He was right. It was a difficult read for a ten year-old. Since then, however, I have read it many more times, at all stages of my life, as often as once every few years. It is, quite simply, my favourite novel and one which has shaped our collective consciousness over the last seventy years in a way few other fictional works have. It has given us words such as Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and of course, Big Brother. As I write this, it is once again number one in the bestsellers lists.
Written by Orwell in the late 1940s and set in a dystopian version of a future London, the novel tells the story of Winston Smith, a minor functionary in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, his forbidden love affair with a young woman called Julia, and his personal rebellion against the Party, the all-powerful body that controls every aspect of life in Oceania, the massive super-state which encompasses Britain and the Americas. Winston’s job is to rewrite articles in the Times which no longer chime with the views of the Party, so that the past is always in line with the present and the Party’s aura of infallibility is not tarnished. Winston, however, doesn’t believe in the Party’s omniscience and engages in a futile and ultimately doomed struggle against it.
As with all the best books, it works on many levels: a love story; a story of rebellion; a lesson as to the evils of totalitarianism and the pernicious effects of propaganda; and most of all, a story of power and what happens when power becomes an end in itself. What makes Nineteen Eighty-Four so special though, is what it tells us about the human condition, and how it plays on our fears that its conclusions are all too true.
It deals with the destruction of the individual – Orwell describes a society where all individuality is sacrificed for the collective good, where wanting to spend time alone is viewed as suspicious, and where one cannot trust even their closest relatives, as everyone is a potential informer or agent of the Thought Police. In doing so, he was eerily prescient of organisations such as the East German Stasi whose tentacles reached into almost every aspect of life.
It examines the pernicious allure of totalitarianism. Orwell’s Oceania is a society driven by fear, of hatred of the outsider and violence against the enemies of the state. It’s a puritanical society run by fanatics, always ready to vilify and proscribe anything they can’t control, a society driven by the perversion of love and the sex drive. The only love permitted is the love of Big Brother, a devotion powered by the orgiastic ritual of the Two Minutes Hate.
Most terrifying is Orwell’s questioning of what it means to be sane. Winston considers himself sane, possibly the last sane man in the world. He believes that sanity is founded upon the acceptance of certain fundamental truths – for example that two and two equals four, or the physical reality that the stars are light years away. It’s an external reality that doesn’t change according to one’s beliefs. But in a world where the truth is constantly falsified, all ‘facts’ are dictated by the Party and any evidence to the contrary purged, how could one objectively say what is wrong or what is right? If all records said that two and two equaled five, and not four, and everyone else agreed, then how could you be sure that they were insane and that you were sane?
The historian Professor Ben Pimlott, described Nineteen Eighty-Four as ‘above all … a protest against the tricks played by governments,’ and ‘an account of the forces that endanger liberty and of the need to resist them.’ He stated that ‘most of these forces can be summed up in a single word: lies’. And that message is as relevant to us in 2017 as it was in 1948 or in 1984.
Abir Mukherjee’s new novel A Rising Man is out now, published by Vintage Publishing