Ge­orge Or­well’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four still chal­lenges our un­der­stand­ing of free­dom, writes Char­lotte Wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Sev­eral years ago I found my­self in the most de­press­ing rooms I’d ever en­tered. To find the Shang­hai Pro­pa­ganda Poster Art Cen­tre you must first speak to the se­cu­rity guard at the gate of an ugly res­i­den­tial apart­ment com­plex, then find your way through var­i­ous tow­ers to an un­marked door, then take the stairs or creak­ing el­e­va­tor to the base­ment. There you will find hun­dreds of pro­pa­ganda posters from Mao Ze­dong’s Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion on dis­play.

When I re­turned to Ge­orge Or­well’s — first pub­lished in 1949 — af­ter more than 30 years, and re­vis­ited Win­ston Smith’s colour­less flat in Vic­tory Man­sions, with its bro­ken lift and the ‘‘dulled mir­ror’’ of its all-see­ing, all-hear­ing tele­screen, it was those rooms that swam up from my mem­ory.

It’s not just the gi­ant face of Mao loom­ing, Big Brother-like, over the ec­static faces of the over­all-clad masses that con­jures for me now, but some­thing more fright­en­ing; some­thing to do with the clammy base­ment air, the in­escapable sense of be­ing watched. The flimsy plas­ter walls, the weak flu­o­res­cent light­ing. The low, peel­ing ceil­ings, and the over­whelm­ing de­sire in me for es­cape.

It is as though my school­girl’s mind in­ter­nalised Or­well’s vi­sion and held it, dor­mant, for decades, un­til it could spring out and take three­d­i­men­sional form in those rooms below the Shang­hai streets. For, no mat­ter how long ago you first read it, and re­gard­less of the sunny Aus­tralian ado­les­cence out of which you may have puz­zled at its grim mes­sages, this novel’s im­ages and words went in deep, and lodged there. When you open its pages now, a sud­den cold plunge lets you know that the iconic first line — ‘‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were strik­ing thir­teen’’ — has never left you. Reread­ing the whole book is an ex­er­cise in creep­ing, dread­ful deja vu.

Af­ter this first shock of recog­ni­tion, what strikes me now is how closely Or­well’s bleak vi­sion re­sem­bles the drab post­war Eng­land in which it was writ­ten, with its smells of ‘‘boiled cab­bage and old rag mats’’, the damp grey hall­ways of Win­ston’s flat, the clank­ing pneu­matic tub­ing of the Min­istry of Truth’s fil­ing sys­tem, the ra­tioned cig­a­rettes and cof­fee. Even Win­ston’s body, with its cough­ing fits and the hor­ri­ble vari­cose ul­cer above his an­kle, seems like some­thing from the his­tory books. No won­der we snick­ered, from my bleached and heat­struck 1980s class­room, about how wrong Or­well had got our time.

Three decades on, it’s easy to see how much more he got right. The sub­ver­sions and degra­da­tions of our lan­guage are ob­vi­ous. The novel’s ter­mi­nol­ogy has em­bed­ded it­self so deeply in our cul­ture we can no longer trace the source; when a 25-year-old ac­quain­tance asked about the book I was read­ing and I men­tioned Big Brother, he as­sumed I meant the TV show. When I sum­marised the novel’s plot, he seemed be­mused. For him, van­ished pri­vacy holds no threat. Con­stant sur­veil­lance is part of our nat­u­ral, ev­ery­day ex­is­tence now, un­re­marked, un­no­ticed. We have free­dom, af­ter all. There is noth­ing to fear.

It’s tempt­ing to read the novel only to spot pre­dic­tions. Take the Two Min­utes Hate, where Or­well seems to fore­see the out­rage-churn of con­tem­po­rary so­cial me­dia with alarm­ing ac­cu­racy. In the Hate, min­istry em­ploy­ees are en­cour­aged to spit and hiss and hurl abuse in re­sponse to video footage of Gold­stein, the Enemy of the Peo­ple.

Next time a talk-show host blurts some ig- no­rant bile on im­mi­gra­tion or gen­dered vi­o­lence and you feel like join­ing the Twit­ter pileon, think of this: In a lu­cid mo­ment Win­ston found that he was shout­ing with the oth­ers and kick­ing his heel vi­o­lently against the rung of his chair. The hor­ri­ble thing about the Two Min­utes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was im­pos­si­ble to avoid join­ing in. Within thirty sec­onds any pre­tence was al­ways un­nec­es­sary. A hideous ec­stasy of fear and vin­dic­tive­ness, a de­sire to kill, to tor­ture, to smash faces in with a sledge-ham­mer, seemed to flow through the whole group of peo­ple like an elec­tric cur­rent, turn­ing one even against

A scene from the 1984 adap­ta­tion of Ge­orge Or­well’s novel; Char­lotte Wood, right

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