What if Snowball had his chance?
An American novelist has written a parody of Animal Farm, George Orwell's 1945 allegory about the evils of communism, in which the exiled pig, Snowball, returns to the farm and sets up a capitalist state, leading to misery for all the animals.
The book, Snowball's Chance by John Reed, has just been published by Roof Books, a small independent press in New York. And the estate of George Orwell is not happy about it.
William Hamilton, the British literary executor of the Orwell estate, objected to the parody in an e-mail message to the James T. Sherry, the publisher of Roof Books, stating, "The contemporary setting can only trivialize the tragedy of Orwell's mid-020th-century vision of totalitarianism."
"The clear references to 9 / 11 in the apocalyptic ending can only bring Orwell's name into disrepute in the U.S.," Hamilton wrote. Reached by phone, he said he had nothing more to add to the message.
Snowball's Chance is being published at a time when Orwell's reputation has been under attack because of revelations that in the late 1940s he gave the British Foreign Office a list of people he suspected of being "crypto-Communists and fellow travelers," labeling some of them as Jews and homosexuals as well. One of those condemning Orwell has been the writer Alexander Cockburn, whose father, Claud, a British journalist and member of the Communist Party, was a bitter foe of Orwell's.
"How quickly one learns to loathe the affectations of plain bluntishness," Cockburn writes in an introduction to Reed's novella. "The man of conscience turns out to be a whiner, and of course a snitch."
Coming to Orwell's defense in a book published in September, Why Orwell Matters (Basic Books), Christopher Hitchens calls Orwell "a great humanist" whose opinions still hold water. "It has lately proved possible to reprint every single letter, book review and essay composed by Orwell," he writes, "without exposing him to any embarrassment."
Reed said he was watching the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on television in his East Village apartment on Sept. 11 when the idea came to him to rewrite the Orwell classic. "I thought, 'Why would they do this to us?' " he remembered. "The twin towers attack showed us that something is wrong with our system, too."
He decided, he said, that the world had a new form of evil to deal with, and it was not communism. It was the evil, he said, within American corporate capitalism itself, and American arrogance in protecting its interests in the Middle East oil fields. To Reed, Animal Farm was the ultimate expression of pro-capitalist ideology. "It has inoculated generations of schoolchildren against the evils of communism," Reed said.
Reed said he is definitely one of those in the anti-Orwell camp. "I really wanted to explode that book," he said of Animal Farm. "I wanted to completely undermine it."
In Orwell's allegory, the animals go hungry and are worked to death for the benefit of their communist pig masters. In the final scene, the animals gaze into the window of the farmhouse watching the pigs cavorting with their human oppressors and can no longer tell the two apart.
Reed decided to turn Orwell's classic back on itself. In his parody, Napoleon, the Stalinist pig dictator of Animal Farm, dies, and his old rival, Snowball, returns transformed into a corporate capitalist dressed in cuff links and a blazer. "Tonight, I present an animalage of such erudition that all the wisdom of the village is now ours," Snowball says, announcing a new, decidedly free-market credo for the farm: "All animals are born equal -- what they become is their own affair."
The farm initially expands under capitalism. The animals get hot water and air-conditioning, start wearing clothes and begin walking on their hind legs. The farm encroaches on the territory of the neighboring woodland animals. The pigs bomb the beaver dams and disrupt the free flow of water -- make that oil -- in the forest. Eventually the farm's ecology is destroyed by overdevelopment, and it is turned into one giant Disney theme park, complete with confessional sideshows.
The woodland creatures, led by the beavers -- read Islamic fundamentalists -- incensed at the destruction of their environment, attack the twin windmills, which power the farm and are a stand-in for the towers of the World Trade Center. The book ends with the farm animals crying out for revenge against the fundamentalists: "Kill the beavers! Kill the beavers! Kill! Kill!"
Sherry said he believed that he had the right to publish the book under a 1994 Supreme Court ruling that in some cases protects parody as a form of free speech. Last year a federal appeals court in Atlanta overturned a publication ban on The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, a retelling of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind from the point of view of a slave, on the ground that it was a political parody.
Snowball's Chance is the 33-year-old Reed's second novel. His first was A Still Small Voice (Delacorte, 2000), an allegory about the Civil War. He is a native New Yorker who grew up in TriBeCa, the son of artists. As a child, Reed said, he used to play in the spaces under the twin towers, and their destruction had a particular resonance for him.
Despite the brutal ending of Snowball's Chance, Reed said, he still thinks "capitalism has a better chance of working than communism," but "it would be a true capitalist system rather than a conglomerate system."
"We would have an America of true democracy, with equal protection under the law for all," he said.