suppressed, where only the leader, Big Brother, is allowed to reason and to decide. Prodded by his natural need for reflection and critical analysis, he finds it difficult not to question the wisdom of the Party. In a dystopian society where all thoughts are under surveillance, no one would have suspected that Winston (and Julia, with whom he falls in love) is capable of crimethink (dangerous thoughts) or a secret desire for ownlife (individualism), After all, Party-member Winston is one of the Ministry of Truth’s most trusted forgers who rewrites, rectifies, and modifies records such that every statement and prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct. In other words, infallibility of the Party must be ensured even at the expense of truth and history. History could be altered and events of the past erased to ensure this controlled reality. By feeding false information and turning lies to truth, people are deprived of their human qualities.

Winston’s fellow intellectuals have sold their inalienable right to think freely for security and a semblance of physical well-being. More chilling than the Party’s goal to perpetuate its power is the large mass of common people who do not find in themselves the need to think independently, to question or to investigate what they have been taught. When he comes across a newspaper about three men who had been wrongfully condemned for treachery and intrigues against the Party, he falls prey into traps and is doomed. He is “converted” and “made sane.”

When I read the book as a young teenager, what holds me is the fate of the lovers, who are arrested by Thought Police for having individual thoughts, and their doomed attempt to taste freedom. Over time 1984, its portrayal of a totalitarian tyranny roaming in the fray of my consciousness, becomes a political statement, an admonition to mankind, and a standard by which one is to gauge how far society has fallen in terms of individual freedom. Orwell proclaims that 1984 could happen if man did not become aware of the assaults on his personal freedom and did not defend his most precious right—the right to have his own thoughts. Man shall become so helpless, near-sighted, and deceived that they would surrender freedom for short-term happiness.

328 pp. Signet Classic. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Orwell and Myanmar

Besides the people and landscapes, the reason I want to go to Myanmar is George Orwell, who arrived in formerly-known Burma in November 1922 as a youthful member of the Indian Imperial Police. Sent first to Mandalay, he also spent time in the Ayeyarwady Delta and Mawlamyine, where his mother grew up, before being posted to the distant Katha.

Orwell’s experience in Burma convinced him of the wrongs of imperialism and he gained a reputation as an outsider more interested in spending time with the Burmese than in more appropriate pursuits for a British officer. In this he resembled Flory, the protagonist of his first novel Burmese Days, which was set in a thinly disguised Katha. Orwell also wrote about Burma in his essays A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant.

There’s a long-standing joke that Orwell actually wrote three books about Burma, including his denunciations of totalitarianism Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Unlike the anti-imperialist Burmese Days, until recently both of the later works were banned by the regime. All three books are on my re-read list, and I will read them before I leave for Myanmar in January.

[656] Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin

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” He said that Nineteen Eigty-Four is banned in Burma because it can be read as a criticism of how the country is being run and the ruling generals do not like criticism. As a result, he told me, I would be unlikely to meet many people in Burma who had actually read the novel. ‘Why do they need to read it?’ he said. ‘They are already living inside Nineteen Eighty-Four in their daily lives. ” (1: Mandalay, p.11)

In the 1920s George Orwell (then Eric Blair) spent years working in Burma as an imperial policeman at various posts, including Mandalay and Rangoon. He has formed strong opinions against colonialism and taken rather jaundiced view of the colonial society that would endure throughout the rest of his life. In 2002, traveling under the pseudonym Emma Larkin, the author, an American journalist, followed Orwell’s footsteps in Burma, where visitors were allowed to explore the country only on its terms, to recreate his experience. Finding George Orwell in Burma, employing Orwell’s sojourn and experiences as a template, is part memoir, part biography, part social history and part travelogue. Larkin reveals the cultural and political landscape of a country, one of the most mysterious in Southeast Asia, where a military regime has been in place for over 40 years, sealing off Burma from the outside world.

We historians must keep our mouths tightly shut. We are scared. As Burmese people, we are not free to talk about what we want. We are not free to walk where we want. We are not even free t die: we must die according to their wishes. (5: Katha, p.256)

Government surveillance is in fact responsible for the society’s “normal” façade. Events taking place inside Burma are carefully controlled and orchestrated. people are conditioned to obey and to submit to government’s measures. Indeed this fear of the authorities is a constant refrain from the people Larkin spoke to in Burma, including students, drivers, tour guides, policemen, dissidents and historians. They are cowed into submission because they know the reprisal is high for the only one real crime, and that is to act against the government or in defiance of its interests.

The Burmese landscape, both mental and physical, has long been loaded with prophecies, and Orwell’s trilogy is only one among many texts in which you can read the future or the past in Burma. (5: Katha, p.261)

Writing with such suppleness and understatement, Larkin reports that Orwell is known as a prophet in Burma, so closely do Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (now I regretted reading too young to even understand their implication) reflect what has happened in the tragically oppressed land afflicted by a streak of authoritarianism. Larkin also seeks to get to the bottom of what might have provoked Orwell to write with remarkable precision on oppression. She believes Orwell was witness to many oppression, even in the colonial age, along with his work as an imperial policeman had greatly contributed to his ability to write about oppression in a chilling dystopian land. The book is a plainsong to Burma; it’s a tribute to Orwell; and it’s a rare piece of journalism. In pursuing the young Orwell’s life, she has reimagined his experiences that help shape his political outlook. Finding George Orwell in Burma is a mournful, meditative, idiosyncratic and contemplative book.

294 pp. Penguin Books. Paper (2004) [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[285] Animal Farm – George Orwell

“Rumours of a wonderful farm, where the human beings had been turned out and the animals managed their own affairs, continued to circulate in vague and distorted forms, and throughout that year a wave of rebelliousness ran through the countryside.” [IV, 39]

George Orwell subtitles the novel a fairy story—a question lingered in my mind that begs to be answered. If a fairy story is deprived of magic, contains no sentimental interest of any kind, yes—Animal Farm is really stretching the traditional notion of a fairy story.

It all begins with a dream of old Major, a boar in the Minor Farm. An uprising that rids men out of the farm is the only solution to rescue the animals, underfed and overworked, out of their misery. After a series of secret meetings taken over months, they do, almost without much effort, capture the farm from the drunken farmer, change the name, and establish a model community in which all animals were (supposed to be) equal.

The early apples were now ripening, and the grass of the orchard was littered with windfalls. The animals had assumed as a matter of course that these would be shared out equally; one day, however, the order went forth that all the windfalls were to be collected and brought to the harness-room for the use of the pigs. [III, 35]

The two pigs that assume leadership role quickly become factious and quarrelsome. They fight one another for the mastery, and with uncanny tricks, Napoleon ousts Snowball, declaring him a traitor, attributing to him everything that has gone awry in the farm. To the shock of all the animals, Napoleon has evolved to be indistinguishable from what they fought in the first place, the cause of the rebellion: human beings. The leader now modifies the commandments to suit his purpose. The animals begin to realize, and remember—or think they remember that happenings around the farm do not square with what the commandments originally decree. As befit to any dictator and totalitarian, Napoleon receives all the credit for everything achievement and stroke of good fortune. He is not to be questioned and all dissident voices shall be silenced. He is more than God.

These scenes of terror and slaughter were not what they had looked forward to on that night when old Major stirred them to rebellion. If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity . . . [VII, 86]

So there it is. A fairy story without a moral, in fact, not even a morality. The animal farm is a realm beyond good and evil. The novel neither judges nor labels the good guys from the bad ones. It’s simply a transcription of a view in life into terms of highly simplified symbols, so strong that it leaves us a deep indefinable feeling of truth. Most importantly, without even mentioning Communism, the book provokes in us a sense of rebelliousness.

141 pp. Signet Classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]