It’s a clever enough book, written in 1938, published in ’39. What’s remarkable is that parts of it could have been written today. George attends a small political lecture where the speaker is drumming up opposition to Nazis. His talk is fervent. “A rather mean little man, with a white face and a bald head, standing on a platform, shooting out slogans. . . . He’s trying to work up hatred in the audience, but that’s nothing to the hatred he feels himself. Every slogan’s gospel truth to him. . . . [F]or a moment, with my eyes shut, . . . I saw the vision he was seeing. . . . It’s a picture of himself smashing people’s faces in with a spanner. Fascist faces, of course. . . . Smash! Right in the middle. The bones cave in like an eggshell and what was a face a minute ago is just a big blob of strawberry jam. Smash! There goes another! . . . And it’s all O.K. because the smashed faces belong to Fascists.”
Orwell, who hoped that freedom and socialism weren’t incompatible, had a keen eye for fervor. And for its political uses. In several passages, this novel looks ahead to the themes Orwell pursued a decade later in 1984. George Bowling isn’t afraid of the coming war, which he expects to begin around 1941. He’s too old to serve, and randomly falling bombs can’t hit everyone. “But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the hate-world, the slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed-wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him.” And: “It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got at the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. . . . There’s no escape. Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-bashing with the others. But there’s no way out. It’s just something that’s got to happen.”
George’s adventure in Lower Binfield is a bust, except for an accidental bombing of the town by a plane practicing for the war. The manor house in Upper Binfield has become an asylum for lunatics, and the fish pond has been filled as a trash dump. George heads home to catch hell from his wife. There’s no way of telling whether he finds consolation when the war comes early, a few months after the book's publication.
June 5 2017