Orwell’s Recent Popularity Abroad

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle pp. 253-255:

Instead of fading away, Orwell has enjoyed a new surge of popularity. The passing of the historical context of 1984 seems to have liberated the novel and allowed its message to be recognized as speaking to a universal problem of modern humankind.

The evidence for this is that in recent years, readers and writers around the world have responded to Orwell’s depictions of a nearly omniscient state. “We live in a new age of surveillance, one where George Orwell’s concept of living in a society whereby every citizen is under constant watch is becoming alarmingly prevalent,” one blogger wrote matter-of-factly in July 2015. An Iraqi writer, Hassan Abdulrazzak, said in 2015, “I’m sure George Orwell didn’t think: ‘I must write an instructive tale for a boy from Iraq,’ when he wrote 1984. But that book explained Iraq under Saddam for me better than anything else before or since.” In 2015, 1984 was listed as one of the ten bestselling books of the year in Russia.

In 2014, 1984 became so popular as a symbol among antigovernment protestors in Thailand that Philippine Airlines took to warning its passengers, in a list of helpful hints, that carrying a copy could cause trouble with customs officials and other authorities. “Emma Larkin,” the pen name of an American journalist working in Southeast Asia, wrote, “In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984.

Orwell seems to have resonated especially in modern China. Since the year 1984, some thirteen Chinese translations of 1984 have been published. Both it and Animal Farm also have been translated into Tibetan. Explaining the relevance of Orwell to China, one of his translators, Dong Leshan, wrote, “The twentieth century will soon be over, but political terror still survives and this is why Nineteen Eighty-four remains valid today.”

Orwell’s earlier meditations on the abuses of political power also found new audiences. An Islamic radical, reading Animal Farm while imprisoned in Egypt, realized that Orwell spoke to his private doubts. “I began to join the dots and think, ‘My God, if these guys that I’m here with ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm,’” said Maajid Nawaz. In Zimbabwe, an opposition newspaper ran a serialized version of Animal Farm that underscored the point about a betrayed revolution by running illustrations in which Napoleon the pig is depicted wearing the big-rimmed eyeglasses favored by Zimbabwe’s president-for-life, Robert Mugabe. In response, someone destroyed the newspaper’s press with an antitank mine. A Cuban artist was jailed without trial for plans to stage a version of Animal Farm in 2014. To make sure the authorities got the point, he painted the names “Fidel” and “Raoul” on two pigs.

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Filed under Africa, China, Cuba, democracy, education, language, Middle East, Southeast Asia

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