Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Homage To Catalonia is perhaps the seminal work in English about the Spanish Civil War. Written in Orwell's admirably spare yet wonderfully evocative prose, it's a searingly honest book, almost a rite of passage. It talks of the realities of the trenches and of the politics and of the feelings. Bookbag truly can't rate it highly enough. Sincerity and honesty spring from its pages and rack its brains as it might, Bookbag can't think of a single bad thing to say about it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2003
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0141187379

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Europe in 1936 was a dangerous place. Hitler had occupied the Rhineland, Mussolini was fighting in Ethiopia and what was to become known as the Fascist Axis was gaining ground and power. In Germany and Italy opposition parties were being suppressed and in Spain Franco was leading a revolt against the popularly elected government. The democratic western powers were nervous and following the policy of non-intervention which eventually led to appeasement. Stalin, in the USSR, was cautiously trying to make allies to protect himself against the ascendant right wing powers. The fighting in Spain, however, seemed less fraught with difficulties - it seemed like a clear struggle of democracy against Fascism, and many left-wingers from countries across Europe went to Spain as individuals to join the fight against Franco.

George Orwell was one of these, and Homage to Catalonia is his story of the Spanish Civil War. It begins in December 1936 when Orwell arrives in Barcelona, ready to be trained for the front line. Orwell wanted to fight Fascism desperately and he was overjoyed to find himself in Barcelona, in the middle of a revolution, where the bootblacks were equal to the generals, where people called each other "comrade" and where he could try to make a difference. To him the poor equipment, the food shortages and the privations were as nothing in comparison to the revolutionary spirit and comradeship he found. He writes almost like an enthusiastic child who is having the time of his life, but also like a wise one, for you can see immediately how he observes his experiences in such a way as to refine and extend the academic views on socialism and the class struggle he'd held before he arrived.

The Spanish War was fought in trenches, much like World War I and Orwell writes of his experiences in the front line - they were cold, hungry, wet and often lonely, filled with the privations of winter and lack of equipment. Arms were scarce - none of the rifles worked properly, grenades, machine guns and mortars were hard to find and fighting at the front was handicapped because of it. Orwell spent his first three months on the line trying to instil some rudiments of military training into the enthusiastic but ill-disciplined Spanish fighters, freezing with cold and damp, lacking sleep and generally being rather bored. It didn't seem so heroic after all, but still, he was glad to be there. These descriptions are a lasting testament I think to how futile and disorganised trench warfare seems to the actual fighters; Orwell saw more men injured or killed by their own side in accidents than he did in fighting the enemy. Some of it is even funny in a way, although I find it sad too:

"At Monte Pocero I do not think there was anyone younger than fifteen, but the average age must have been well under twenty. Boys of this age ought never to be used in the front line, because they cannot stand the lack of sleep which is inseparable from trench warfare. At the beginning it was almost impossible to keep our position properly guarded at night. The wretched children of my section could only be roused by dragging them out of their dugouts feet foremost, and soon as your back was turned they left their posts and slipped into shelter; or they would even, in spite of the frightful cold, lean up against the wall of the trench and fall fast asleep. Luckily the enemy were very unenterprising."

I love that word "fast".

After his stint at the front line Orwell returned to Barcelona only to find himself in the middle of internecine revolutionary struggle. The forces against Franco were made up of three main groups - the Anarchists who believed that the workers revolution should be continued alongside the war against Franco, the POUM or "Trotskyites" who felt pretty much the same, and the "Stalinists" or Communists who felt that the war should take precedence leaving the revolution for a later, safer date. The communists were being supported by the USSR whose aims were clearly larger and more global than the local struggle in Spain. The militia were being organised and Orwell found that the revolutionary spirit seemed to him to have dwindled. The Communist's propaganda leaflets were screaming headlines such like "TROTSKYITE SPANIARDS PLOT WITH FRANCO". Soon, fighting broke out between the factions and it is sad to see how soon people on the same side were shooting at each other while calling across the barricades, "How much food have you got over there, Comrade?"

Eventually, Orwell goes back to the front, is shot, and escapes Spain a wanted man only by subterfuge and disguise, with only an oil lamp for a souvenir. And I can't tell you about it all here, you'll just have to read for yourself. This is a book about socialism, about war, and about the evils of totalitarianism on any side, but mostly it is the story of one man's experience of all those things and you should read it.

Perhaps curiously, I find Homage to Catalonia an uplifting book to read, joyful even. It is so open, sincere and honest. I think too that despite its age, despite the way that the story of this Spanish struggle against the fascist was soon overshadowed by the world conflict that followed, it has an enormous freshness, partly borne from that direct honesty, but also peculiar to those all-too-rare times that the best of writers choose to tell you about themselves. And here, telling this story, to me Orwell surely has a place among the best of writers. Homage to Catalonia isn't the sort of book that is tied to its time and place, or to the moral and political points it makes, it is too good for that. And so I don't want to talk too much here about the intricacies of the politics, or whether Orwell's observations are accurate, or whether his assessments of the situation were correct, or whether his views on the Spanish War generally or on socialism are the right ones; you can find essay after essay on the web if you care to look.

I hope that people will read Homage to Catalonia for a long time to come: as an enlightening piece of reportage into important historical events, as a fascinating testament to the human experience of the last days of trench warfare, as a lesson on the evils of totalitarianism and a primer for a better understanding of the seemingly, but not necessarily bleaker, fictional Orwell in Animal Farm and 1984, but I hope they read it most importantly by far as a wonderful piece of writing and an insight into the formative experiences of the mind and heart of a good man. For a few moments after he was shot Orwell believed that he was going to die and those few moments lasted longer for him, I expect, than all the years of his life that led up to that moment. The passage describing his shooting is typical of Orwell's writing throughout Homage to Catalonia: direct, honest, wry, vivid, moving, perfect.

"As soon as I knew that the bullet had gone clean through my neck I took it for granted that I was done for. I had never heard of a man or an animal getting a bullet through the middle of the neck and surviving it. The blood was dribbling out of the corner of my mouth. 'The artery's gone,' I thought. I wondered how long you last when your carotid artery is cut; not many minutes, presumably. Everything was very blurry. There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed I was killed. And that too was interesting - I mean it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well. I had time to feel this very vividly. It may be, though, that if you were really dying your thoughts would be quite different."

Reading Homage to Catalonia again last week, probably for something like the tenth time, it is the sincerity and honesty of the writing literally jumping from the page which struck me most. Orwell hated the twisting of language for propaganda by media and government and wrote about it extensively in essays and articles as well as saving it for some of his bitterest satire in the Newspeak of 1984 and the stable door commandments in Animal Farm. And I thought also of the rhetoric of all the governments and leaders engaged in violent struggle across the world today, not least our own. I think I'd like to believe in the Orwellian vision as I see it - without truth we are lost, but where there is honesty, there is always hope.

I wanted to leave you with some nice, famous Orwellian words you'd recognise, but the famous ones all seem so gloomy and pessimistic and I don't think that is at all how he'd want to be remembered by us. So instead I've chosen some words which aren't about politics, or war, or revolutions, or the class struggle, or propaganda. They are about finding pleasure and hope in even the worst of situations:

"The leaves of the silver poplars which, in places, fringed our trenches brushed against my face; I thought what a good thing it was to be alive in a world where silver poplars grow."

If you are interested in books about the human experience of war, try our review of Empire of the Sun, by J G Ballard.

Booklists.jpg Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell is in the Top Ten Non-Fiction Books To Make You Think.
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Buy Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell at Amazon.com.


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jillinnrichs said:

Hello. I have heard of this book before but I have never been moved to read it. However your enthusiastic review has inspired me to give it a go. A member of my ex boyfriend's family was one of the last remaining survivors of the International Brigade so it would be interesting to read a first hand account. thanx Jill