ORWELL: The War Commentaries by George Orwell; edited by W. J. West (Pantheon: $17.95; 248 pp.)

October 19, 1986| Clancy Sigal | Sigal, who contributes to the BBC, teaches at the USC School of Journalism. and

These broadcasts are part of the "lost texts" of George Orwell's radio commentaries on World War II recently unearthed by W. J. West in the British Broadcasting Corp. archives. They are the first substantial work by Orwell to appear since his death in 1950. West's notes supply fascinating background details, including passages deleted by the ever-present censor. For Orwell fans, it is a real find, if only to detect trace elements of his later, more famous work.

Orwell's job at the BBC was to speak into the microphone himself (published earlier this year in "Orwell-The War Broadcast") or, as in the present collection, write a weekly war-news summary for other broadcasters to read. The target audience was Indian, the loosely fixed "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire. Orwell, who had served as a police officer in Burma, had a special affection for the subcontinent. But he was also acutely conscious of his role as a counterpropagandist.

India, riven by nationalist passions, had no radio of its own but was besieged by Japanese and German stations which cleverly used anti-British Indian agitators to demoralize the families of Indian soldiers fighting for the British, and to try to soften the country for an Axis invasion.

Orwell's task was to be as honest as possible about the war when it was going most badly for the Allies--from December, 1941, to February, 1943, when he quit the BBC--while also trying to neutralize his opposite numbers in Berlin and Tokyo. What complicated matters was that he was a natural "agin'-the-government" man who passionately held for Indian independence--while his political masters were arresting the movement's leaders like Gandhi and Nehru. He was also deeply suspicious of the ministry of information's pro-Soviet line, which he dutifully spouted.

Thus, we come to the problem of Orwell's integrity.

Orwell hated fascism, which he'd fought on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Partly because of his Spanish experience, he was cynical about Stalinist Russia. At the BBC, the trick was to make the best Allied propaganda he could while resisting, in limited ways, the ministry's Colonel Blimp inclinations. Orwell did not want to compromise the essential frankness which he felt was the best propaganda in the long run. On this reading, Orwell half-resolved this dilemma with shrewdness and persuasiveness. He told the bitter truth--about Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore, the near-capture of Stalingrad--when he could, and kept his calm, decent tone even when dispensing half-truths.

West points out how often Orwell at the BBC behaved contrary to his inner beliefs. More than once, he broadcast the kind of authoritarian nonsense he was later to parody in "1984." "The ordinary (British) people who have to put up with (rationing)," he trumpeted, "do not grumble, and are even heard to say they would welcome greater sacrifices." Elsewhere, he lauds Stalin, whom he personally loathed, as "large- and wise-minded." Big Brother would have smiled approvingly.

West goes to great pains to try to pinpoint where and how, as a broadcaster, Orwell was unconsciously brooding over his future novel "1984" as a direct result of conflicting pressures on him at the BBC. I'm not as sure as West that this can be done with such precision. Undoubtedly, a part of Orwell's imagination instinctively digested as it was consciously rejecting what another part of him was saying on the air. Indeed, some literary detectives believe the spark for "1984" came from the very structure, the gray anonymity and paternal vastness, of the BBC itself!

The Orwell broadcasts are a necessary corrective to a romantic image, which grew up in the Cold War, of Orwell as an anti-Communist saint and unadulterated Democrat. He was a writer who could be as wrong as the next patriot. (For example, he warmly welcomed the Allied "Fire-storm" raids of German cities that killed so many civilians on purpose.) I think West is right in suggesting that Orwell picked up some of his ideas for "1984" from his own broadcasts. But even a saint has to make choices: And Orwell comes through his war commentaries as someone trying to do his level best to remain unhysterical and to lie only as much as necessary, no more. In those dark days that was an achievement.

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