There is no medium as powerful as a novel for providing a chilling reminder of the past, a stark reflection of the present, or a prophetic vision of the future. Here are five the current Tory government could learn from…
1. 1984, George Orwell (1949)
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
1984 displays a society in which customs, language and social pressures induce passivity; a world in which even thoughts can be crimes under the tyrannical rule of ‘Big Brother’. Though often read as a critique of Fascism and Communism, we now find ourselves in a world where one-party dictatorships are no longer necessary for social control. Disempowerment is more subtle with pacification rebranded as securitisation. By making us fear the unknown, governments are able to track our movements and now, with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, decide whether or not we constitute a threat to society on the basis of our browsing history.
2. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
“The optimum population… is modelled on the iceberg—eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.”
In Brave New World, consumerism rules the World State. Individual initiative and awareness have been sacrificed to the mass consumption of goods, whilst babies are produced in factories to fit the requirements of society. We see in the World State’s disregard for creativity, beauty and freedom the current Tory State’s prioritisation of science and business, at the expense of humanities and the arts, as we are told that economic growth is the meaning of life. Meanwhile, adverts and the media condition us from an early age into believing that happiness is to be found only in consumption.
3. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)
“If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ‘cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich.”
Steinbeck’s novel is set in the Great Depression and follows a family from Oklahoma heading to the “promised land” of California in search of work. Yet, despite the rumours, they find the job market depleted and move from one camp to another in search of food and work. The large landowners, fearing an uprising, do what they can to keep the migrants poor and dependent. In this novel, California can be seen the promised land of capitalism, where expectations of more jobs and higher incomes are soon replaced with greater unemployment, poverty and social inequality. Police violence and their attempts to shut down a camp find resonance in the current treatment seen towards the homeless, squatters, and protesters.
4. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
“…racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past… if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist.”
Americanah brings to light the racism still present in purportedly liberal societies. Through an examination of the pervasive institutionalisation of racism and its changing language, Adichie highlights the injustices still endured. Whilst Nigerian-born Ifemelu goes to study in America, her teenage boyfriend, Obinze, travels illegally to the UK. Their romanticized notions of ‘the West’ also call into question such countries’ romanticisation of themselves. Much rhetoric surrounding immigration stems from the idea that, if given the chance, people would flock to the superior UK, yet Adichie paints a realistic and sobering picture of British life and both characters soon become disillusioned with life abroad and return to the place they call home.
5. Men in the Sun, Ghassan Kanafani (1962)
“He dragged the corpses one by one and threw them onto the end of the road, where the municipality’s dustcarts usually stopped to dump their rubbish…”
Men in the Sun centres around three men who seek to escape the economically-suffocated refugee camps of Lebanon for the oil boom in Kuwait and find transport in a water tanker. At checkpoints they must hide in the sweltering tank that eventually takes their lives, and in today’s climate of othering and inhospitality, the book has lessons to teach us all. It is worth noting the title—not Migrants in the Sun, nor even Refugees; these are simply men risking their lives to escape a desperate situation. Though heading for Kuwait, their destination could easily be exchanged for Turkey, Italy, or the UK. Kanafani thus humanises the dehumanised and, 50 years later, we are left wondering why people are still forced to die in the pursuit of freedom and dignity.