Julian Barnes in the NYRB:
The Orwell whom the English have sanctified is a descendant of the stone-kicking, beef-eating, commonsensical Dr. Johnson (another malleable iconic construct). It is the Orwell who writes to the publisher Fredric Warburg in October 1948, "I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot." It is the Orwell of straight thinking, plain writing, moral clarity, and truth-telling.
Yet things are never so simple, not even in the truth-telling, and Orwell's own line—"All art is to some extent propaganda"—might make us cautious (and reflect that the dictum applies a fortiori to journalism)....
One small moment of literary history at which many Orwellians would like to have been present was an encounter in Bertorelli's restaurant in London between Orwell's biographer Bernard Crick and Orwell's widow, Sonia. Crick dared to doubt the utter truthfulness of one of Orwell's most celebrated pieces of reportage, "Shooting an Elephant." Sonia, "to the delight of other clients," according to Crick, "screamed" at him across the table, "Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word!" The widow, you feel, was screaming for England. Because what England wants to believe about Orwell is that, having seen through the dogma and false words of political ideologies, he refuted the notion that facts are relative, flexible, or purpose-serving; further, he taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit.
But the unpatriotic doubter must persist, as Crick did. And in the afterword to the paperback edition of his biography he quotes a tape recording of an old Burma hand's memories of the incident Orwell recounted. According to the elderly witness, Orwell did indeed shoot "a fucking elephant." However, the elephant had not, as Orwell claimed, rampagingly killed a man (whose corpse he described in detail); ... As Crick argues, twelve of the fourteen pieces in the issue of Penguin New Writing where "Shooting an Elephant" first appeared were "similarly of a then fashionable genre that blurred the line between fact and fiction—the documentary, 'authentic' style."
The same skepticism—or critical research—may be, and has been, applied to Orwell's equally celebrated anti-Empire piece, "A Hanging."
Feb 21, 2009