Shooting An Elephant And Other Essays by George Orwell (1931-1949) 375 p.

A few months ago I was quite impressed by George Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris And London, in which he recounts his experiences on the fringes of society with a healthy measure of social commentary and sparkling wit. I was keen to read some more of Orwell’s non-fiction, and this collection of essays seemed to fit the bill quite nicely.

The essays span a period from the early thirties to the late forties, shortly before Orwell’s premature death in January 1950. They cover a number of topics, some personal and some political, ranging from his experiences as a policeman in Burma, lofty dissections of the works of Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift, all the way down to simple observations about the coming of spring.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Down And Out, because a lot of the political essays were largely theoretical – I preferred those in which Orwell discusses his own experiences, such as “Shooting An Elephant,” “How The Poor Die,” and “Such, Such Were The Joys.” Unfortunately these were a minority in the book, and it was somtimes hard going reading about politics sixty-five years out of date, or a 60-page analysis on Dickens when I’ve never read a lick of the man’s writing.

Nonetheless, Orwell was one of the most gifted writers of the 20th century (and easily its greatest journalist), and even when discussing unfamiliar subjects his prose is easy and enjoyable to read. He is exceptionally articulate, and his similes are quite imaginative:

[Dickens’] imagination overwhelms everything, like a kind of weed.

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

At eight years old you were suddenly taken out of this warm nest and thrown into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a goldfish into a tank full of pike.

He also expresses some thoughts I’ve had myself while travelling through Asia:

With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet through a Buddhist priest’s guts.

While I didn’t enjoy this as much as Down And Out, I still believe that all of Orwell’s non-fiction is worth reading. Orwell was above all an honest writer, a man who could admit his errors, confront what he truly believed and write in plain English what he thought. That’s a rare thing. He was not just one of the greatest writers of our age, but also one of the noblest.

He also totally shot an elephant in the face. What a man!

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