Friday, September 19, 2014

Homage to Catalonia

“One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war- propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”
George Orwell
   I already wrote about George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”, a non-fiction book about his life as a homeless man in the early 1930's in Paris and London.
George Orwell died at age 46. During his short life he fought in the Spanish Civil War. In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell transports us to Barcelona during the years 1936 and 1937.  Without sentimentality, he exposed the reality of a war that gnawed at the human spirit.
  It is an invaluable feat to be able to reveal one’s truth while acknowledging that this truth may be biased by one’s personal perspectives. I believe this is a sign of wisdom, a humble approach to sharing personal experiences:
      “I hope the account I have given is not too misleading. I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. Beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.
 As he described the different political movements (anarchists, communists, PUOM), I came to the realization that the boundaries between them became blurred. Orwell explored a territory that was crippled by deception, paranoia, hatred, and false accusations between the parties.
 Aside from plumbing the tendencies and features of the political parties that were involved in this war, George Orwell narrated the shocking details of his daily life during this chaotic time. The soldiers were unable to change their clothes for months. When they slept they had to keep their boots on lest somebody attack them.

  “All of us were lousy by this time; though still cold it was warm enough for that. I have had a big experience of body vermin of various kinds and for sheer beastliness the louse beats everything I have encountered. Other insects, mosquitoes for instance, make you suffer more, but at least they aren’t resident vermin. The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it was warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae—every one of them had lice crawling his testicles.”

  The atmosphere of suspicion made everybody paranoid:
Various people were infected with spy mania and were creeping round whispering that everyone else was a spy of the Communists, or the Trotskyists, or the Anarchists, or what-not. The fat Russian agent was cornering all the foreign refugees in turn and plausibly that this whole affair was an Anarchist plot.  I watched him with some interest, for it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies—unless one counts the journalists.”
 Unlike the journalists, Orwell tried his best to be objective by exposing what he witnessed.
   Enticed by the ideals of freedom and equality Orwell fought for the PUOM.  He believed that fighting was necessary to defeat fascism. Yet, at later stages, the group for which he fought was accused of being fascist and was suppressed by law. This meant that every person who had been enlisted was persecuted and incarcerated without trial.  For this reason George Orwell and his wife had to escape from Spain. They fled to France with the aid of the British consul.
  Political prisoners lived on scanty food, in filthy conditions, under the pressure of an uncertain future.  People who tried to visit the prisoners more than once were considered suspicious and ran the risk of ending up in jail for no reason.
 Another interesting aspect of his memoir is the description of Barcelona at different stages of the revolution.  Not only did he describe what the city looked like through vivid, interesting scenes, but he also disclosed the way people behaved and interacted.
  All in all, this memoir is a vivid testimony of a period ravaged by war. It is the story of a man who dared to show how his ideals were at odds with the political reality. Orwell expanded these situations and experiences by carrying them into the realm of fiction: he wrote his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, two masterpieces that explore the deceit of the totalitarian regimes. In doing so, he dwelt on the stratagems of the political power, the slogans and the realities underlying those slogans.  
   Orwell was an Englishman fighting in Spain, and the fact that he was an outsider made the stories even more compelling. Even though he had seen the darkest side of humanity during the war, he did not lose his faith in human decency. He had met Spaniards who had given him whatever they could to help him. Their kindness was heartwarming-- to the point of being comical at times.
 After reading this book I pondered over the concepts of reality and truth. Reality is what really happens. Truth is the perception of reality. People can tell you different “truths” about a specific event, and their different versions of reality are colored by their preconceptions.
 A totalitarian regime imposes the existence of an absolute truth, and those who do not adhere to it are in trouble.
Homage to Catalonia sold poorly in England and it was not even published in America. Perhaps reality is not always welcomed by the masses.


  1. This post makes me want to learn more about George Orwell.

    1. I'm thrilled to know that I kindled your enthusiasm to read Orwell. He is one of my all-time favorite writers.
      Thank you for reading me.

  2. Hi Julia - this was a brilliant post ... I know little about Orwell and his life - what a fascinating article. One of our ex politicians, turned historian and tv presenter of railway journeys mainly .. he's of half Spanish origin - his father escaped from the Spanish Civil War, but the rest of the family stayed to fight ...

    Michael Portillo has presented a programme on Guernica ...

    So much to learn .. and so much I keep finding I didn't know ... on a completely trivial note .. my T for Treacle Tart - a great British favourite - in my A-Zs on British Cookery in 2013 ... mentioned that Orwell wrote about food too ..

    He was an amazing man - and the thought of lice is just dreadful ... ghastly times to live in, let alone fight in ... thanks for writing this - Hilary

    1. Dear Hilary,
      There are many more details that I should have added about the city and about the war I now feel a bit guilty about the data that are missing... perhaps I should have written two posts on this.
      I knew you would find this article interesting and I look forward to catching up with your blog soon!
      Thank you.

  3. The book's on my to-read list, has been for years, maybe I'll get to it sooner, now that I've read your post about it.

    1. Let me know what you think after reading it.
      Thanks, Richard.

  4. Julia
    A very intriguing post. I knew nothing of Orwell's life and if I read a book, I usually want to read the author's biography. But of late, I love it when you write lengthy and informative reviews because my eye sight is getting so dim that it makes my reading very limited. I have so many books waiting to be read but I know I'll never get through them. Thank you for this interesting review. Write more.

    1. Hello Manzanita.
      I will remember your comment the next time I write a new post. I could tell you so much more about this book... we should be neighbors, and then I would find an excuse to get together and tell you more about this book. Ha!

  5. I don't think I've heard of Homage to Catalonia before, but it sounds like a wonderful read. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. :-)

    1. If you like Orwell's writing you will probably like this book.
      Thank you for stopping by, Misha!

  6. Thanks for this powerful review and analysis. 1984 and Animal Farm are valued reads in my library. Your review makes me realize I need to read both these books.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth.
      I'm pleased to know that you enjoyed it.
      I love to pass my love of literature on to others...


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