Orwell came to Spain in 1936 based on journalistic as well as ideological impulses. Indeed, his enrolment with Republican militia forces to fight Franco was a rather haphazard affair. That he found himself in the militia of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification, POUM (in Spanish Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), rather than in any other anti-fascist organisation, was largely down to links already established between POUM and the Independent Labour Party, and not a conscious, thought-through choice on his part. For Orwell, and no doubt for many of his compatriots on the left, the key consideration was obtaining an opportunity to fight against and roll back the tide of fascism.
In the appended chapters to this edition of Orwell's autobiographical account of his time spent fighting for the Government during the Spanish Civil War, he seeks to analyse and explain the various political factions fighting Franco, nominally on the same side but riven by factionalism, suspicion, rumour and mistrust. He paints a very complex picture that was no doubt as difficult for many of his contemporary readers to disentangle as it is today. The justification for dealing with these machinations in distinct chapters, set aside from those that contain Orwell’s account of his personal, day-to-day experiences, is that these political realities might be of less interest --or indeed tiresome and impenetrable-- to many readers. Orwell himself often seems to share and convey that perspective.
Paul Preston in a recent article for the Observer* suggests that we should treat Homage to Catalonia with care as an historical source, and points to an apparent lack of knowledge and understanding of the underlying causes of much of the unrest and division. For Preston, Orwell does not seem to have been particularly well-informed about (or interested in) Spain prior to 1936, and fails to convey a deep understanding of the particular causes of the strife in Barcelona, so that the book cannot be viewed as reliable history.
This is perhaps a rather harsh and unnecessary criticism, given that in the book Orwell acknowledges his own shortcomings as an interpreter of such complex and confused events. He may not have had much prior knowledge of Spain but he does seem genuinely fond of the country, saying that he would “sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries,” partly because it is so easy to make friends with the Spanish. Furthermore, he does not profess to any particular knowledge or insights beyond what he deduces while observing these events. Though he is very critical of the accuracy and partiality of contemporaneous accounts in some British newspapers, Orwell is also clear with his readers that he only knows what he saw for himself, and urges that they should not rely upon his account alone as a single version of the truth.
There is a startling, romantic naivety at times which contradicts the unvarnished realism of Orwell’s depictions of the daily travails, rituals and realities of life as a combatant in the two very different contexts of trench warfare in Aragon and street fighting in Barcelona. Whilst bemoaning a lack of discipline, shortages of military supplies and weaponry, and amateurish training and organisation, he sees a germ of socialism in the militias, which he portrays as a microcosm of the classless society. This experience of having “breathed the air of equality” strengthens his desire for a socialistic earthly paradise.
Although his journalistic intentions and skills afforded Orwell the role of observer, he was of course an active combatant in the events that he was simultaneously seeking to understand and chronicle. At the heart of this confused (and confusing) picture, Orwell can at times come across as a strangely detached figure, despite his own direct involvement. His writerly instincts are paramount even as he describes, in one of the most powerful passages, his own experience of being shot in battle: the “sensation of being at the centre of an explosion” with “no apparent ...pain, only a violent shock …. followed by a feeling of utter weakness.” He also records sitting on a roof in Barcelona “marvelling at the folly of it all,” and wondering “what the devil was happening, who was fighting whom and who was winning.”
It is remarkable that Orwell manages to write from the maelstrom in such an analytical manner. However, this almost aloof tone conflicts with the reader's attempts to understand the urge that he and many of his contemporaries felt to travel to a country which many had never before visited, and of which they had little knowledge, in order to join an ostensibly internal Spanish conflict (albeit one with major geopolitical ramifications).
This highlights a sometimes disconcerting dichotomy at the heart of this book: the tension between Orwell's apparent insouciance regarding Spanish political realities and intrigues, and the idealism that drove him to risk his life in a foreign civil war. Nevertheless, this headlong readiness to engage with the world and confront threats to individual, national and international freedom was shared by many others in 1936. On his return in 1937, Orwell warns prophetically of a coming “roar of bombs” that would shatter the “deep, deep sleep of England.”
During the time in which the memoir is set, what Orwell is fighting for (as opposed to what he is fighting against) is a set of ideas and ideals that are still forming and crystallising in his own mind. Homage to Catalonia traces his growing support for democratic socialism and his development of an alertness to the left's potential for totalitarianism, a concern that would become the theme of later books such as Animal Farm and 1984. Rather than an historical text, though, this book is primarily a brilliantly-written, journalistic account of one man’s experience of war. Despite what the title may suggest, it is not really an homage to a particular place or people, but a tribute to the universal human capacity to endure, confront, and navigate the contradictions and challenges that materialise when romantic ideal meets brute reality. --Steve Cox