Orwell and Your Voice in the Wilderness

18/07/2012 09:13 BST | Updated 16/09/2012 10:12 BST

There's a touching moment in the French classic film Amélie where the heroine, as a little girl, reflects the sunlight off her mirror from her window overlooking Paris, hoping someone out there sees her light. From a window across the city, another lonely child--the boy who will grow up to be the man she'll one day fall in love with--is doing the same reflector trick, waiting for a response with the hope that he's not alone. For artists and creatives of all varieties that indulge the crippling possibility that they're working in a vacuum--why should I do this? why should I even start? who will care?--there's the humbling notion that one never knows who else is out there, waiting for a signal.

There's no greater example of this than the story of George Orwell struggling to publish Animal Farm, the book that, unimaginable to him, would make him world famous and bring hope to countless people affected by oppression. Animal Farm finally found publication in the summer of 1945 by the small press Secker & Warburg. As I wrote for The Atlantic, Orwell's journey fighting to publish his scathing Soviet satire at a time when Stalin was considered an admirable leader and indispensable World War II ally was a treacherous one. Literary giant T.S. Eliot, the head of Faber & Faber, sent Orwell back his manuscript with a long, condescending rejection letter. Orwell received an offer of publication from Jonathan Cape, only to lose it at the intervention of a Soviet secret agent who convinced the publisher to drop it on the grounds of national security: Stalin was an ally, and would not appreciate being compared to a greedy, murderous pig.

For most of his career, Orwell was considered a fringe writer and lived in poverty. I like to imagine Orwell's shock when, in 1946, in declining health, recently widowed and a single father to an infant son he and his wife and muse Eileen had adopted just before her death during routine surgery, he received a fan letter in flowery broken English from a young Ukrainian refugee stuck among the displaced persons camps of occupied Germany. Ihor Ševčenko, a linguist scholar and the son of Ukrainian nationalists who fought against the Bolsheviks for Ukraine's independence during the Russian Revolution, knew very well the horrors hidden behind the Iron Curtain. He had always wondered, he wrote to Orwell, did anyone in the West know the truth?: "Your book has solved that problem."

In 1947, with Orwell's enthusiastic blessing, Ševčenko translated Animal Farm into Ukrainian and printed around 5,000 copies to be distributed among the Ukrainian refugee camps. But American soldiers stopped one of the distribution trucks, confiscated most of the refugee camp editions of Animal Farm, and handed them over to Soviet authorities who then destroyed the books as propaganda. (Out of the two-thousand or so copies that survived, my uncle, as a teenager living in one of these camps, attained one and brought it with him when he immigrated to the United States.) By this time, Orwell's "fairy story" had been accepted into America's Book of the Month Club, and his fate of becoming one of history's iconic writers was sealed.

This Thursday July 19th in London I will be giving a talk on George Orwell and the Ukrainian Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm at the Ukrainian Institute in Holland Park. It is a story of political and artistic resistance, a reminder of how individuals even in desperate circumstances can rely on the power of conviction. For more details on the lecture, visit the Institute's event page or RSVP here.