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Homage To Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) 232 p.

Homage To Catalonia is the last of Orwell’s non-fiction books, an account of the time he spent as a volunteer soldier fighting for the Socialists in the Spanish Civil War. I naturally expected it to be his greatest book, partly because it was his last non-fiction one and partly because fighting in the Spanish Civil War is a much more romantic and exciting thing to do than living in poverty in Paris and London or examining industrial living conditions in northern England.

The Spanish Civil War was a hugely complex, messy and above all political conflict, and is little known in the English-speaking world. All I really knew about it was the vague idea that it was a sort of dress rehearsal for World War II, and what I’d picked up from Hemongway’s vaguely boring novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. (By the way, I think it’s ironic that Hemingway cultivated an image of himself as a burly he-man but was a mere journalist in the war, while Orwell is considered to have been a nerdy journalist but actually fought in it.) Orwell examines the conflict in some depth, but does so from a personal perspective and – since he was writing for the audience of his time – assumes some pre-knowledge about the war. It’s primarily a private account with political commentary, rather than an examination of the war as a whole.

Orwell originally went to Spain as a foreign correspondent, but witnessing his beloved Socialism fighting aginst Fascism, he felt compelled to sign up to the militia and risk his life for something he believed in. Whatever your thoughts on socialism (and as always, Orwell will dispel many myths and over-simplified beliefs Western readers have about communism) I’m sure everybody will agree that this is a brave and noble thing to do. Along with his honesty and unparalleled writing ability, it’s one of the reasons he’s almost universally admired in all wings of politics.

The socialist forces, at the time, were a rag-tag group of various political parties, unions and militias which had joined together to fight the Fascist dictator Franco, whom I believe had overthrown the monarchy (again, Orwell assumes some existing knowledge of the war, so I may be wrong.) He joined a socialist party called the P.O.U.M, and was dispatched the front lines in the Catalonian mountains. Orwell gives an excellent account of the unadventurous realities of trench warfare, in which the outdated equipment of both sides meant that there were few battles, and most of the soldiers’ time was spent trying to keep warm.

While on leave in Barcelona he had the bad fortune (or good fortune, from a reader’s perspective) to be present for the outbreak of street fighting in Barcelona, where various factions on the socialist side turned on each other – a civil war within a civil war, if you will. This did much to disillusion Orwell about the cause he was fighting for, but he remained in Spain nonetheless, operating under the “lesser of two evils” mantra. Shortly after returning to the frontlines he was shot in the throat by a sniper – an event he describes with uncharacteristic emotion – and returned to the cities to find the mood ever darker. The P.O.U.M. was being unfairly blamed for the Barcelona fighting, and militia members were being demonised and marginalised. Shortly afterwards the government began to arrest them, and Orwell was forced to flee the country. This final quarter of the book, as his friends are thrown in prison and he fears for his life and eventually has to return to England with bittersweet memories, is the strongest section of Homage To Catalonia.

The weakest section is the chapters detailing the political rivalry between the internal factions of the socialists. They were doubtless important at the time, given the level of misinformation and propaganda Orwell had to dispel, and Orwell himself even admits that they can be tedious and dull to follow, “like the names of generals in a Chinese war.” I once felt that Orwell could write about almost anything and make it readable, but now I’m not so sure, and I felt my attention waning during the chapters were Orwell was speaking about leaders and organisations and governments that have long since been consigned to history.

And Homage To Catalonia, while excellent, fell short of my (probably unreasonable) expectations. There are a few brilliant moments in the book – Orwell’s memories of his first spell of trench warfare, his experience of being shot, and the sadness and anger he feels after being forced to leave Spain, when the things he had passionately believed in were swept away by dirty politics. I probably prefer Down And Out In Paris And London. But Homage To Catalonia is nonetheless an excellent, readable and important book, like all of his non-fiction it’s required reading for… well, pretty much anyone who reads.

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November 2011