Book Review | 2019
"It is important to note that though George Orwell’s HOMAGE TO CATALONIA is an interesting and intriguing book it is by no means a definitive guide of the Spanish Civil War."
CONVERSATIONS WITH OSCAR WILDE | Merlin Holland | Watkins Publishing
After the Independence Referendum by the Catalonian Government and the subsequent response by the Spanish Government, I became fascinated with the politics of Spain and the history of Catalonia. Since the 2017 vote when you walk through the street in Barcelona you pass men and women, usually middle-aged and above, wearing yellow pins and the Catalonian flag adorns many balconies throughout the city.
It is important to note that though George Orwell’s HOMAGE TO CATALONIA is an interesting and intriguing book it is by no means a definitive guide of the Spanish Civil War. For Orwell’s part, his experience in Barcelona and on the frontline was only small and he was more privy to the ongoing infighting between different leftist groups. But what HOMAGE TO CATALONIA does offer the reader is a humorous, honest, personal and thoughtful account of Orwell’s time in the Barcelona and the Spanish militia.
By offering the reader this personal account Orwell is able to humanise the many nameless militiamen and militiawomen in a way that he would not have been able to do if he had chosen to focus on the origins of the war or the underlining political issues. What does become clear in the reflective nature of Orwell’s writing is that he would grow intently disillusioned by his experiences.
All books should be treated like fine china. The pleasure a new book can give you is amazing but when you are able to forge a deeper connection with literature a whole new experience can open up for you. ANIMAL FARM was my first exposure to George Orwell and thought my youthful adolescence was more rebellious during our reading of this seminal text it was undeniable how much this book would impact my understanding of politics and communism.
Orwell has a unique style of writing that is always aimed for the reader and never at the reader. One has to excuse the evolution of language but outside of this Orwell ensures that he provides his readers with a picture that they can understand and connect with.
Within the first pages of HOMAGE TO CATALONIA Orwell makes clear his intention. In talking about an Italian militiaman he met the day before he joined the militia he notes:
‘Queer, the affection you can feel for a strange.’
It is a little comment on the first page but one that sums up Orwell’s ability to make his experiences in Barcelona understandable and relatable. And throughout most of the first chapter Orwell gives an unflattering account of what it was like for him and the other militiamen and militiawomen. He says of how Barcelona looked in the early days of his arrival:
‘The Anarchists were in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing…Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped in red flags…’
Orwell is also well aware that his book could be misinterpreted for ‘propaganda’ or as idolising ‘the POUM militia.’ HOMAGE TO CATALONIA is about the people, their dreams, desires and their place in the Spanish Civil War stating that he ‘…defy anyone to be thrown as I was amongst the [...] Catalan working class…and not be struck by their essential decency; above all their straightforwardness and generosity.’ (p15 & 18)
By making clear at the start where he stands and what the story he is aiming to tell Orwell makes a fair case for skirting over some of the underlining causes of the Spanish Civil War and instead focus on the people who fought in it, the working class.
In these few pages, Orwell brings the reader into his time and place and it is impossible not to feel the buzz, excitement and fear that this time brought to the people in Catalonia. The context of the war, the fighting, places and key players isn’t to be discovered here. The reader is lumped onto an experience that is hard to fathom and even harder to explain but by explaining the change in the city, the rebellious tone towards authority, and the collectivised workforce one begins to understand a little more how this time would affect Orwell.
As I continued reading about the Ramblas this gave way to some inspiration and I decided that the best way to understand this book is to go out into the city and explore some of the places Orwell talks about. So I headed to Plaza de Cataluña and slowly started walking down the Ramblas. Though the place is very much the same with the famous market indoor market and some old buildings it as the hustle and bustle of the place that really excited me. Though much had changed the one thing that remained a constant was the people.
I walked down and then up the Ramblas slowly causing no end of issues for the tourists rushing to get across the street but I want to immerse myself in the space. I spent about an hour trying to figure out if any of the buildings in HOMAGE TO CATALONIA still stood. On page 106-7 as soldiers march through Plaza de Cataluña, I struck lucky and one of the buildings still standing.
Turning back to the beginning of the book I took a new approach and did a Google Search to find out if The Barcelona Ritz still stood and I was in luck, it does, so I headed there to finish reading the book.
The image on page 8 depicts The Barcelona Ritz which in 1936 had been turned into Gastronomic No1, a workers dining room. I stood outside the hotel, now named The Palace, and looked up in awe. There is a romance to this period of history that is derived from ideology and looking up at the grandeur of the hotel I cannot imagine this huge, beautiful building being ‘turned over’ to the people.
Whether by accident or design the red banners and awning still adorn the windows and doors of the hotel.
"Issues will always arise when politics and social/cultural ideology come into contact and force change to the status quo."
After standing outside for a few minutes I walked into the hotel, passing through the original cast iron gates leading into the large stone vestibule. When one walks into a place like this it is impossible not to feel the soul of the building and the role that it once played. As I walked into the large central communal area I opened up the book again and looked at the picture of the hotel in 1936 and I began to image all the workers in this space.
My desire to try and forge a deeper connection to HOMAGE TO CATALONIA was not just due to being in Barcelona but because of the passionate honesty, humour and realism that Orwell injects into the text. By telling his story and experiences he does, by default perhaps, allow the reader to understand the many people he meets and connects with.
One can be on the left side of politics or have a preference for socialism as the theory offers great comfort, opportunity and chance for the whole of society, but there is always a price. Issues will always arise when politics and social/cultural ideology come into contact and force change to the status quo. In the early days of fighting in 1936, the swift change that Barcelona experienced was, on the surface at least, remarkable. Collectivism and the removing of elites, titles, and position had changed the city and those who had gone without now found themselves with for the first time.
But as much as this might have been great the reality was much different. One's ideological understanding and beliefs are always in conflict with political systems and the need humanity has for power and control. As Orwell takes the reader through this new and fast-changing Catalonia it is not hard to be impressed by what the core intentions were and what they meant for the people. And this the heart of HOMAGE TO CATALONIA, it is about the people.
In fairness as a historical document HOMAGE TO CATALONIA is Orwell's unflinching and personal view of the Spanish Civil War that may lack certain details but never short changes the impression the Spanish people made on him. Which is perfectly summed up in Chapter 12:
I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself. They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility, that do not really belong to the twentieth century.
By the end of his time in Spain one can begin to feel the change in Orwell. The pain he experiences is down to the connections he’s made to the people who, through no fault of their own, have been brought into a Civil War and, once over, are the ones most likely to pay the real price for the conflict. When we reflect to the ongoing issues that the Catalan people/government face today in their desire for independence one can understand why the nostalgia feel of HOMAGE TO CATALONIA is genuienly felt. This is brilliantly illustrated on page 192 when Orwell remarks to an Anarchist sign hanging in a barbers shop reading ‘“The Revolution has struck off our chains”’ he reflects:
‘I felt like telling the barbers that their chains will soon be back again if they didn’t look out.’