Non-Fiction Reviews

The Ministry of Truth
A biography of George Orwell's 1984

(2019) Dorian Lynskey, Picador, £8.99, pbk, xxi + 369pp, ISBN 978-1-509-89075-0


A biography of a book, divided into two sections as a before and after picture.

Part one deals with George Orwell’s life, in effect serving as a biography of the author as well as his work. There is little surprise in his inspiration from experiences in The Spanish Civil War, as recounted in his non-fiction work, Homage To Catalonia. What shocked Orwell most was finding that the extremism of the Communist Left could be often indistinguishable from that of the Fascist Right. In-fighting among the Socialists led to a civil war within the ranks of the Left, with members of the relatively small POUM divisions (with who Orwell had served) treated as traitors.

Orwell was lucky to survive a bullet to the throat on the battle-lines but it was during convalescence in Barcelona that he saw the sinister extent of the divisions in the ranks and people disappearing over ideological differences.

Orwell returned to London to witness the rise of Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists, and to work in the radio propaganda presentation team of the BBC, his inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell was highly critical of the Utopian visions of H. G. Wells, with who he had a very on-off friendship. Orwell could be brutally honest in criticism of the works of his friends. He also disliked Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the characters naively believed their controlled social status was the best of all possible worlds. Orwell felt that living in a dystopia, we would know that we were in misery, poverty, under threat, constantly surveyed and cruelly punished or even executed for virtually any indiscretion.

Orwell was extremely ill with TB while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four and his own despair at his disintegrating health (he would die soon after the book’s publication) also adds to the novel’s intense pessimism.

The shorter second part of the study moves to showing the social impact of the novel. From the outset it was savaged as too horrible to contemplate such a bleak future but many politicians from the 1950’s to the present day have quoted the book and warned that their opposition spokespersons are likely to lead us to such totalitarianism. The story comes right up to date with references to Donald Trump’s dismissal of reports on his activities and claims as ‘fake news’, with Kelly Ann Conway touting ‘alternative facts’ and Rudi Guiliani declaring ‘truth isn’t truth’. Here is Newspeak in the raw.

Lynskey mercifully does not see modern politics as sliding us irrecoverably into Orwellian totalitarianism. The book has inspired the resistance more than it has inspired the would be dictators and actual despots of the 21st century. Nineteen Eighty-Four has inspired other warning studies of the threat of sliding too far Right or Left (the two meet at the other end of the spectrum). Books from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (inspired by Nazi book burnings) have upgraded the message, as has 2000AD’s Judge Dredd comics and Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta. Moore and Atwood have both seen their work inspire costumes and masks worn by campaigners on protest marches and rallies around the World. This is a sign of great hope, that many will not let the World of Nineteen Eighty-Four happen.

Lynskey covers a great deal here, literary criticism, a biography of Eric (George Orwell) Blair, a study of pop culture taking in movies (the Nineteen Eighty-Four films and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil among them) and not surprisingly given that much of Lynskey’s work involves pop-music journalism, rock and pop relating to Nineteen Eighty-Four. David Bowie attempted to create a Nineteen Eighty-Four concept album for example and though the project fell through, some of the songs survived, including 'Diamond Dogs'.

While many see Nineteen Eighty-Four as a cautionary tale, others embrace it, trivialising its memes and phrases like 'Room 101' and 'Big Brother' for game shows, and reality TV celebrates continuous camera coverage of our otherwise private moments.

In some countries Nineteen Eighty-Four itself is a banned book, with those owning, promoting or publishing it going to detention cells or execution. We may be nearly forty years on from the actual date set on the most dangerous work of SF ever penned but its dangers are still very real, but so to is the awareness that we must never let Big Brother rise and watch us at all, and we must bring him down if he does ascend to such power.

Arthur Chappell


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