Book review: Animal Farm

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)Animal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: ★★★★★

Warning this post contains plot spoilers.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a striking little novel which fuses an easy to follow short story with a savage political satire of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by the darker elements of human nature. It charts a farm’s descent from the early hope of a better future, after its animals rebel and overthrow their human overlords, to the encroaching and increasingly perverse rule of the all powerful Napoleon in an unnervingly calm, step-by-step plot. With it’s benefit of (unstated) historical hindsight, alongside the artistic use of animals to represent historical individuals, Orwell’s writing demonstrates a brooding authority which marks the self-serving and tragic implications of each plot development as both frighteningly stark and desperately out of the reader’s control.

Many of the animals represent different social institutions, groups or individuals; Mr Jones is the careless, cruel and often drunk man who initially owns the farm who represents the bourgeois enemy of the suffering proletariat that is the animals; Moses, the tamed raven of Mr Jones, represents the Church, with his persuasive, comforting and distracting tale of a country called “Sugarcandy Mountain” in the sky where all animals go to when they die and live in eternal bliss. Two other characters who stand out are Boxer; an immensely strong and unquestioning horse committed wholeheartedly to following his revolutionary leaders, and Squealer; a clever pig who has such a talented way with words that he “could turn black into white,” who acts as the emergent regime’s mouthpiece spewing its increasingly contradictory propaganda.

After overthrowing Mr Jones the animals, led by the pigs who learn to read and write, decree the seven commandments of the ideology of Animalism on the barn wall to which all agree. Attention is then quickly turned to the labour of the hay harvest but it is just before this when the first tangible chink in the armour of what Orwell calls a ‘fairy story’ appears. Before the hard labour of harvest is carried out by the animals, the cows are milked by the pigs which produces buckets full of creamy, tasty looking milk to which the animals eyes lustily fall aware that all farm produce now belongs to all animals equally. However Napoleon, one of the cleverest pigs, tells the animals to forget the milk for now and to concentrate on the vital work of the harvest. However, “when they came back in the evening it was noticed that the milk had disappeared.”

From this dark hint at the future the animals, led by the naturally more intelligent pigs, proceed to run the farm on their terms rather than under the whim of man. However a rivalry between two of the more intelligent pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, rapidly emerges. This is largely based on their very different natures; Napoleon is used to get his own way and adept at quietly gathering support, whilst Snowball is more expressive of his ideas and a great public speaker who is able to eloquently persuade the other animals at public debates. The two also constantly oppose each other’s ideas.

This rivalry undoubtedly represents an analogy of the great power struggle in post revolution, post-Lenin USSR between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. One particularly powerful parallel which stood out to me was the debate around the defence of the farm. Napoleon suggests the animals should be trained in the use of weapons to strengthen their own farm against any human attackers, compared to Snowball’s preference to send pigeon messengers to other farms to spread the word of Animalism to help create unrest and possible rebellion, thereby reducing the amount of enemies. This broadly follows the rival ideas of Stalin’s Socialism in One Country policy which prioritised the internal strengthening of the Soviet Union compared with Trotsky’s ideas of continual international revolution.

Snowball is chased and banished from the farm with Napoleon seizing control and quickly installing fear into the animals. The maxim that Napoleon can never be wrong is adopted and the collective history of the farm’s rebellion is also changed to reduce the prominence of Snowball. Orwell then depicts every stage of the Farm’s descent into a paranoid, violent dictatorship led by the all powerful Napoleon. There are false propaganda campaigns, absurdly fabricated production statistics but yet still famine, show trial purges of former animal allies and blatant compromises of the previous principles of Animalism. Primarily all of these principles are broken but the most obvious are the killing of animals by other animals as well as the emergence of an unequal allocation of labour. This is between most animals having to work like slaves whilst starving and the pigs who very do little other than feast and increasingly live like their former human masters.

The book ends in dramatic and tragic fashion. The remaining ‘lower animals’ take a peek into the former home of Mr Jones where the pigs now live. After inviting the neighbouring human farm owners around to feast the animals outside overhear the pigs discuss their joint interests. Animalism is truly dead with the interests of the privileged few reinforced and the pigs; who sit, talk and drink like their former human enemies, and in fact rule more harshly; are impossible to tell apart from the humans during their heated final words during drunken a card game.

Best Quote: It may be a cliché but it’s hard to look beyond the infamous: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

Have you ever read Animal Farm or any other novels by George Orwell? If so, please leave your comments below.

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Review: Waterloo

Waterloo: The history of four days, three armies and three battles by Bernard Cornwell.

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: An enjoyable and gripping account of one of the most famous battles of the Napoleonic era, which reads so much like a thriller it is at times easy to forget this was Cornwell’s first non-fiction book.

In-depth: The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament is adorned with two giant paintings which depict two major moments in British history and the Napoleonic Wars: the death of Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher at the battle of Waterloo. Although I’m late to the bi-centenary anniversary of the battle, it was on June 18 last year, it was after a long look at the latter painting one lunchtime last autumn that I decided I needed to catch up and read an account of this most famous battle. I’ve finally got round to doing so.

Considering many readers will be aware of the battle’s result and its historical consequences, Cornwell still manages to instil an overwhelming sense of drama into this account. The author explains this: “No matter how often I read accounts of that day, the ending is still full of suspense … We might know how it ends, but like all good stories it bears repetition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly from the author of the adventures of Sharpe, Cornwell dramatically charts the proceeding days build up to Waterloo, and the entire battle itself, including the many times where victory seemed so close for l’Empereur.

Cornwell brilliantly brings the historical characters to life. Be that the generals of the armies or the soldiers fighting on the battlefield through their private correspondences. The battle is presented by Cornwell as the first meeting of Europe’s two finest soldiers, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon. These figures are wonderfully brought to life through tales such as, “He (the Duke) could be sharply witty; long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. “Don’t worry, Madame,” the Duke said, “I’ve seen their backs before.” Also the leader of the Prussian army, whose eventual arrival on Napoleon’s right flank was central to the outcome of the battle, is introduced as the 72 year old Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who was famously prone to “bouts of mental illness during which he believed himself pregnant with an elephant fathered by a French infantryman.” Fortunately this delusions did not inflict him on the day.

With Cornwell’s deep military knowledge there is naturally plenty here for military buffs. He makes much of the importance of the geography of the battlefield to its outcome, particularly how it was scouted months before by the Duke of Wellington. The northern, deceptively steep, ridge which the British led forces held throughout the day enabled the Duke to station most of his infantry just behind the top of the hill, thereby shielding them from the murderous artillery of Napoleon’s ‘Grand Battery.’ These were known as Napoleon’s “beautiful daughters” and the sound of their barrages going overhead were wonderfully described by one solider as “being like the noise of a heavy barrel of ale being rolled across a wooden floor above his head.”

The nature of the square formations of Anglo-Dutch infantry is also brought to life in a chapter covering the disastrous mid-afternoon cavalry charges by the French. By forming a square, with sides four men deep, the infantry was able to have a square of bayonets filled with reloading and firing troops which “spat musketry” at the terrified horses. This decimated the French cavalry, which struggled massively in the deep mud caused from the previous evenings heavy rain, for almost no gain and is largely told through the violent memoirs of the soldiers.

In conclusion Cornwell charts the race against time that the battle ultimately became. Napoleon’s forces came remarkably close to overwhelming the British line, victory and winning the road to Brussels but needed to do so by the time the reinforcing Prussian armies fully arrived. The desperate last throw of the dice by Napoleon was to order the advance of his famous Imperial Guard, who were rumoured to never have been defeated and were thus known as ‘the Immortals’, against the supposedly ‘Unbreakables’ which was Wellington’s infantry, whose reputation Napoleon had arrogantly dismissed early in the day. Although these extremes are extenuated by Cornwell this final section, like most of this book, is a real page turner.

Best Quote: “… long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him (The Duke of Wellington) in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. ‘Don’t worry, Madame,’ the Duke said, ‘I’ve seen their backs before.'”

Have you ever read an account of the Napoleonic Wars? If you have you may also like my review of Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great.

Please leave your comments below.

Napoleon the Great

51+Py0MgnYL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_My rating: ★★★★☆

Roberts’ account centres on a romantic account of Napoleon, from modest backgrounds to Emperor, who represented the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, progress and meritocracy. Whilst remarkably realist in painting Napoleon as the socially conservative, middle class, army man that he was, it also takes a positive view of the individual genius that possessed him which briefly awed all of Europe. Another of Roberts’ central points throughout is that many of the legal, cultural and administrative policies of Napoleon, particularly the Napoleonic Code, have endured and long outlived him.

Whilst Roberts’ account of Napoleon as the embodiment of enlightenment ideals is what you would expect from this book’s title, it is often at it’s best when demonstrating the Machiavellian flexibilities Napoleon was capable of.

This is first visible in his acceptance and embracing of the power of France over his native Corsica. His family’s connections to the native Corsican insurgency, from his upbringing in Ajaccio, briefly appears as the most obvious avenue to him, but eventually pales into insignificance against the opportunity afforded to his ambitions by the meritocratic atmosphere of the French Revolution & the chaos of the revolutionary wars.

The book largely centres on Roberts’ painstakingly meticulous analysis of the vast archives of letters that Napoleon produced during his career; and there is also plenty for military buffs with in-depth military studies of each of Napoleons battles and campaigns, something you’d expect from a grand history project such as this. Roberts gives engaging accounts of the near constant wars of the Napoleonic era, demonstrating Napoleons’ often-genuine reluctance for war, but ultimately his own firm belief in his abilities to pull off increasingly audacious victories.

Roberts also excellently captures the many personal relationships Napoleon enjoyed and endured through his life. The most interesting is that between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, which verges on looking like a 19th century blueprint for the ruthless games between US President Frank Underwood and his Russian counterpart in series three of House of Cards.

Immediately taken in by the Tsar’s first words of “I shall be your second against England,” Napoleon forever clung to the idea of a possible truce with Russia through out his many battles with her. After a brief friendship forged from the grand summit of Tilsit, and a later attempt by Napoleon to marry into the Romanov bloodline, the Tsar’s appetite for alliance soured dramatically. Roberts pinpoints this largely to Napoleon’s trade-strangling Continental system and his Machiavellian tactics of fostering local support in the East by encouraging a nascent Polish nationalism.

Tsar Alexander I’s biding of time to destroy Napoleon hangs over much of the book and early glimpses of the hubris upon which most popular interpretations on Napoleon are built upon begin to appear. The most obvious comes with the French Emperor’s statement in a letter that French armies could surely overcome any climate or arduous environment, noted during an early pursuit of the Duke of Wellington in the mountains of northern Spain.

Although what is most interesting about Roberts’ account is it’s definitive break with the common mode of interpreting Napoleon as an absolutist ruler with a hubristic ego.

The infamous 1812 Russian campaign is the best example as it receives analysis that goes much further than merely painting the Emperor as hell bent on invading the known world, but is presented as a logical reaction to a long chain of events and influences, many of which were beyond Napoleons’ control. The horrific nature of the campaign, through its never ending marches, murderous weather, ravaging diseases are also masterly captured, culminating in the grand spectacle of the burning of Moscow by it’s inhabitants to snatch it from Napoleon’s grasp, from which his fortunes do not really recover.

Ultimately then this book is a traditional addition to the ‘great man’ canon of history but manages to achieve a remarkable amount of balance. Whilst clearly having a positive view of Napoleon’s un-doubtable achievements and legacy, Roberts’ is obviously not blind to his massive shortcomings. The most central are a lack of appreciation of naval power, particularly after the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar, fed by a self-centred belief in the prestige of land armies and battles. This, coupled with the continental system he constructed from the Baltic States around the European Continent’s coastlines to the border of the Ottoman Empire, formed the master plan for a French dominated Europe which strangely ignored the naval, commercial and economic might of his gravest foe against the channel.

It is this balance that makes this book a must, although very long, read for anyone interested in moving their understanding of such an important historical figure like Napoleon beyond the understandably popular bias of him merely as a crazed dictator as well the central point of Roberts’ admiration for Napoleon: that his dramatic rise, fall and legacy demonstrate the ability one individual can have upon history.