Adam Biles reinvents George Orwell’s Animal Farm; his novel has nods to Brexit, refugee crisis, political autonomy, capitalism and its exploits

Eighty years ago, in November 1943, George Orwell started writing Animal Farm (1945) in response to Joseph Stalin’s distortion of socialism around World War II and the fate of the Soviet Union. Conscious of the fact that his previous attack on totalitarianism — Homage to Catalonia (1938) — did not do well, he resorted to fiction as his new weapon. Thus was born the world of Manor Farm and its rebellious animals, determined to be human — and labour-free. Eighty years later, Paris-based writer Adam Biles reinvents Manor Farm in a sequel, Beasts of England (Pan Macmillan India), featuring its new-generation denizens.

An ode to, and an extension of, Orwell’s legacy, the novel borrows its name from the old song of rebellion, one that Napoleon — the first “First Beast,” if we go by Biles’ distinction — of the original fable believed was no longer needed. Many years later, the song is resuscitated, not just as the title of a novel, but as the anthem of celebration and independence, even though the original lyrics have been long forgotten. Only the fainting tune remains.

A recipe for political disaster

Biles’ fable resembles Orwell’s but does not mimic it. The first big difference being the point of reference: while Orwell chose Animal Farm to expose and criticize the political ways of the Soviet Union, Biles brings the criticism closer home (although, with political satires like these, there is always a sense of universal familiarity with power-holders across the globe). Biles introduces his readers to more animals, “beasts” on the farm — alpacas, geckos, bull terriers, magpies, etc. Now “South of England’s Premium Petting Zoo” and a centre of trade, industry and farming, Manor Farm attracts humans instead of dismissing them, as was originally intended.

They have their own currency, “Manor Pounds for Manor Beasts”, and a supplier of funds and fodder, the Wealden Union of Farmers (WUF). The proverbial windmill — like a carousal — has been turning for decades, until it stops one day and brings the harmony and peace of the farm down. Empty reserves, financial debt and bankruptcy follow. The farm animals work overtime and eat less (both in quantity and quality), but no amount of budget cuts, excessive labour, selling of wool, eggs and milk, or increased tourism, helps. All this, a recipe of political instability and finally, a disaster.

As two state leaders — Buttercup (of Modern Animalism) and Ribbons (of True Animalism) – lose their popularity and have no choice but to leave the estate, Jumbo, the Joneist pig with a wig, takes over. With the evil mastermind Curly on his side, the idea of a ‘Sugarcandy Mountain’ — where the future of the farm lies — is sold to the animals. The new generation does not know that in the original fable, the ‘promised land’ — free of hunger, exploits and humans — is a place for after-life retirement, where only the faithful, devoted animals go. The novel here resembles the afterlife promise of most religions of the world, followed by the masses.

Life goes on, badly

Soon, the ‘othering’ begins. Doors are closed to “strays”, displacement occurs in the name of development, journalists (presumably the magpies and the geese) are overpowered (and outnumbered) by rumour-mongers (the starlings). Political classes — the pigs — create caste divides, reminding the animals that there is true unity only in division. The new slogan of “all animals are more equal than others” is once again replaced by the old Orwellian adage: “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Factually incorrect, but inspirational speeches mislead the animals into believing that some belong to the farm more than others, by the virtue of either their loyalty or species or political affiliation.

The dream of a “better life” keeps the animals busy and distracted, as they unknowingly turn against one another. Throughout, the illusion of democracy remains and the leadership maintains the pretense for as long as they can. “The line between reason and unreason, between decency and indecency, between order and chaos” blurs. To top it all, an unknown, fast-spreading disease — Wufflu —takes over the farm. The lockdowns, isolation and increasing infections that follow are not free from political influence either.

Those who protest or even consider raising their voice against the authority are silenced — publicly or in private — risking punishment, boycott or even death. Cassie, the mule, disappears; Cosmo, the owl and the farm’s only valid opposition, is defeated; and Martha, the mentee geese of old Duke, is discouraged. Through the curiosity and self-discovery of Cassie, the clarity of Cosmo, and the awakening of Martha, Biles impersonates the lonely business of logic and reason — the sad myths that they have become on the Manor Farm. The words of Benjamin — the intellectual donkey from Animal Farm who chose to ignore the tyranny — come true: “windmill or no windmill, life would go on as it had always gone on — that is, badly” and that “hunger, hardship and disappointment” are the “unalterable law of life”.

A plea to save the last of the lost humanity

Compared to Orwell’s masterpiece, Beasts of England has more mysteries to uncover and more minds dedicated to uncovering them. Although nothing matches Orwell’s conciseness and coherence, Biles has a fair chance of being called a timely and relevant writer, as he hints at England’s political instability of the past and present. With references to Brexit, refugee crisis, political autonomy, capitalism and its exploits, his writing has entered the ranks of evergreen content.

The Literary Director of Shakespeare and Company, one of the most famous bookshops of the world, Biles proves through his work that fiction can be and is a fragment of reality. The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures”) and Albert Camus (“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth”) from decades ago echo throughout Biles’ novel.

Beasts of England — a worthy book even outside Orwell’s shadow — acts as a revision of “four legs good, two legs bad”. In writing about the humanness of animals and the animality of humans, the novel settles that either way, both are, to some extent, an insult. Biles’ novel goes on to prove that in politics it may be easy to hate the players as well as the game, but it is impossible to ignore it or be unaffected by it. It appeals to its readers to keep their moral compass intact, as the words of the wise Duke (“you are what you eat”) translates into you are what you read and what you are told.

A reminder: To not forget the spirit of revolution that is a part of the ancestry of most communities in the world. Almost as a final plea to save the last of the lost humanity, Biles concludes his second novel on this note: “But would the animals ever come together again, as they have done in the past? Not as Manor Beasts, or even beasts of England. But as beasts, as animals, plain and simple.”

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