Thursday, 1 September 2011

1001 Books Review - Animal Farm

I've told you before about the incredibly rash promise I made to read half of the 1001 Books List before I turn 28. I must have been mad. Depending on which year's list you look at, I am currently hovering around the 17% mark, which is worrying, since this represents the achievement of MY ENTIRE LIFE SO FAR. Clearly I need to make up some ground, and fast.

To do this I am rushing through the list by reading the thinnest books I can find. These days I tend to look at a book and assess whether I want to read it or not purely by how slender it is. Hence both Disgrace and The Thirty-Nine Steps (I've already talked about them somewhat, but for the record: 3 and 2.5 stars respectively), and hence, after having it on my shelf for about fifteen years, Animal Farm.

This is a book I really ought to have read years ago. All the way through my childhood well-meaning relatives kept giving copies of it to me, because they had heard I liked animals. Being a child who was a) very emotional and b) not stupid, I was suspicious enough to find out more before I began to read it, and my research led me to discover that a) Animal Farm is not really about animals at all, and b) the horse TOTALLY DIES.

Spoiler: the horse does die, and nastily. It's probably a good thing I didn't read this as a child, because there is a heavy lot of animal-on-animal cruelty in this book. But, of course, Animal Farm isn't really about the animals. It's all a great big allegory, and as an easily understandable expression of what tends to happen when you put a high-minded ideology into practice, and especially why Communism is such a total non-starter, it's brilliant. If, it argues, even cuddly little animals end up shooting each other in the face and turning into human beings out of sheer wickedness, then those of us who were human in the first place have NO CHANCE. As arguments go, it's bloody compelling.

I'm a big fan of George Orwell's non-fiction writing because it manages to be simple, elegant and above all memorable, and this is no exception. Animal Farm is sound-bite heaven. It's incredible how much a text that's less than 100 pages long has become part of our culture and the way we understand politics. Phrases like 'Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad', 'Napoleon is always right', and 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others' get trotted out (hah) endlessly, even by people who haven't read the book.

Credulous beasts of burden
With that said, though, Animal Farm is by no means perfect. Where it doesn't really work is as an actual story. It's so obviously INTENSELY FULL OF MEANING that you can't focus on what's going on on the surface because you're trying to work out which of the pigs is meant to be Stalin (and to remember exactly who Molotov was, because it turns out that you may not have been paying full attention during that History lesson).

That doesn't affect its cleverness, but it did influence how I felt about its characters. Yes, Boxer dies, and that is sad, but because he's just a horse-shaped allegorical symbol for the credulous Soviet worker, it's hard to have a real depth of emotion for his fate. It turns out, contrary to what I was expecting, that you don't feel particularly sad when metaphors kill other metaphors, even if the first metaphor does it by sending the other metaphor off to be turned into glue. Oh well. Sucks to be a metaphor, I guess.

Essentially, I appreciated the ideas behind Animal Farm a lot, but I'm not sure I actually enjoyed the process of reading it. Nor do I feel that, now that I have read it, I have any deeper understanding of its political message than I did before. It's an immensely clever bit of writing, and what it has to say is (I think) immensely true, but that's really all. I know this is one of George Orwell's most famous and important works, and I'm probably ruffling a lot of feathers with this opinion but I still think I prefer him when he's in essay writing mode.

3 stars.

1 comment:

  1. robin, I like your reviews in general and I think you've got it right with this one.