The New Zealand Herald today ran a story in Canvas about books that “changed authors lives”. I thought it an interesting premise and it got me to thinking about literary pieces that had heavily influence me. I’ve chosen three texts by authors at the peak of their craft that had me in awe. I’ll post one a day for three days.
The Hanging, by my sweetheart — I mean hero, George Orwell. It’s a mere short story but by gum it’s wonderful. I studied it in high school and again at university and both times I was overwhelmed by George’s ability to write so concisely while never sacrificing content and that’s something that can be hard to attain as a writer. It’s not a huge story and it doesn’t need to be because it is so technically proficient.
It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.
A world is brought to life within a few sentences with cheerless words like sodden, sickly, condemned, used to paint a picture of a bleak and somber world. But more than that there is a sort of grim desperation to Orwell’s narrative that says something about his state of mind at that time. A scrawny prisoner is presented to be hanged but on the way to the gallows a stray dog happy for human company comes bounding in wanting to play with the condemned. Orwell and the other guards are confronted with the last thing they really want to see, the prisoner’s humanity. Just moments before mounting the gallows steps something else happens that transforms Orwell.
At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.
Yes, the prisoner steps around a puddle and all Orwell can see is this prisoner’s, or this man’s, humanity and the senselessness of the act they’re about to undertake.
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working — bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming — all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned — reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.
Flip me over, I’m done. It’s so good. And the thing I love about this is it feels so real. His narrative is personal and relatable. Bearing in mind that Orwell never said this was an actual experience, it is however drawn from his time in the military police of Burma so this is not pure fantasy. It has the depth and feeling of a real epiphany that changed Orwell significantly. He has a few stories from his time in service in Burma. Check out Shooting an elephant for his indictment on imperialism. Back to The Hanging. Sadly, epiphany or not, our prisoner is killed and the guards continue on as if nothing happened, but our man Orwell is changed forever.
We all began laughing again. At that moment Francis's anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny. We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.
If the world were ending tomorrow and we were to create some kind of ark of art that would stand as a testament to who we were and what we did with our time here on earth, this story would be snugly stowed amongst the cargo for it’s insight into the absurd nature of humanity. I’ve read it countless times and it never fails to inspire me to write, not just for writings sake, but because there is a power within words to change the world one mind at a time.