History, as Karl Marx famously said, repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. But often, it simply repeats itself as a mirror image of its former self. The circumstances change but the actors remain the same, and so do their motivations.
English writer and translator Adam Biles’ new novel, Beasts Of England, is a case in point. Conceived as a sequel to George Orwell’s iconic allegorical novella Animal Farm, it is a response to Brexit and the attendant social and economic woes that afflict Britain in recent times. But if you zoom out a little, it also does have a resonance beyond this specific cultural and political context. As one of the hens in Biles’ story bitterly says, “Whoever you Chooz,” referring to “Choozin”, a byword for democratic elections in the animal world, “you get a pig”. By pig, she doesn’t just refer to the category of animal alone, but the real lack of choice the rest of the animals have. No matter who they pick as their leader, they turn out to be a pig, who, by definition, are corrupt and self-serving.
Inspired by Biles’ sharply ironic take, I re-read Orwell’s original recently. Published in 1945, amid much controversy, it’s a work that has aged remarkably well. Written in the last years of World War II, Animal Farm caused much consternation among British publishers, including Victor Gollancz, Orwell’s publisher. As allies against Nazi Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union were yet to get into their Cold War kerfuffle. Orwell, on the other hand, already loathed Stalinism. He had witnessed the excesses of the Stalinist forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). As a democratic socialist, he was prescient about the evils Stalin would unleash in the coming years.
Even though Orwell wrote Animal Farm as an allegory of the circumstances that led to the Russian Revolution of 1917, leading into the Stalinist era, he knew the explosive potentials of the material he was dealing with. For this reason perhaps, he decided to call his book “A Fairy Story”, a subtitle his American publishers eventually dropped. Orwell’s animals, who live on Manor Farm in Willingdon, are far from the cute, talking creatures from fairy tales or Aesop’s fables. The pigs, dogs, hens, cows, horses, geese, donkeys living on Manor Farm are opinionated, questioning, querulous and manipulative by turn. But, as with humans, a few of them are more powerful than others.
What begins as a golden era of “Animalism” on Manor Farm, with the ouster of the drunk and abusive farmer Mr Jones (believed to be modelled on Tsar Nicholas II, who abdicated after the Russian Revolution of 1917), soon becomes a monopoly. The pigs begin to take all major decisions involving rules and regulations on the newly named Animal Farm. Soon, they start keeping the best portions of food for themselves because, unlike the beasts of burden whose physical toil keeps the farm running, the pigs need to keep their brains agile and functioning to ensure that no human comes back to take away their hard-earned freedom or to exploit them in any way.
Soon, there’s anarchy all around. The pigs are walking on two legs, getting drunk every day, and treating the rest of the animals as their inferiors. The original slogan of revolution, “Four legs good, two legs bad”, is reframed as “Four legs good, two legs better”. The rules on Manor Farm are tweaked repeatedly to accommodate everything that serves porcine interests, including sleeping on beds, drinking alcohol and, most frighteningly, killing other animals. The new motto soon becomes “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. No wonder the story hit too close to the bone for Orwell’s human publishers.
Biles sets his story several years ahead from where Orwell ends. Manor Farm is prospering once again, though the ground rules have radically changed. It’s now a petting zoo, one of the most popular in southern England, visited by fussy parents and excitable children every day, who leave a mess on the premises and irritate the animals. But the residents put up with the menace, as the zoo is a major source of income for the farm, the other being the electricity generated by its fabled windmill that is sold off to the neighbouring farms at a high price by Buttercup, the new pig in charge.
It doesn’t take long for things to go south. Buttercup is ousted through a series of unfortunate and violent incidents. The new regime is fractious, made up of the Jonesists (who are traditional and human-oriented) and Animalists (modern and pro-animals). Their vicious bickering and thirst for power sets off an alarming cycle of events, including the outbreak of the Wufflu (Biles’ version of the covid crisis), a confrontation with humans who do business with the farm that ends in a spectacular destruction of a sports car, and the arrival of a horde of robotic starlings.
With his more expansive canvas, Biles is able to pack in the nuances of all that ails contemporary politics and society. From technocracy to fake news to the insidious role of AI, there’s everything and more that you would expect from a smart and gifted storyteller. But at heart, the problems remain the same. The exploitation of the labour of many for the gains of a few, the neglect of the poor by the rich during times of crisis, like a pandemic. Worse still, the world keeps turning, in spite of the litany of injustices that besiege the less fortunate. The rich keep getting richer, while the rest go to the dogs, literally and figuratively in the case of Biles’ novel.
Why do animal fables, allegories, satires—call them what you will—appeal to our human senses so much? There’s a reason for exposing children to Aesop’s fables, The Gruffalo, or Charlotte’s Web, early on. Instead of moral-spouting adults, it’s far more palatable to imbibe life lessons from talking animals, especially those that teach us tolerance, love and kindness. When an Orwell or a Biles removes this long cherished film of cuteness from our adult eyes to reveal the same blighted troubles of our adult world, it pricks our consciousness just a bit more.
On the origin of Animal Farm, Orwell wrote in the 1947 preface: “I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals become aware of their strength, we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.” Biles has run with the same idea, just to show us, the so-called beneficiaries of technocratic democracies, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi