This is my review of Homage to Catalonia (Penguin Modern Classics) by George Orwell.
This vivid account of a few months spent fighting the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War reminded me that Orwell was a talented journalist as well as a writer of satirical fiction. He pulls no punches in describing the chaos and lack of resources in periods of mainly uncomfortable inaction punctuated with occasional hairy sorties.
My respect for his judgement was shaken a little by some of his observations – for instance, that he should find it “rather fun….in a boy-scoutish” kind of way to crawl about trying to take pot shots at the enemy without being hit himself, or the unconscious elitism of “Any public school OTC in England is far more like a modern army than we were.” He admits to longing for a powerful gun with which to pulverise the other side, but redeems himself with an admission of real fear when he has to expose himself to enemy fire. Similarly, his account of the experience of being wounded is interesting, together with such insights as the camaraderie between soldiers who know they would be shooting at each other in a different situation. His description of Barcelona as a briefly classless society in which there was no rank or status, and people treated each other as equals, is thought-provoking as regards “what might have been”, but clearly seemed too utopian to last, particularly since the bourgeoisie was simply lying low.
It is revealing that the chronic shortage of weapons may have been part of a deliberate government plan to prevent groups of anarchists or pro-revolutionary Marxists from gaining influence in the struggle. However, Orwell’s self-confessed lack of interest in the political side of the war is both surprising and disappointing, since it is clearly crucial to an understanding of what was going on in this complex struggle, and the outcome of events. Thus, the dramatic chapters on the counterproductive riots between anti-fascist groups in Barcelona – perhaps akin to fights between different revolutionary sects in modern-day Syria – are quite hard to understand. Orwell goes some way to redress this in the two Appendices, which were chapters integrated into the original text, but the result is needlessly disjointed and still somewhat unclear.
Although he produced this book in 1938, too early to judge the tragic outcome, at least Orwell had the prescience to predict that Franco would win, thus setting Spain back for decades.