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Saturday, February 27, 2010

1984, 1985, and Beyond

Long live Big Brother! But what happens after he dies?

[Continued from last week.]

George Orwell may have imagined the world of Big Brother, but Gy├Ârgy Dalos actually lived in it. The Hungarian poet was educated in Moscow. In 1968, while the Cultural Revolution was going on in China, he was accused of "Maoist activities." Imprisoned and tortured just like the fictional Winston Smith, he was eventually released but booted out of the Communist Party and kept under police surveillance. I don't know when he first read the novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he must have thought, "This is about ME!"

Dalos is only four years older than I am, so roughly a contemporary. But while I was reading the book and watching the movie, he was growing up under the exact kind of despotic totalitarianism Orwell had depicted. Later, while making a living as a translator and poet, he ventured to write a sequel titled, appropriately enough, 1985 (Pantheon, 1984). This slim volume is a wonderful gloss on history, with resonances reaching back to Orwell's novel and the then-recent Cultural Revolution, and forward to the events that we now know were soon to follow: the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the other States of the Eastern Bloc.

The book pretends to be a compilation of memoirs and official reports of the years following the death of Big Brother and the collapse of Oceania. It begins with the official account of BB's death, in itself a wonderful satire of colorless reportage by committee. The leader is admitted to the hospital for "a temporary indisposition." During treatment first one limb, then another is "temporarily removed." Then one lung is "temporarily removed." His condition goes from Critical to Improved, then to Critical and Unchanged, then Unchanged and Critical. Finally he perishes "as the result of a temporary indisposition." So the condition of the leader becomes symbolic of that of the State, kept alive only through the most extreme measures.

If that's not enough to cheer you up, Oceania then suffers a crippling military defeat which causes it to sue for peace with its rival Eurasia. The collapse of its government soon follows, after an interim struggle for power in which the late BB's wife leads one faction, much the way the wife of Chairman Mao became part of the Gang of Four. By now it is apparent that the author has mimicked the way Orwell reversed the roles of foreign and domestic politics. His description of the corruption and demise of Oceania (the West) is clearly about the immanent fall of the USSR.

One fact that brings this home is the way it is revealed that Eurasia is vastly superior in technology. Their foreign delegation declines the limousines that meet them at the airport and instead levitate their way to the hotel with the aid of some kind of devices in their clothing. Later a multifunction ballpoint pen is found to also serve as a radio. (Commonplace now, this was futuristic in 1980.) By comparison, remember how hard it was for Winston Smith to find razor blades, not to mention food, in Oceania.

This reminded me of a revealing article that was published in the 1980's in a US computer magazine. The author had been to Moscow and had managed to get hold of a Soviet personal computer. At the time this beast was so rare it had seldom been seen in the wild. Not only did it not work very well, but disassembling it revealed a spaghetti mess of hand-wiring inside, evidence of abundant errors and problems with the printed circuit boards. The device was selling for the equivalent of $10,000 if you could even get one. Meanwhile in the US, Apple was designing the first Mac.
Analysis of the Soviet microchips revealed they had been directly copied from Western designs. Engineers had actually opened up the chips, used a photographic enlarger to blow up the circuitry, cleaned it up, and shrunk it back down again for production. They had not even bothered to remove the manufacturer's logo and code numbers. However, due to some distortions introduced by the copying process, they could not be reduced to as small a size as the originals. This led to a gag boast that "Soviet microchips are the largest in the world!"
The really interesting bit was that at the same time China had begun to mass produce very serviceable and inexpensive clones of the IBM PC. In the three-way race for technological supremacy the Chinese were catching up, while Russia was falling farther behind. The writing was on the wall (pun intended) for all to see.

Just as interesting as the politics are the personal stories in 1985. Winston Smith and his lover Julia both emerge as revolutionary figures, and even form a bizarre partnership with O'Brien, the same officer of the Ministry of Love who had overseen Winston's torture. The Chestnut Tree Cafe, frequented by those recently released from brainwashing, becomes the center of revolutionary discussions and partisan debates.

Sadly, Dalos did not dare to imagine the groundswell of popular support that was to buoy Lech Walesa into office in Poland, or that would support Boris Yeltsin against a possible counter-revolution in Russia. But no doubt that was due to his experience of the abortive uprising in his native Hungary in 1956, when they had failed to get the support of the West and were crushed by Soviet tanks.

What's left of Oceania -- now stripped down to the bare essentials of the British Isles -- ends up as a struggling socialist state of which Julia is a prominent minister but from which Winston has been ousted as overly radical. One imagines this was both the hope and the worst fear of the author, that change might come that was not much change at all. Indeed, things have not gone swimmingly in Hungary since the regime change, and conditions in the wake of the global financial meltdown are now critical, as Dalos reported in his recent article, "A Peaceless Democracy."

Needless to say, 1985 could not be published in Hungary back when it was written. It appeared first in German and French translation in 1982, and in English in -- when else? -- 1984. What a year.

Orwell's novel was of course forbidden throughout the Soviet empire, but I know how at least one copy made its way in. I once met a man who had been with US Army Intelligence in Germany during the 1960's. He used to cross into East Berlin sometimes, and once smuggled a German translation of the novel across the border for a friend. 
"Weren't you afraid of being caught?" I asked him. He replied no, because he knew the border guards were mostly green kids conscripted from the farms. All he had to do was to place some West German skin magazines on top of the book in his bag. These, of course, they immediately confiscated. What about the book? "I'm practicing my German," my friend told them. "Oh, that's all right then," they said, their eyes bulging with visions of naked breasts. And so the empire falls.

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