Sneha Reddy reviews Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris, a collection of the author’s encounters as a young man in the late 1920s and early 1930s living first in Paris and then in London.
‘Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after effects of influenza than anything else’. Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, is a collection of George Orwell’s encounters as a young man in the late 1920s and early 1930s living first in Paris and then in London. Homeless and unemployed, he struggles to feed and clothe himself. Like many others in his position, Orwell walks miles to save a few centimes, queues up for hours to find a daily wage job and in desperate times, pawns his remaining few clothes to pay for food and tobacco. Down and Out, by the author’s own admission, is a ‘fairly trivial story’ that tells the reader, ‘here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless’.
The book is a people’s history as seen through the eyes of Orwell, who was then a young writer, eager to ‘explore that world more thoroughly’. In a way, this book has two Orwells. One, who is experiencing life as it happens each day on the streets with no money, and the other Orwell, who is continuously talking to the reader, almost fearful of failing to create empathy for the destitute in his story. Orwell sees discrimination, deceit and desperation but he also writes about generosity, friendship and some good times. His themes, therefore, are universal but the images remain unique to the story. In the Paris and London that he describes, there is not a single mention of the beauty or heritage of the cities, for his characters have no time and take no interest in such things. Life, for them, is a struggle from one meal to the next and their survival depends on whether they could collect enough to pay for a bed in a ‘spike’ that night. The story could have easily passed off as an inward view of this part of the world but for the occasional encounters with soldiers suffering from shell shock who remain dependent on charities long after the end of the First World War, a global phenomenon.
In the chapters set in Paris, Orwell takes the reader up the staircase, into the hotel room on Rue du Coq d’Or where the roof was often lined with bugs and later into Hotel X, where his job as a plongeur keeps him busy throughout summer. Uncertainty, however, remains the only constant. ‘Two bad days followed’, he declares at the start of one paragraph. The reader cannot but feel for Orwell and his Russian friend, Boris who at that point become ‘too hungry even to try and think of anything except food’. ‘It was all very queer after Paris’, he writes, upon arriving back in his own country. He realises that England is a ‘very good country when you are not poor’. When he meets some old fellow lodgers, he notes, ‘till meeting them I had never realised that there are people who live on nothing but the old age pension of ten shillings a week’.
Orwell is constantly bringing his perspective to what he sees. The influence of his early years in India are evident in his descriptions of the hierarchy in Hotel X which he likens to the ‘idea of the elaborate caste system’ and in his attempts at demonstrating his knowledge of swear words in Urdu. In some others, he is more vocal about his feelings. He says upfront, ‘for what they are worth I want to give my opinions…’ and then goes on to state rather assertively about ‘smart’ restaurants being cheap, shoddy imitations of luxury and rickshaws existing only because ‘Orientals consider it too vulgar to walk’. The Orwellian approach that manifests itself in whole in his later works such as Animal Farm and 1984 begin to surface already in Down and Out where he writes about the long working hours of low wage workers—‘I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob… it is safer to keep them too busy to think’ and argues that ‘the mob is in fact loose now, and—in the shape of rich men—is using its power to set up enormous treadmills of boredom’. All his observations appear to be connected. The book ends with what sounds almost like an effort to lobby the government for better conditions for the homeless and to reason with people to be more empathetic to tramps.
In all, there are thirty-eight chapters, split between Paris and London, with some parts dedicated almost exclusively to specific topics such as the one on London slang and swearing or the one on the working of a hotel which he found, even in its chaos, to have its own kind of order. Many of Orwell’s travel companions, such as Bozo, the screever, and Paddy, the Irishman, are likeable. There is a backstory for each of the characters that Orwell lays out when he introduces them as though it were essential for the readers to know how they got there. Overall, Down and Out is a travel account but it is also a social commentary and is true to what it seeks to express. At one point, Orwell laments, ‘the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor’. He feels uncomfortable about the fact that the educated man has not experienced real hunger and attributes such ignorance as the cause for ‘fear of the mob’. It is hardly prudent to disagree.
I picked up this book earlier in the year from India. I wanted to read it long since after I completed 1984. His experiences in Paris took me back to my own time working in the kitchen of Rose Bakery near Montmartre and the Métro, boulot, dodo lifestyle that is typical of both Paris and London. I found the book to be a great read especially in these times of harsh income disparities and the very real disconnect between different sections of the society. While the book goes some way in sensitising its readers, it also makes one wish they could feel just as Orwell did when he wrote, ‘it is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out’.