Return of the animals | Review of ‘Beasts of England’ by Adam Biles

An amusing, if predictable, retelling of Orwell’s classic that speaks to the cartoonish behaviour of many world leaders during the pandemic

Updated - December 11, 2023 12:33 pm IST

Published - December 08, 2023 09:00 am IST

Disinfection in progress at the Casa do Carnaval museum in Brazil’s Salvador city, February 2021.

Disinfection in progress at the Casa do Carnaval museum in Brazil’s Salvador city, February 2021. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It takes chutzpah to embark on a sequel to a revered classic. And if that classic is by George Orwell, then perhaps it takes more than chutzpah. It takes something far rarer in contemporary literature: a sense of humour. 

We tend to forget that Orwell was a great satirist because he knew where to find a laugh, and if necessary, keep it unfound. The Orwell we encounter in our classrooms is a disillusioned prophet-figure, dying of cancer and politics, and as exhausted as post-war England. His books are a Rorschach inkblot onto which we project our biases and fears for the future. Christopher Hitchens pointed out that Orwell had achieved the dubious honour of being misquoted by both the Left as well as the Right. 

Orwell is Serious Literature, we all know that. But as Orwell’s essay on the proper making of tea shows, he could also be very funny (“...much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea leaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet...”).

Villains only

The above remarks should forestall the suspicion that Adam Biles’ amusing, if predictable, novel, Beasts of England, cannot be thought-provoking because it isn’t Russian enough in its appraisal of life. It is also a return to a kind of storytelling that went out of fashion some decades ago — writing unadorned with stylistic haberdashery, a sensible plot, proper characters, and you better sit down for this: clearly identifiable heroes and villains. This is always a risky strategy for an author. Animal Farm was rejected by T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber because it had the wrong villain (communism rather than more public-spirited communists). Biles might run into rough weather because he privileges the wrong animals. 

The plot of Beasts of England is the same as the plot of Animal Farm. Power corrupts and it corrupts in predictable, banal ways. The old villainous species — pigs and dogs — remain the villains in this one. In Biles’ novel, since humans are already removed from the scene, he has more space to show how the corruption spreads. 

Unfortunately, the treatment is often heavy-handed. For instance, there is a scene in which the animals are persuaded to call apples ‘pears’ and pears ‘apples’. Modern totalitarianism in the age of social media is a very different beast from Orwell’s totalitarianism which was written for a government-controlled mass media. Biles’ rumour-spreading starlings (Twitter!) feels like a forced after-thought rather than intrinsic to the novel. 

Creepily human

The animals do more than speak. They write and sing and drive cars and operate machinery and hold elections. The point of anthropomorphising animals in fiction is to get rid of the inessentials of the human self. Sometimes this turns the story into an allegory. Other times, it privileges speech, because all the others aspects of being human — tool-making, clothes, lawn croquet etc. — are turned irrelevant. However, there is a point after which anthropomorphising begins to defeat itself. The animals become too creepily human, and we either step into the uncanny valley or wish we just had a story about regular human beings. 

For me, this moment came when Jumbo was introduced. The pig is reputed among the animals for good reason to be a “liar and a drunkard, perpetually in rut, and to hold a belief in his own right to unlimited pleasure and sensual indulgence”. The indulgence here is on the author’s part. Had this world a Lord Macaulay, his educational Minute would talk of “making a class of persons, Animal in blood and colour, but Human in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.

These reservations aside, Biles’ novel does speak to the cartoonish behaviour of most of the world’s so-called leaders during the COVID-19 years. That they were cartoonish didn’t make them any less sinister. That we have writers still willing to make us laugh at them is a relief. 

Beasts of England
Adam Biles

The reviewer is an author, most recently of ‘The Coincidence Plot’.

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