Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell

This wasn’t the book I intended to read this week, but my friend and fellow book blogger Mixa in Barcelona (read her review here) saw a copy on my shelves and has tracked down a copy in Catalan so I thought it was probably about time to reread the book after a gap of about twenty years so that it would be fresh in my mind when she wants to talk about it. Nowadays Orwell (real name Eric Blair) is almost entirely known as a novelist and his journalism is largely and sadly neglected. Homage to Catalonia even started out being neglected. It was first printed on 23rd April 1938 and a year later by the start of WWII it had only sold around 900 copies and soon after went out of print. It would only be available sporadically until Penguin Books printed a copy in March 1962, since then it has never been out of print.

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The book tells of Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War as part of an international militia against the uprising of General Franco and he is very clear that this is the war as he saw it and for the most part it is a very readable account. There are two chapters where he attempts to make sense of the alphabet soup of political organisations and militias taking part and these are prefaced by clear warnings that it is about to get complicated, as shown in the below extract from paragraph two of chapter five…

At the beginning I had ignored the political side of the war, and it was only about this time that it began to force itself upon my attention. If you are not interested in the horrors of party politics. please skip; I am trying to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters for precisely that purpose. But at the same time it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle. It was above all things a political war.

What follows is a section I’m glad I read because I had to keep referring back to it to sort out in my mind the differences and indeed the similarities between PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU and AIT all of which were political parties or trade unions or possibly both, it does get very confusing, especially as in theory they were all aligned against the Fascists of Franco but seemed to spend most of the time fighting and bickering amongst themselves. This was particularly true during the short lived Barcelona uprising that Orwell got caught up in by happening to be on leave from the front after 115 days and arrived back in the city just before it all got even more complicated. But I am getting ahead of myself lets get back to chapter one with Orwell arriving in Barcelona with his wife, intending to write about the war but actually enlisting as a member of the POUM militia within days of getting there.  His wife Eileen stayed in the Hotel Continental in Barcelona throughout their time in Spain whilst Orwell was fighting on a front line less than 170 miles away. The photo below is by Robert Capa and is part of the John Hillelson Agency collection and shows the sort of trenches Orwell would be in.

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Initially Orwell writes of his surprise on arriving in Barcelona in December 1936 that unions and workers parties had taken over the city and everywhere he saw the red and black flag of the Anarchists who were in control. This appealed to the socialist principles that Orwell espoused and it was probably this that led him to opt to fight for them rather than simply report on the situation. Unfortunately for him later he chose the wrong set of initials to join up with, but as he had said above the internecine politics hadn’t registered with him at first and he effectively just joined the first group that would have him. The first chapter covers the ‘training’ or rather lack of it he received in the Lenin barracks the poor conditions and the largely useless equipment they were issued with, chapter two has him on his way to being posted to the front where he was finally issued with an ancient rifle.

Chapters three and four tell of his time in the trenches above Zaragoza on the Aragon front, a place where the 6 foot 3 inch Orwell was clearly unsuited being head and shoulders taller than his fellow militiamen as can be seen in the photo below from the University College, London collection and reproduced opposite page 65 of my edition.

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The time there was largely one of freezing temperatures, squalor and boredom, the two front lines were so far apart on opposite mountain tops that only by the merest chance could anyone be hit by firing from the opposition. What wounds and deaths did occur were mainly accidents of the sort you get when you hand unreliable weapons to 15 year old boys without showing them how to use them. The real oddity in the photo above though is that Eileen is there so she must have made a trip up from Barcelona although Orwell doesn’t mention her doing so in the book.

After the first of the political chapters, chapter six has him still bored at the front line

Meanwhile nothing happened, nothing ever happened. The English had got into the habit of saying that this wasn’t a war, it was a bloody pantomime.

and reflecting on the effect that the war was having on the local population who were largely trying to live their lives as best they could. In chapter seven Orwell finally sees some action, it was decided to crawl at night across the hundreds of yards of no man’s land and attack the fascist line. It did not go well and although they did get into the enemy trenches they were told to retreat before morning and that would be the only time he faced the enemy in actual combat. Chapter eight is very short and is largely concerned with preparations to go on leave back to Barcelona.

Chapters nine, ten and eleven all concern his badly timed break back in the city. On his return he discovered that the workers revolution had largely petered out and life had returned to a sort of normality with the war something happening in the distance.  However this was not to last long, the tensions between the various groups was about to explode onto the streets and on the 3rd of May fighting began, initially at the telephone exchange but rapidly spreading through the main thoroughfares.  Orwell is caught up in the middle of this but it rapidly becomes as much of a stalemate as the ‘fighting’ on the front. The various factions take up strategic positions and sort of agree amongst themselves to not shoot each other. These chapters for me are the most interesting of the book, the endless boredom of the front is at least improved here by not only the considerably more action but also the shortness of the time scale before it all came to an end.

Chapter twelve sees Orwell return to the front but this was to be for a very short time as he was soon wounded by a shot through the neck which saw him invalided out. By this time he was increasingly disillusioned by the war, what he had seen in Barcelona had convinced him that this was not the great and noble calling that he once thought it was and his choice of POUM was about to become a major problem. Whilst in hospital and then trying to get his discharge papers signed off POUM were picked on as the scapegoat for the fighting in Barcelona and all members were to be arrested and probably shot as traitors. As he describes it this was definitely untrue but it was a convenient fabrication to allow the other factions to re-unite behind. So as well as being wounded he was now a wanted man. In the last two chapters he and Eileen manage to escape Spain and he reflects on his experiences. His conclusions went strongly against the narrative being pushed in the socialist press in the UK which he also heavily criticised and this meant that getting the book published proved difficult as his normal publisher wouldn’t take it.

The book is a fascinating study of the realities of war, the long periods of tedium enlivened by occasional periods of firing from the trenches in the beginning of the book through the difficulties of conflict within a city and is also surprisingly funny in places as he enlivens the tale. All in all it deserves to be better known. When most people think of Orwell what usually comes to mind is 1984 or Animal Farm, try his reportage, it is definitely worth seeking out.

My copy is the 1970 Folio Society first edition which was popular enough to have two further reprints in 1972 and 1975 before dropping out of the Folio catalogue until 1998. It then re-appeared as part of a five volume set of Orwell’s reportage along with “Down and Out in Paris and London”, “The Road to Wigan Pier” and two volumes of journalism and essays. This set has as yet not been reprinted. Although bought second-hand and with a badly sunned spine and grubby covers that don’t want to clean, what I like about this edition is the inclusion of contemporary photographs of Orwell and other people mentioned in the book on the front line. Regrettably not any by Orwell himself because as he explains in the book his camera and photographs were all stolen or impounded along with his notes and press clippings at various different times whilst he was involved in the war. I have reproduced a couple of the photos from the book above. The cover illustration is a view of the battlefield near Belchite on the Aragon front and is from the Fox Photos Ltd collection.

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