The Crazy Real-Life Twist In George Orwell's '1984'
O'Brien, the main antagonist of that famous book everyone lies about reading, might be the best non-pig character George Orwell ever wrote. A ruthless sociopath, master of the triple cross, and inventor of the stylish rat helmet, O'Brien embodies everyone's greatest fears of living in an authoritarian dystopia. But like any great spymaster, there are elements to O'Brien's identity that not even his superiors knew about. And that includes the man who created him.
A card-carrying member of Antifa, author George Orwell drew inspiration for 1984 while fighting fascists during the Spanish civil war of 1934-1939. Unfortunately, he drew said inspiration by observing his own side, where communists led by Stalin terrorized and spied on Trotskyists to ferret out what they deemed traitors to the ideology. One of these targets was Orwell himself, who was monitored by a British compatriot and pre-KGB spy David Crook. Crook was trained in spycraft by none other than Ramon Mercader, the assassin of Leon Trotsky. But apparently, Mercader was better at burying ice axes in people than snooping on them, since the most dirt Crook managed to dig up on Orwell was that he was "95% certain" his wife Eileen was cheating on him with "a strange Belgian adventurer."
But Orwell's sinister Spanish Soviet surveillance found its way into 1984 in more ways than even the author knew. For the spymaster who had tasked Crook with reporting on Orwell's every move was Hugh O'Donnell, codename: O'Brien. That's right; a decade before the publication of 1984, Orwell was hounded by a zealous spymaster with the exact same name as his novel's like-minded villain. And there was no way he could've known he was accidentally paying homage to his personal Soviet snoop. This information only came to light in the 2003 Orwell biography by historian (and Starbucks co-founder) Gordon Bowker, who got the info from still-classified KGB documents.
But wait! Like any ridiculously convoluted spy story, there's a little twist on the twist. Orwell geeks will know that he likely named O'Brien as a reference to his later boss, Brendan Bracker. He was the Irish-born head of Britain's Ministry of Information, the government's secretive propaganda wing, which had a Gestapo-like reputation for spying on their own people. So if there was anyone who might've dug deep enough to find the coincidental codename of Orwell's spy, it was the intended target of that literary burn. This means there's a chance that Bracker may have been the only person to have ever had a good chuckle while reading 1984.
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