Dan Sandman

19: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

In Autobiography, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 09/05/2014 at 12:00 pm

Homage to Catalonia by George OrwellAs a critic from the New York Review of Books once said, “anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century will have to read George Orwell”. Sixty-four years after his death (he died at the age of 46), Orwell’s fiction, autobiographical works, journalistic writings, and plain prose essays are still widely studied and quoted. A working writer, Orwell wrote a broad range of articles and books, from how to make the perfect cup of tea (I highly recommend this particular article) to arguably the most influential political satire every written Nineteen Eighty-Four. In addition to being credited for his broad range and authoritative political analysis, Orwell is often complemented for his direct and clean writing style – he did not like to use ‘flowery’ language when a simple word would do – which has made his work so accessible.

Published in 1938, on the brink of World War Two, with the spectre of Adolf Hitler looming over the story, Homage to Catalonia is an autobiographical work about the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), a terrible conflict that led to Spain being ruled by the totalitarian fascist Francisco Franco until his death in 1975 (aged 82). Orwell went to Spain with his wife as a journalist looking to write about the war, but ended up fighting against the fascists. This book, written around seven months after Orwell’s experience, is well known to be an honest and frank account of what it was like to fight in trench warfare. It offers precise insights into the daily concerns of a soldier – hunger, lack of decent weapons, cigarette shortages, freezing cold weather – and conveys the sense of camaraderie felt by the fighting men.

Another thing that comes across is the general feeling of confusion stirred up by the complicated political background of the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps one of the reasons why the fascists succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected government was because the anti-fascist forces lacked cohesion. In fact, the side that Orwell fought on was composed of many different factions, with many different acronyms – PSUC, POUM, CNT, UGT – and views were varied, there being a particularly harmful inner conflict between the Anarchists and the Communists. In addition to these troubles, Franco’s forces were given better weapons by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

From what I can gather, Orwell’s fight for social democracy in Spain was undermined by party squabbling and untruthful reporting, all of which was completely removed and far distant from the experience of the ordinary soldier, who was more concerned about his lack of sleep and where his next slice of buttered toast might be coming from. This straightforward and personal account of an awful war, and the appendix where Orwell addresses the politics, is an often humorous autobiography and a poignant history. I found it funny, serious and humane. George Orwell has left a legacy of work behind him that will still be attracting new readers in the twenty-second century, when – barring a miracle of science – my body will have likely departed this earth, leaving behind only some music and some words.

In this future world, the internet will have evolved into something new, these words will have been forgotten, and I hope there will be less need for brilliant writers to fight in bloody wars.

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