英文

Common Nonsense:Orwell in public domain

【明報專訊】It's 1984. It's not 1984.

''Should we now shelve Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four under Non-fiction?''

The other day I overheard a bookshop staffer asking her colleague for a piece of shelving advice. I couldn't resist the temptation and offered mine with my broad grin, ''Better put it under Hong Kong Studies should you have such a classification.''

The shelving decision depends on how much one would adhere to the classification of genres or her awareness of relevance.

That Big Brother is always watching you, Doublethink, Newspeak and Thought Crime are all visible and audible here and now. Oceania is being seen on the ground. People have to read or re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four, not for historical or fictional allegory but for staying vigilant to safeguard what remains with Winston Smith and what could remain in our hands.

What remains...?

1984 remains amazing. Even Wonder Woman has chosen to return to 1984. In the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Wonder Woman is the sole spectacular among the many superheroes in the future and for the future. Then in her 2017 solo debut feature film Wonder Woman, the never-grown-old beauty finds her true love in World War I (WWI). Most recently Wonder Woman has had her second outing in which she saves the world in 1984, thus titled WW1984 (Wonder Woman 1984!). Why 1984?

Patty Jenkins, the director of WW1984, told us why: ''We wanted to talk about something quite a bit more serious than we did with the first film, which is [about] the crisis facing our world.'' So 1984 means crisis, epitomising (是……的典型) the kind of crisis we are compelled to face with a scale even more serious than World War I, at least according to Jenkins. Jenkins didn't make any explicit reference to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps she doesn't need to as the Orwellian sense and sensibility is already dwelling well in the free man's domain.

I read the Chinese rendition (translated by Prof Joseph Lau) of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984. With respect, that rendition is not a gem for reading. The gem is nevertheless the original which I could only read and admire years later. Orwell's English, to be fair to every talented translator's effort, is the lion, the unicorn (''The Lion and the Unicorn''), the elephant (''Shooting the Elephant'') and the whale (''Inside the Whale'') to be tamed and tangoed with. That's too tall an order to fill.

Even Orwell himself once confessed to us, ''I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting smiles, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their own sound.'' Not every novel he wrote is naturalistic. At least Nineteen Eighty-Four isn't one but still it is not without its fair share of purple passage:

''From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.''

It's purple and it's resounding.

Orwell passed away in January 1950. By virtue of the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, after 70 years subsequent to the author's death, the copyright of his work goes into the public domain where we could freely enjoy, borrow and copy, not just his ideas but his expressions of ideas! The fiction and non-fiction of Nineteen Eighty-Four now rests well at the fingertips of every free man who could have access to the public domain. For the unfree man, the public domain is ironically never public enough, I'm afraid.

Orwell has for long observed this for us, ''Literature has sometimes flourished under despotic regimes, but, as has often been pointed out, the despotisms of the past were not totalitarian.''

■by Lawrence Lau•劉偉聰

​Lawrence is a life debater who has to debate with his life. Being a barrister makes him a living while reading and writing gives him a life. Meet his cat 寅恪.

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