Thoroughly researched and wearing its scholarship lightly, The Ministry of Truth is at its best in some of its pop cultural gleanings: see, in particular, David Bowie’s obsession with the novel, which culminated in a proposal (eventually rejected) that the Orwell estate should license a biopic with Bowie in the title role...If Lynskey misses anything, it is a suspicion that Nineteen Eighty-Four’s roots may lie even further back in Orwell’s work. After all, each of his four 1930s novels features a central character ground down and oppressed by a vigilant authority that he or she has no way of resisting. Each, too, offers the spectacle of a rebellion that fails and a rebel forced to make compromises.
In this excellent analysis, journalist Dorian Lynskey combines an impressive breadth of literary research with fascinating critical commentary on the novel’s intellectual origins and subsequent interpretation. He argues that “Orwell’s fear that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four”...Yet Lynskey shows how the many possible interpretations of Nineteen Eighty-Four reflect its subject: a totalitarianism so all-encompassing it affects every aspect of life and politics. Future generations, confronted with their own evils, will no doubt find it has plenty more to say.
Lynskey’s biography of the book is personal, and all the better for it — measuring our present against the future set out by Orwell. Dystopias are, he argues, prophylactic. If this future can be described in detail, perhaps it won’t happen. He quotes Orwell saying that ‘liberal values are not indestructible and they have to be kept alive partly by conscious effort’. In other words, the future might be dreadful, it might be ‘swindle, racket and humbug’, unless you do something about it.
Lynskey’s is a magnificent piece of work, an informed, intelligent and hugely readable history of past futures as well as a splendid introduction to Orwell. It’s also full of delightful details: the first use of the word ‘Orwellian’ came when Mary McCarthy deployed it to describe the fashion magazine Flair, while the CIA-funded animation of Animal Farm, released in 1954, was promoted in Britain with the tag line ‘Pig Brother is watching you’.
After the fall of the USSR, Nineteen Eighty-Four might have been expected to pass into oblivion. But, Lynskey shows, it survived unabated, becoming a vessel into which anyone could pour their version of the future, whether it was Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The advent of the internet brought new, contradictory possibilities. Either we might be enslaved by its endless potential for frivolous amusement, or it might become an unstoppable force that will make tyranny impossible. Lynskey leaves us to decide. If you have even the slightest interest in Orwell or in the development of our culture, you should not miss this engrossing, enlivening book.
There is one thing I think Lynskey misses. For many years Nineteen Eighty-Four — although banned in communist countries — was prescribed for British schools. Generations of children have read it as one of their first grown-up novels. In fact, have practically been compelled to. It is hard to believe that this had no effect, but has it helped to inoculate those readers against those things that might most justly be called “Orwellian”? It might have been interesting to try to find out.
Even so, this is a good book, nicely done and on the side of virtue. And a spur too to literary action, for as the author says, Nineteen Eighty-Four is “far richer and stranger than you probably remember, and I urge you to read it again”.