Homage to Catalonia is many books in one. It is a piece of journalism – Orwell initially went to Spain in the 1930s to report on the Spanish Civil War. It is also a war memoir, because Orwell was immediately convinced that enlisting in the fight against fascism rather than merely writing about it was the only honourable course of action. In some places it also feels like a history text book, with its intricate descriptions of the in-fighting between various acronym-laden political groupings and the background to the various disputes (Orwell thoughtfully groups these parts in separate chapters, so that readers can skip them if they’re not interested – I found them quite interesting in fact).
One thing it is not is a work of propaganda. Orwell is too honest for that. He makes his own biases absolutely clear at several points throughout the book, and urges us to remember that his knowledge of events is only from one particular point of view. He also backs everything up with evidence – his own observations mostly, or quoting from books and newspaper articles to discuss events beyond his own personal experience. And, while he has a natural sympathy for the group he joined, the POUM, he is also quite critical of them in some places, and the same applies to other groups – praise where it’s due, but criticism when he feels it’s warranted. The fascists, of course, don’t get exactly neutral treatment, as you’d expect from someone who signed up to fight them, but other than that his descriptions come across as quite even-handed.
In some ways, of course, this is a book of its time, but I wouldn’t say it’s only of historical interest. I have no particular interest in the Spanish Civil War, but I liked this book when I first read it years ago, and enjoyed the second reading too, including the excellent introduction by Lionel Trilling. Beyond the historically specific parts about 1930s Spain, this is a wonderful depiction of the reality of war – not so much the blood and guts (though there’s some of that) but more the incredible boredom and discomfort. There are memorable descriptions of hunger, of lice on the testicles, of cold, sentry duty, incompetence and mixups, unsubstantiated rumours and panics, petty pleasures and embarrassing fears.
Then there’s Orwell’s writing, which is always elegant and sometimes sublime. I particularly loved the final passage, when he is returning to England after months of hardship in Spain, a bullet in the neck, being hunted down by his own comrades for the crime of being POUM instead of PSUC, seeing friends killed and jailed. Then, abruptly, he finds himself on a train meandering through southern England:
It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen–all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
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