My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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.
Autobiographies and memoirs are, I think, the best books to read on vacation. Not only are they light, easy, and entertaining, but they’re usually not hard to put down. This is important because, if you’re like me, you may end up spending your whole vacation with your head buried in a book. Most valuable, however, is simply seeing how an excellent writer transforms their experiences into stories. The vague emotions of daily life, the interesting characters we encounter, the sights and sounds and smells of new places—good autobiographies direct our attention to these little details.
In this spirit I picked up Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia to read during my trip to Seville. It was an excellent choice. It’s been a while since I’ve read Orwell, and I’d nearly forgotten what a fine writer he is. In fact, perhaps the most conspicuous quality of this book is the caliber of the prose. It is written with such grace, clarity, and ease, that I couldn’t help being constantly impressed and, I admit, extremely envious at times. The writing is direct but never blunt; the tone is personal and natural, but not chummy. The book may have been a bit too readable, actually, since I had a hard time prying myself away to go explore Seville (and a book has to be very good indeed to compete with Seville).
There seems to be a bit of confusion about this book. Specifically, some people seem to come to it expecting to learn about the Spanish Civil War. This is a mistake; Orwell only experienced a sliver of the war, and his understanding of the political situation was limited to the infighting between various leftist groups. The events and conflicts that led up to the war, and the progress of the war itself, are for the most part unexplained. This book is, rather, a deeply personal record of his time in the Spanish militia. We learn more about Orwell’s military routine than about any battles between fascist and government forces. More light is shed on Orwell’s own political opinions than the political situation in Spain.
If you come to the book with this in mind, it will not disappoint. His time in Spain made a deep impression on Orwell; he writes of it in a wistful and nostalgic tone, as if everything that happened occurred in a dreamy, timeless, mist-filled landscape, disconnected from the rest of his life. Characters come and go, soldiers are introduced, arrested, or killed in action; but we do not get acquainted with anyone save Orwell himself. The mood is introspective and pensive, as if it all took place in another life. Even when he is describing his friends’ imprisonment, or his experience getting shot in the neck and hospitalized, he manages to sound dispassionate and serene.
Two chapters, however, do not fit into this characterization. These are Orwell’s analyses of the political situation in Barcelona during this time. In some books, they are published as appendices—which I think is a good choice, actually, since they interrupt the flow of the book quite a bit. Despite the abrupt change in tone and subject-matter, however, they make for valuable reading. The machinations and petty political squabbles that went on during this time are astounding. One would think that having a common enemy in Franco would be enough to unite the various factions on the Left, at least for the duration of the war. Instead, the anti-revolutionary communist party ended up declaring the pro-revolutionary communist party (of which Orwell was a member, entirely by chance) to be a fascist conspiracy, resulting in hundreds of people—people who had spent months fighting at the front—being thrown in secret prisons. Orwell himself narrowly escaped.
Nevertheless, I think that Orwell’s analyses of the general situation in Spain should be taken with copious salt. He understands nearly everything through a quasi-Marxist lens of class-warfare, which I think fails to do justice to the complex political and cultural history of the conflict. Added to this, one gets the impression that Orwell’s command of Spanish was fairly rudimentary, which I think greatly limited his ability to understand the war. To his credit, though, Orwell does warn us about his limitations:
In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: 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.
But these are minor complaints of a book which I found to be supremely well-written and absolutely fascinating. His accounts of life at the front were possibly the best descriptions of war that I’ve ever read, with the exception of those in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This is not because Orwell saw very much fighting; quite the opposite. Rather, he conveys a sense of the crushing boredom and the sense of futility that many soldiers must feel during a long, draw-out war. Also superb was his portrayal of political oppression, the climate of fear and backstabbing that arose during the party conflicts in Barcelona.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is that, despite all of the hardships Orwell endured, and despite the obvious injustices inflicted on both himself and his friends, he does not come across as bitter or resentful. I leave you with his words:
When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this—and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.