Even communist countries bear witness to the force of Orwell

Most works of fiction only temporarily command the attention of their readers , whether with emotion, satire, or humor. It is a rare novel, indeed - an ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' or a ''Huckleberry Finn,'' for example - whose influence endures long enough to change our behavior or our values.

Yet next to the ideological effect of George Orwell's ''1984'' on contemporary thinking, even literary giants like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain turn somewhat pale.

Since its publication in 1948, Orwell's darkly prophetic novel about a totalitarian society has become one of the most widely read works of fiction in the West. With the resurgence in sales seen this year, the number of copies sold exceeds 11.3 million.

But what is even more surprising is the impact of ''1984'' in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where Orwell's books are suppressed.

''One way to define a dissident (Soviet) intellectual is by whether he has read the samizdat (underground) translations of '1984' and 'Animal Farm,' '' Orwell biographer Bernard Crick has said.

Leopold Labedz, a Polish emigre writer and editor, has noted that among the readers of ''1984'' in communist countries ''it is difficult to find any who fail to be struck by its perceptiveness and its painful relevance to their own life.''

Even the official Soviet press has borne witness to the force of the book. Last December and January Novoye Vremya (a trade-union weekly), Izvestiya (the government daily), and the Literaturnaya Gazeta (Writers' Union weekly) all found it necessary to comment on the inflammatory English author their readers will presumably never encounter. All sought to show that Orwell's target in '' 1984'' was - yes, you guessed it - the capitalist West. That viewpoint, however, was transparently revisionist, since in October 1983 Izvestia, in an article complaining about the treatment of the USSR in American news media, had called Orwell ''the author of a malicious anti-Soviet opus that has become something of a handbook of ready-made quotations for double-dyed reactionaries.''

Despite such official ambivalence, emigres and others occasionally bear witness to the power the book exerts on its communist-bloc readers. Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian-born professor who left the Soviet Union in 1977 and now teaches at Yale University, first read the book in 1962 or '63. ''This book made perhaps the greatest impact on my life,'' Professor Venclova told the Index on Censorship recently. ''. . . (Orwell) was the first to explain to me that a normal person cannot live in that society.''

A dissident Czech writer, Milan Simecka, goes even further in the introduction he wrote for a samizdat translation of ''1984'' that surfaced in Czechoslovakia earlier this year. The ''similarity of our everyday life'' with life in ''1984'' ''comes as a physical shock, neither pleasant nor amusing,'' he writes.

But for Simecka himself, the parallel between Orwell's characterizations of society and his own observations of life in Czechoslovakia is remarkable. ''. . . Like Winston (Smith, Orwell's hero in ''1984''), I had grown up in a totalitarian system, had never been anywhere else, and lacked all certain knowledge of the past, the present, not to speak of the future. In a way, too, I was an employee of the Ministry of Truth and lived in the thrall of its ideology.

''Just like Winston, I knew only too well how lies were manufactured. . . .''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.