Animal Farm – George Orwell

Four legs good, two legs bad

Four legs good, two legs bad

Written four years before 1984, this novel was Orwell’s first attempt  “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole” (‘Why I Write’ – George Orwell).  Yes, on the surface it’s about animals, but this allegorical tale is really about the Soviet Government under Stalin.  It begins when Old Major, the farms resident boar, summons the other animal together to teach them a revolutionary song, ‘Beasts of England’.  He refers to humans as parasites and encourages the animals to rebel.  Poor Old Major then dies, without living to see the rebellion.

Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon then assume command and begin their revolt, driving the drunken farmer away in the process before renaming the place ‘Animal Farm’.  Seven commandments are then drawn up in order to unify the animals against humans:

  • Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  • Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  • No animal shall wear clothes.
  • No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  • No animal shall drink alcohol.
  • No animal shall kill any other animal.
  • All animals are equal.

the most important of these is ‘all animals are equal’.  All the pigs then elevate themselves to positions of leadership and keep back extra food, for their own health purposes.  All the other animals are promised better lives once their windmill is built.  Unfortunately this means lots of hard work, but it will all be worth it, they are assured.  When a violent storm destroys the windmill Napoleon (the Stalin figure) convinces the other animals that Snowball (Trotsky) is the saboteur.  With Snowball as a scapegoat, Napoleon then kills any animals who associate with his rival.  ‘Beast of England’ is replaced with an anthem glorifying Napoleon as his megalomania grows.

During a war with a neighbouring farmer, many of the animals receive devastating injuries, but work has to continue anyway.  Somehow the animals still convince themselves that life is better than it was under their previous farmer.  Boxer, a hardworking horse is particularly injured and so Napoleon decides he should go to a vet.  When the van arrives to take him away, Benjamin, a clever Donkey, realizes that it is a knackers van and Boxer has in fact been sold as scrap in order that napoleon can buy whisky.

As the years pass , the pigs learn to walk on two legs, seeing it as being more refined.  The commandments are amended slightly to take in their new human traits:

  • No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
  • No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.
  • No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.

Eventually, these are condensed into  one ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ and their previous motto of ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ becomes ‘ four legs good, two legs better.’

By the end the animals realize that they can no longer distinguish between pigs and humans as the power has turned them into everything they hated at the beginning.

Animal Farm was initially rejected by publishers because of fears it may sour relations with USSR.  It received criticism for being too gentle, too clumsy and too dull. I didn’t find that true in the slightest.  Perhaps the animals are stereotyped and perhaps, as has been suggested, Orwell could have just written a direct attack which would have been more honest.  But Orwell was a writer and this is a story.  It’s never going to stop governments or change the world, but it doesn’t have to.  Novels are artistic, creative interesting ways of getting a story across.  Taken in this context, as it should be, Animal Farm is a great story.  That is enough for me.

Sample Text:

“It had become usual to give Napoleon the credit for every successful achievement and every stroke of good fortune. You would often hear one hen remark to another, “Under the guidance of our leader, Comrade Napoleon, I have laid five eggs in six days” or two cows, enjoying a drink at the pool, would exclaim, “thanks to the leadership of Comrade Napoleon, how excellent this water tastes!”…”

Further Reading:

If you like an animal story for adults you might like Watership Down

If you like a good dystopian story you might like The Handmaids Tale

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

Meh!  I wouldn't bother to be honest.

Meh! I wouldn’t bother, to be honest.

On paper, this book totally appeals to me, mystery, romance, history – 3 things I enjoy in a novel.  Yet somehow it just didn’t work.  I’m not sure why, I just didn’t get it.

The primary story is set during WW2 in Italy. Hana, a Canadian nurse is living out the war in an abandoned villa, filled with hidden bombs (sensible?)  She has a patient there with her, who has a strong English accent (hence the title) but he is so badly burned she has no way of identifying him.  He remembers his explorations into the North African desert in great detail but cannot say his own name.  Also in the villa is Caravaggio, a spy friend of Hana’s father, who was killed in the war.  Like the patient, Caravaggio is addicted to morphine.  Lucky for them they have a nurse with a handy supply!

After a time, two British soldiers turn up at the villa, one of whom is Kip, an Indian sapper who quickly becomes friends with the patient. Encouraged to reveal his story, the patient unveils the tale of how he came to be there… SO, WHAT IS HIS STORY?

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

Big Brother is watching you

Big Brother is watching you

This is definitely one of those ‘books to read before you die’.  It’s on all the lists, everyone always recommends it to you, and rightly so.  It’s brilliant.  Terrifying, but brilliant.

It’s set in Oceania in a dystopian future (1984 was the future when this was written – 1949.) This is a world of government surveillance, totalitarian ideology and mind control.  Deviating from the permitted ideals is seen as ‘thoughtcrime’ and punished by the Party led by their revered leader (who may or may not exist) Big Brother.

The protagonist is Winston Smith who works for the Ministry of Truth, which in actuality is a purveyor of lies.  Winston’s job is essentially to re-write history to suit the Party’s propaganda.  There’s also the Ministry of Plenty (overseeing shortage and famine), Ministry of Love (overseeing torture) and the Ministry of Peace which oversees war and devastation.

Winston hates this existence, but is terrified by the consequences of speaking out.  After becoming suspicious that his co-worker O’Brien has similar feelings, He is invited to join the ‘Brotherhood’ – a secret resistance movement seeking to overthrow the government – through which Winston, and his girlfriend Julia, are plunged into impending danger and the ever-present threat of torture in Room 101.

This controversial book really is a must-read.  Unlike some of the other classics, this is relatively short, easy to read and exciting throughout.  If you’ve already read it, you’ll know what I mean.  If not, shame on you – go and read it now!

Sample Text:

“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

Further Reading:

If you like the dystopian theme you might like Brave New World.

If you like this author you might like Animal Farm.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas - a bit too much like showing off for my liking

Cloud Atlas – a bit too much like showing off for my liking

Written in 2004, Cloud Atlas consists of six separate stories that span the centuries, ranging from the 19th century to a distant post-apocalyptic future.  The first five stories all are interrupted at a crucial moment and, after the sixth story reaches its conclusion, we return to the first five in reverse chronological order, ending back in the 19th century (Still with me?)

Each story is written in a different style to the previous one.  Whilst I think this is a great skill, it also seemed a bit like showing off to me.  The first four stories I found entertaining enough, but by the fifth and sixth I got rather bored and impatient to return to the fourth.

The first story is entitled The Pacific Diary of Adam Ewing.  Slowly throughout this story, we see how it affects the central character in the second story, entitled Letters From Zedelghem. This story is all told in the form of Letters to and from Robert Frobisher. Again, in the third story (Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery) we see how Frobisher has affected the life of Luisa Rey.  This story is a mystery thriller set in California.

The fourth story is a daft British comedy, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.  In this, the protagonist reads a book about Luisa Rey, thereby linking him to the grand scheme of things.  From here, things get futuristic, with the fifth story about a dystopian future and a slave called Sonmi-451.  To my mind, this story is too futuristic, with too much jargon and goes on far too long.  Sonmi-451 watches a film about Timothy Cavendish which is how she links in to the book.

Lastly is Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.  This is even more distant future after some terrible event known simply as ‘the fall’.  Humans are once again reduced to primitivism and worship a goddess called, yep you guessed it, Sonmi.

Cloud Atlas is quite a challenging book to read.  As the stories jump around I found it didn’t really hold my attention, which has been one of the biggest criticisms of it.  However, it has mostly received praise and positive reviews so I’m willing to accept it’s a good book, but only about half of it was to my taste.

Sample Text:

“To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you assume we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.”   from An Orison of Sonmi-451.

“I elbowed my way into the grubby café, bought a pie that tasted of shoe polish and a pot of tea with cork crumbs floating in it, and eavesdropped on a pair of Shetland pony breeders. Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led. Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will. “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.” from The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.

Further Reading:

If you liked the dystopian future you might like 1984

If you like the detective mystery thriller you might like The Maltese Falcon