I review Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, his sixth published book and a commercial failure. An historically important account of the Spanish Civil War and featuring the seeds of some themes which were developed on in 1984.
The Spanish Civil War
Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans. The Republicans were made up of left leaning groups such as socialists, communists and anarchists. They were at war against the Nationalists, a more conservative right leaning group which was ultimately led by Franco.
The above description of the war sounds rather straightforward. However, the reality of the war was much more complex. Amongst the many varied groups fighting on the side of the Republicans were many differences of political opinions. As a result there was a large amount of fighting between them. The only thing that they seemingly could all agree on was their opposition to Franco and the Nationalists.
Reader feel free to skip!
Orwell acknowledges in the book that the political background to the war is a rather dry topic. Consequently he invites the reader to feel free to skip a couple of the chapters where he explains this. I must admit that with all the various acronyms, it is rather difficult to follow. The couple of chapters dedicated to this clearly convey the confusion that must have existed. People fighting on the same side ultimately began fighting against each other. The group that Orwell joined to fight with was the POUM. The POUM were actually outlawed as the war progressed. POUM soldiers returning from the front were arrested or even worse shot. They were shot for being a member of a political group that was now illegal.
Orwell is very readable and brings alive what could have been a very dry subject. Trench warfare is described in vivid detail. As you read the book you feel that you experience the trenches of the Spanish Civil War.
Interestingly there is a complete lack of action in the trenches. Soldiers were ill equipped with a lack of guns and bombs. Equipment that was provided to soldiers was often dangerous and very old. Next to no training was provided to the soldiers. As a result a very hopeless picture is painted.
The trenches were too far apart for any real fighting to take place. Soldiers were wounded mostly be stray bullets or a lucky shot landing. Orwell himself was shot in the trenches. His description of this is very powerful and he also discusses the mental effects that this had on him.
Rumble on La Rambla
La Rambla is the lovely main street that runs through the city of Barcelona. It is a wide avenue with beautiful old buildings, flowers sellers and newsagents. Upon arriving in Barcelona, Orwell finds a city owned and run by the people. A city where tipping is outlawed and everyone is a comrade.
Orwell describes how La Rambla is transformed into a battle ground. As a result of the fighting amongst the republican groups, street fighting broke out. Orwell details his experience of this and also the many differences in the reported versions.
A very understanding Mrs Blair
As you read this book, Orwell happens to mention that his wife is with him! He occasionally mentions that she is in a hotel in Barcelona whilst he is at the front fighting the forces of Franco! Mrs Blair’s account of the whole experience would have been very interesting too. As the book draws to a close, we see Mr and Mrs Blair trying to escape Spain. Orwell is wanted by the police for having been a member of a now outlawed political party. It is quite clear how lucky they were to escape and that Orwell lived to write his future masterpieces.
The Truth is what we say it is – origins of 1984
In Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, the writer states from the outset that he is describing his personal experiences of the Spanish Civil War. He makes this clear because his account differs to some of the widely accepted accounts or facts of the war.
Orwell discusses how every event that took place was subject to propaganda and spin. We often hear the phrase that the victor of a war writes the history. In this situation we become aware of how printed propaganda just serves to confuse historians. Just because something is written down does not make it true. The irony of this is not lost on Orwell as he is writing his own version of events. His version of events that will be flavoured with his own political opinion and leanings.
Let us remember that we are also talking about propaganda amongst the forces fighting Franco. During the street fighting in Barcelona amongst the Republican forces there were many differing accounts of events. For each event that took place there was at least the Government’s official version, the anarchist version and the Communist version.
Orwell reflects on the in-fighting and war in general;
Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
As the war progressed, Orwell states that it became evident that some form of dictatorship would result. He reflects on the political leaders who he saw as having power to say that 2 + 2 = 5 and for it to be held as true. These themes of propaganda and control of truth are explored and developed in 1984.
La Sagrada Familia
Barcelona is a beautiful city and has wonderful architecture. La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s cathedral, is a huge tourist draw. The cathedral is completely unique and is unlike any other in the world. The way it is constructed allows for a beautiful and magical dance of colours inside from its stained glassed windows. Orwell describes it as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.” Sorry Eric but I must disagree with you there!
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell is an interesting book from a number of perspectives. It is a first hand experience of trench warfare in the Spanish Civil war and also of the Barcelona street fighting.
The book also explores themes that Orwell developed later in 1984. Themes of totalitarianism and government controlled rewriting of history.
I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War before reading this book. As a result this is what attracted me to the book. Following the yogic concept of self-study, svadhyaya, I set out to learn!
Find out more about George Orwell here: https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/about/about-george-orwell/
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