Fido Nesti on adapting Nineteen Eighty-Four into a graphic novel in the shadow of Brazilian populism.

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‘We are the dead’, sighed Winston Smith, Julia by his side, both hidden at the belfry of what was left of a church tower in the countryside, where an atomic bomb had once fallen. I closed the book in shock, feeling deeply miserable, with a kind of sorrow never experienced before. All that hopelessness hit me like a punch in the stomach, leaving a bad taste in my mouth. 

The book was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the year 1984; I was thirteen and already knew that the sour taste had something to do with the fact that Brazil was still living under the last year of the military dictatorship. Orwell’s powerful words illuminated what was happening around me, making my eyes reach further, beyond those halftoned images from the newspapers that stamped Sergeants and Generals with their colourful insignia and shiny medals.

‘Judge authorises the government to keep celebration of the 1964 coup as a “landmark of democracy”’; ‘Government uses dictatorship-era national security law against critics of the President’. These are some of the news headlines in front of me at the present moment, while I’m typing these words, in 2021. They remind me of doublethink and the Thought Police, and they have to fight space with more urgent titles, such as ‘Hospitals run out of oxygen’ and ‘Brazil hits 300,000 deaths’. This is the criminal result of a negationist government that has minimised the importance of Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with catastrophic consequence. Once again our democracy is at stake, with the military occupying several posts at the ministries and dissonant voices being censored. The boots are here again, stamping our faces.

Thirty years after the little kid who used to draw all the time had his first contact with Orwell’s masterpiece, the novel found its way back into my hands precisely at the right moment, helping me to keep my sanity during these other dystopias: the pandemic and the ‘new’ government, a malady of its own. I was working on another project when my editor rang me with the great news. I couldn’t believe my luck; Nineteen Eighty-Four has always been very special to me, and now I was given the opportunity to revisit it with my own view. The novel has been adapted, for over seventy years, for radio, TV, the big screen, theatre plays, opera – but never into a graphic novel.

For the next eighteen months I was back to Airstrip One, writing furtively but fervently at my diary, drinking rancid gin and smoking Victory Cigarettes, conspiring against the Party, shouting through Two Minutes Hate, falling in love with Julia, soothing my wounds at the Golden Country, breaking down at the Ministry of Love, blacking out in Room 101, falling into outer space. It all began with several re-readings, followed by annotations, scripts, research, photos taken to be used as reference, sketches, roughs, lettering, inking, scanning, colouring, transforming all that universe into images – images that formed panels, panels that started creating pages.

It was a journey that transported me to the cubicles of the Records Department, zigzagged me like a rocket through the network of pneumatic tubes, making me reach the minds of the Inner and Outer Party members; propelled me through monstrous factory chimneys that pulled me towards the labyrinth of streets and alleys that shaped London, to finally meet and toast a pint with the proles. I became so immersed in the story that, on a rainy evening, I found myself committing a thoughtcrime, followed by a facecrime. After a bad day of maddening political news buzzing in my head, entering the elevator of my building, I came across the security camera. I looked at that thing and it looked back at me, and I felt my eyes betraying me, revealing all my secret thoughts, and, for a fraction of a second, I considered changing my features to a less angry glance. I felt like Big Brother was scrutinising my brain.

And I could find parallels everywhere, all the time, making Orwell’s warning hold steady. To rewrite history was Winston’s job; fake news is now used to manipulate our vote. Telescreens were always watching Oceania’s citizen; our omnipresent mobiles seem to know everything about us. Two Minutes Hate became a twenty-four/seven online spread of hateful posts. We are witnessing the resurgence of populist and authoritarian rulers with destructive agendas. Freedom of speech is under constant threat, opposition voices are being oppressed, silenced, sometimes literally vaporised. All this is happening right now.

Spending so much time inside the frightening world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the midst of these troubled times, living in such a brutalised and tortured country, has undoubtedly left its mark on me. But at the end of the journey, when it seems that there is nothing much left, I also realised, just like Winston, that, yes, ‘if you feel that staying human is worthwhile, you’ve beaten them’.

Fido Nesti, born in São Paulo, Brazil, is a self-taught artist who has worked in illustration and comics for over thirty years. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Playboy, among other publications. He has also collaborated on illustrating various books and covers for a range of publishing houses. He lived in Airstrip One for a year, between 2000 and 2001.

Photo credit: Renato Parada.

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