Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Homage to Catalonia - George Orwell

Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell’s account of his time fighting in the militia during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. I’m not going to even try to explain the political background to the war. Orwell provides two appendices which go into eye-glazing detail about the political machinations between the Communists, the Socialists, the Anarchists, the trade unions & the Government with more acronyms than you can poke a stick at. Briefly, Orwell was one of many socialists who went to Spain to resist the Franco-led Nationalists from taking over the government. Franco was backed by Germany & Italy, both Fascist regimes, & many people were afraid that Spain was just the first step in a fascist takeover of Europe. Orwell was sympathetic towards the aims of the Independent Labour Party & joined the militia of their sister organisation in Spain, POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). Orwell fought as an infantryman for several months before he was wounded & discharged.

What really interested me in this book are Orwell’s personal experiences which exemplify the futility & madness of war, whether it’s civil war as in Spain or war against an external aggressor. His writing is immediate (the book was published in 1938), humorous, sometimes bewildered but always intensely readable. Orwell joined the POUM militia & the first things that struck him were the real attempts at a socialist army & the complete lack of training, weapons & equipment. This lack of equipment was a problem throughout his time in the militia. The training was laughable. There were no rifles or machine guns so there was no way to train the men. The idealistic attempts at socialism led to no one saluting anyone else because there were no distinctions of rank. Everyone was paid the same & received the same rations. The Spanish attitude to every enquiry was to wave their hands & say mañana (tomorrow, but which tomorrow exactly?),

Whenever it is conceivably possible, the business of today is put off until mañana. This is so notorious that even the Spaniards themselves make jokes about it.  In Spain nothing, from a meal to a battle, ever happens at the appointed time. As a general rule things happen too late, but just occasionally – just so that you shan’t even be able to depend on their happening late – they happen too early.

When Orwell’s division leaves for the front, they expect to be right at the forefront of the action. Imagine their dismay when they arrive in the trenches at Alcubierre to discover that the enemy is over 700 yards away, far outside the range of their primitive bombs & rifles. Fighting became less important than almost anything else,

In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy. In winter on the Saragossa front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last. Except at night, when a surprise attack was always conceivable, nobody bothered about the enemy. They were simply remote black insects whom one occasionally saw hopping to and fro. The real preoccupation of both armies was trying to keep warm.

Orwell volunteers for an attack on the Fascist position & each man is issued with three bombs,

The Spanish Government had at last succeeded in producing a decent bomb. It was on the principle of a Mills bomb, but with two pins instead of one. After you had pulled the pins out there was an interval of seven seconds before the bomb exploded. Its chief disadvantage was that one pin was very stiff and the other very loose, so that you had the choice of leaving both pins in place and being unable to pull the stiff one out in a moment of emergency, or pulling the stiff one beforehand and being in a constant stew lest the thing should explode in your pocket. But it was a handy little bomb to throw.

Orwell’s laconic irony is the dominant tone of the narrative. The black humour of the ragged militia is also evident as their shoes are eaten by rats, their clothes fall apart, they’re persecuted by lice & the search for firewood & decent food becomes a daily chore. The pathetic state of the militia exasperates Orwell & he grows increasingly disillusioned about the socialist principles that he is fighting for.  This is only increased when he goes on leave to join his wife in Barcelona & finds himself caught up in street fighting that erupts because the political situation has changed & the Government now want to suppress POUM.

Orwell is shocked by the hostile reception he & the other militiamen receive in Barcelona. The initial revolutionary fervour has disappeared, class divisions have reasserted themselves & the “workers city” that he left only a few months before has gone. The war seems too far away for the ordinary citizens & the Anarchists & Communists are fighting each other rather than the Fascists. Orwell spends his leave on sentry duty in an observatory above the POUM offices, guarding it against attack,

I used to sit on the roof marvelling at the folly of it all. From the little windows in the observatory you could see for miles around – vista after vista of tall slender buildings, glass domes and fantastic curly roofs with brilliant green and copper tiles; over to eastward the glittering pale blue sea – the first glimpse of the sea that I had had since coming to Spain. And the whole huge town of a million people was locked in a sort of violent inertia, a nightmare of noise without movement. The sunlit streets were quite empty. Nothing was happening except the streaming of bullets from barricades and sandbagged windows. .. And all the while the devilish noise, echoing from thousands of stone buildings, went on and on and on, like a tropical rainstorm.

Suddenly it was all over. The Government brought in more troops & suppressed the fighting. Orwell went back to the front, this time besieging Huesca. Ten days later, he was shot in the throat. He lost his voice & the bullet hit the nerves in the back of his neck, damaging his arm.  After long, jolting journeys in trains with no medical assistance or attendance, he finally comes to rest in hospital & is cheerfully told that his arm will always be useless & he will never get his voice back. Both predictions are fortunately untrue but he does decide to ask for a medical discharge, which he finally gets after much trouble & mañana.

On his return to Barcelona, he discovers that the Government has decided to suppress POUM altogether & merge the militia with the new Popular Army. The socialist ideals of just a few months before are now redundant. Orwell regrets this but realises that his only course is to leave Spain. He’s forced to hide out in Barcelona as anyone connected to POUM is likely to be arrested. He & his wife, Eileen, manage to escape across the border to France where he is amazed at how indifferent people seem to be to the conflict in Spain.

I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain mean to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells, and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing: the smell of the trenches, the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances, the frosty crackle of bullets, the roar and glare of bombs; the clear cold light of the Barcelona mornings, and the stamp of boots in the barrack yard, back in December when people still believed in the revolution... above all the faces of militiamen – men whom I knew in the line and who are now scattered Lord knows where, some killed in battle, some maimed, some in prison – most of them, I hope, still safe and sound. Good luck to them all...

Homage to Catalonia is a fascinating account of Orwell’s time in Spain. His early idealism is tempered by his experiences but his sympathy with the struggles of the Spanish workers is evident throughout. His pictures of the incompetent army, the ferocious political manoeuvring & the treachery are contrasted with the essential decency of ordinary people that he meets everywhere. His accounts of the fighting, the bravery & the futility,  could have been written during any war, its sometimes very reminiscent of the memoirs of trench warfare written after WWI.

I love Orwell’s voice in his essays & Homage to Catalonia is written in that same voice. Some of my favourite essays can be found in the collection, Shooting an Elephant. He writes so well about books, reading & English life in the 20s & 30s in essays like Books v Cigarettes, Decline of the English Murder, Confessions of a Book Reviewer & Good Bad Books. I’ve just noticed an essay in that collection called Looking Back on the Spanish War which I must reread. I feel that I now need to know more about Orwell’s life. I’m also ashamed of my complete lack of knowledge about the Spanish Civil War so I should do something about that too. Oh dear, what’s that saying about so many books, so little time?


  1. This sounds like an incredibly interesting book, Lyn. I'm not familiar with Orwell's life or his essays. Of course I read 1984 and ANIMAL FARM, but that's about it.

    If I cn find the time, I'm going to make myself more familiar. Thanks for another intriguing post.

  2. I really felt I needed to know more about Orwell's life as I was just plunged into his joining up on the first page. It's a journalistic book so at the time it probably wasn't necessary to have that background but I kept asking myself questions I couldn't answer. Someone else I need to know more about!

  3. As much as I love George Orwell's essays, and as much as I love Spain, this book has remained unread on my shelves for years, and I don't even know why, except that perhaps understanding the Spanish Civil War is something I've decided to put off for another day. But I enjoyed reading your review; perhaps I will consider picking it up sooner rather than later.

    And to Yvette I just wanted to say that George Orwell's essays rank as the most memorable non-fiction I have ever read. I link to several of them on my blog. And Down and Out in Paris and London is also worth reading.

  4. Karyn, as I said, I know very little about the Spanish Civil War but I decided to just go for it & not worrry too much about the politics. Orwell's experiences as an infantryman are fascinating & that was enough for me. His essays are wonderful, I want to read more of them.

  5. Hello Lyn, an interesting post on Orwell. I enjoy his essays more than his novels. Nice to see a blogger drawing attention to them. The art of the essayist seems to be dying. Norman.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Norman. I've only read 1984 of Orwell's novels but I love his essays. I also have his Diary on the tbr shelves which I'll get to one day. You're right about the art of the essayist. I feel I should read more essays.