Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
There’s a certain pleasure in returning to an author whose style and work you’re familiar with; there’s that reassuring feeling of being in safe hands, of trusting that you’ll read wonderful prose or an engaging story. George Orwell would be in the top ten of my all time favourite authors; he’s a writer I’ve read since studying him at school in my teens. We did “Nineteen Eighty Four”, “Animal Farm” and “Down and Out in Paris and London”, and I often look back with gratitude at the fabulous, mind stretching (free) State education I received, which pretty well formed many of my tastes for life. I went to explore all his other work over the years and I’ve read “Homage to Catalonia” at least twice before – once in the early days and once in fairly recent memory. So going back to it for the 1938 Club was a welcome re-read – I don’t revisit his work often enough, despite loving it dearly.
The Spanish Civil War, which took place between 1936 and 1939 was a complex conflict. The 1930s was an unstable decade with Fascism on the rise and the threat of Communism and Socialism demonised in the Western press. Things came to a head in Spain, a country deeply divided between extreme right and left-wing beliefs. The country had been badly hit by the Wall Street Crash and a Republican government came into power. However, control of the country passed from left to right and back again and eventually when the Socialist government was threatened by Franco’s German backed Fascist troops, and left wingers from all over the world travelled to Spain to idealistically join the fight against Fascism. Orwell a was one of those idealists, and he and his wife travelled to Spain at the end of 1936, where he joined the forces of one of the many factions fighting, the POUM.
Homage relates Orwell’s experiences of the fighting, and I’m not sure I’ve read a better account of the grimness of old style trench fighting. The mud, the filth, the boredom, the lack of food and tobacco; the occasional skirmishes with a distant enemy; the hopelessness of the weapons and the lack of ammunition. All these elements are conveyed brilliantly in Orwell’s peerless, beautifully constructed yet conversational sounding prose. He’s also unexpectedly dry and witty in places and I found myself chuckling in places which you wouldn’t imagine when the subject of a book is so serious.
It is curious that when you are watching artillery-fire from a safe distance you always want the gunner to hit his mark, even though the mark consists of your dinner and some of your comrades.
What Orwell also captures brilliantly are the tensions in Spain at the time. This was an extremely political conflict, riven by divisions between the different groups involved on the non-Fascist side, and this would be its eventual downfall. Orwell spent just months at the front, but when he returns to Barcelona on leave he finds that in that short time the workers’ control of things has slipped and the rich are back in control. Street fighting breaks out and the various anti-Fascists begin their internecine struggles. Orwell returns to the front but is wounded in the throat, narrowly escaping with his life. While he convalesces, his group is outlawed and staying in Spain presents a danger to his life.
HTC is a remarkable book on many levels. Not only does it get across quite brilliantly what it must have been like living in Spain during those days, it also captures the futility of war. And Orwell’s clear-eyed and sensible gaze cuts through all the nonsense to give such a down to earth viewpoint that you do rather wish he’d been running a few countries at the time. While the struggle was taking place, there was a considerable amount of disinformation and downright lying in the press about the situation in Spain and Orwell used HTC to try to counteract that with facts; in particular, he’s very clear about the causes of the Barcelona rioting and what actually happened.
What shines through in all of this is Orwell’s basic decency and humanity; he’s always trying to give the rational, balanced view on things, despite the provocations and regardless of how angry unfairness makes him. His prose, deceptively simple and straightforward, but actually evocative and lyrical in places, is so good – not having read this for a while I had forgotten just how wonderful his writing is. His description of how it felt to be shot is quite extraordinary, and you always feel he has his analytical eye on things, trying hard to convey the reality of what was happening around him to the reader. The book ends with the author returning to England and on a prescient note of foreboding, as if he was foreseeing what was shortly to come.
Europe in the late 1930s was a fragile place, which had been trembling on the brink of war for ages. The Spanish Civil War was something of a tipping point, bringing left and right-wing forces and ideologies into direct conflict. Orwell’s intensely readable account of the events he witnessed bring the fighting to life vividly, and his credo and beliefs are clear and reasonable and persuasive. He said later “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it” and certainly “Homage to Catalonia” is a powerful argument for both socialism and democracy. Like “Address Unknown”, this book was much more of what I expected to be reading in a book from 1938, reflecting events in the world around it; if only Orwell had been listened to while he was alive…
As an aside, I read my lovely edition from a boxed set I have (gifted by OH some years back) of Orwell’s complete works. I did consider my lovely old vintage Penguin copy, but the current version is re-ordered as per Orwell’s final wishes, with two chapters which give factual, background information moved to appendices. Of course, I could have read the modern Penguin version which is the same, but Eldest Child had borrowed it….