“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” G. Orwell
Okay, folks. Remember when I talked about Bonjour Tristesse and how that book was made to be hated by students because it is part of their curriculum?
This week, we’re reading another one of those. But this one is actually really, really good. (And quite short – just over 100 pages – so if you are looking for a quick read, look no further.)
The plot is pretty straightforward and you probably know at least the jist of it – it’s the fable of animals taking over the farm. One day, the farm animals – pigs, horses, sheep – drive out the (human) owner of their farm. Initially, things go surprisingly well, until the pigs, especially their leader, Napoleon, turn themselves into a ruling class that dooms the utopian society they created.
As you read it, you can almost hear a teacher going on about the various metaphors in this tale – the sheep as mindless followers, the pigs (PIGS!) as screw leaders, the good hold workhorse, whose loyalty condemns him to an untimely death.
This entire book is, of course, a thinly-veiled stab at communism, so much so that when Orwell wrote the book in 1945, he couldn’t find a publisher for it. The Soviet Union was still an ally of England back then, and the printing industry was not willing to take this book on.
That’s how easy it is to understand what Orwell wanted to say with this book – the message is immediately clear not just to students, but also to book publishers.
As time progressed, and as the relationship between the West and the Soviet Union became more strained, Animal Farm became increasingly popular. In a way, it’s easy to see why – it gives people a clear blueprint for their criticism of communism.
It’s all there – the corruption of the leading elite, the suffering of the workforce, but most of all, the adaptation of truth.
And this is where this book goes from great to excellent.
Because this is exactly what we are witnessing right now. It’s this uneasy feeling that you are no longer able to say what is true, what was true, and what is made up – but, even more important, the creeping realization that facts are not absolutes, but up to the consumer.
It’s an idea that Orwell plays with again later, in 1984 – Winston Smith, the main protagonist is tasked with rewriting historical records to conform to the State’s ever-changing version of history. Facts don’t dictate the story – the story dictates what’s fact and what is not.
In Animal Farm, this shows up too, but a bit more subtle – In 1984, Orwell shows how facts get changed, in Animal Farm, he shows why this happens.
Here’s one example – Fairly early on in the book, the animals have to fight the farmer and some other humans in the ‘Battle of the Cowshed’. The animals emerge victorious and it is agreed that some of their best fighters will receive the ‘Animal Hero, First Class’ Medal. One of the animals thus honored is Snowball, a pig and the main rival of Napoleon, the leader of the animals.
Napoleon and Snowball vie for pre-eminence, until Napoleon violently chases Snowball away from the farm. (In case you slept in history class: Napoleon = Stalin, Snowball = Trotzki.)
Slowly but surely, the history gets amended – at first, Napoleon denies that Snowball was ever awarded the highest medal of the farm. Then, Snowball wasn’t even present at the battle, but hiding away like a coward. In the last version, Snowball was actually fighting on the side of the humans.
You see how Napoleon uses history to serve his own narrative – to cast Snowball first as a coward, then as a traitor to the animals.
You might think – hey, those animals are pretty stupid. They were present too at the Battle! They must have seen Snowball fight! They must remember that he was awarded a medal for heroic conduct!
And yet… After everything we have seen in the last couple of years, are we really surprised? (If this whole mess is good for one thing, it’s that a lot of things suddenly start making sense.)
Aren’t we just witnessing how politicians amend facts to serve their own purpose?
Sure, we all laughed about Trump declaring that he had the largest crowd at an inauguration ever, because it was so clearly a lie. But tell a lie often enough, and enough people will believe it to make it truth.
This is the truly scary part about this fable – how easy it is to gaslight people, to make them question what they have seen with their own eyes.
A society cannot function without truth – nothing is more corrosive than a fight about what happened and what didn’t, because both fractions will think they are in possession of the absolute truth.
We all perceive reality differently, but that should not keep us from agreeing on basic facts, on what’s true and what isn’t.
Quick fact check:
- Did Orwell write Animal Farm as a repudiation of Socialism?
No. He wrote it because he saw the truth in Stalin and communism, and wanted to show the difference between socialism and communism.
Throughout his life, Orwell was a defender of democratic socialism.
So the next time someone quotes Animal Farm as a counter-argument to communism, tell him he’s an idiot and that he clearly has no clue what he’s talking about.
2. Orwell won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984 for 1984.
Man, it’d be great if that was the case, but sadly, no. Orwell never won the highest award for Literature. The Times ranked him second in the list of The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945, however, I doubt that that makes up for it.
Furthermore, Orwell died in 1950 and Nobel Prizes are never awarded post-posthumously, so this fact is really a lie.
3. What’s Napoleon’s name in the French translation of the book?
This question kept me up at night. I have a weird fascination for characters that are called differently in countries where they are supposed to be from, and Napoleon the Pig is only the third one i found!
(The first two are –
a) Michel Girard in Gilmore Girls – in the US version, he is French; in the French version, he’s Italian.
b) Uter Zorker in the Simpsons – he’s a German / Bavarian exchange student, but in the German version, he’s Swiss. Also, Uter is a misconstruction of the German name Gunther and does not exist as such.)
So I can now reveal that Napoleon the Pig is called Cesar in the French version! So almost the same thing, but still funny that they felt the need to change the name.
Next week – we’re reading an autobiography, and a good one at that!