As promised, today I’m going to write about Homage to Catalonia. Perhaps I should start by acknowledging Obama and everything – but since I know less than nothing about the whole thing, I’ll just say that I was rather hoping he’d win (in an unfounded sort of way) and always imagined he would.
Right. To the Spanish Civil War. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell was one of two works (the other being an Auden poem) which were chosen by our tutor to represent ‘Literature of the 1930s’. If I had to choose a decade about which I knew the most, I’d plump for the 1930s, but nothing like either of these texts. My knowledge centres around the novel, perhaps with a little drama thrown in – I’d hoped to do my presentation this week (I’m now doing Theatre and Revolution next week) and I’m quite glad I was too late. Interesting as I found Homage to Catalonia, I feel completely unqualified to present a paper on it.
For those who don’t know – and I’d like to point out that Our Vicar did know – Homage to Catalonia is non-fiction. It’s more or less autobiography, military autobiography if you will, of George Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It’s one of those events which wasn’t taught much in school – it was wheeled in every now and then to explain certain reactions towards World War Two, but has been rather overshadowed by it. The only thing I knew about it, really, was that Julian Bell (Virginia Woolf’s nephew) died there, bombed whilst in an ambulance. So Orwell’s text really informed me, and what is more it was written in the six months after he returned to England. WW2 hadn’t started, and all the events were fresh in his mind.
Despite not being hugley interested in military history, I found Homage to Catalonia absolutely fascinating and incredibly engagingly written. My only experiences with Orwell before were, like a lot of people, 1984 and Animal Farm. Although they both have evident left-wing morals, I hadn’t realised quite how active Orwell had been for the left-wing cause – and the same great writing that he uses in these novels is transferred to discussing life ‘at the front’.
I say ‘at the front’. Some of it is, and he describes the unreality, frequent tedium, and unexpected priorities: ‘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.’ After a spate there, he is back in Barcelona, once more faced with frustrating inactivity and boredom. And later he is shocked by the fact that the voluntary militia he joined, the POUM, is being used as a scapegoat by the government to blame for all ills – even while they are fighting for the cause.
Perhaps I should pin my colours to the mast. I am more or less a pacifist, probably through inclination as much as ideology; I find the concept of warfare sickening, and also find it unfathomable that Orwell cannot connect the danger, indignity and pain he experiences with that of the men on the other side of No Man’s Land. I recommend Homage to Catalonia – and I certainly recommend it – for Orwell’s exceptional writing and for interest, definitely not as a how-to manual or political treatise!
My copy is from the 1986 Complete Works – most editions after this have moved two chapters to be appendices, supposedly based on notes Orwell left – these are the two most overly political chapters, and what is left is more his personal experience. The tutor leading discussion was rather scandalised by this, but it makes the book much more captivating for me. And captivating it certainly is – if you’re intrigued to find out more about the Spanish Civil War, or if you are simply interested by the 1930s as a period, I think Homage to Catalonia would be an excellent starting point.