“Good prose is like a window pane.”
– George Orwell
The above quote is a framed print on my wall. Orwell proves it fully with Homage to Catalonia, a personal account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a window into a very particular point in time, a baleful precursor to World War II. It went far beyond my previous understanding of the conflict, which in American schooling boils down to Franco = Bad.
The chapters of the book follow two different paths. The first is Orwell’s direct experiences on the front and later in the street fighting in Barcelona. This is largely a tale of privation. Both sides of the war were drastically undersupplied. No guns, no bread, no tools, and eventually no tobacco. Plenty of lice. It’s ironic that my mid-century version of the book has a bloodied bayonet on the cover because the Republican forces did not even have those. Indeed, their guns were 30-40 years old, often from the previous century, and as like to lock or blow up in their wielder’s face as shoot anything. Furthermore, the fronts were so far apart and in such hostile terrain, there was very little fighting at all for much of Orwell’s tenure. Endless boredom and sleep deprivation instead.
It’s a vivid retelling. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been told that trench warfare was abysmal and some of the very worst humanity has inflicted on its own. To hear it in Orwell’s crisp prose is to be re-acclimated with just how miserable the whole experience was. Worse, how absurd and pointless. Orwell barely sees any action, certaintly not anything that can be claimed a military victory, but plenty of good men are wounded or die and George gets a bullet through his throat for good measure.
The alternate chapters are Orwell’s summary of the politics of the war, from his position a few months after he left. I just learned in newer copies of the book these are actually appendices placed at the end, which is a grave injustice if you ask me. The war and its politics must be intertwined. Orwell joined the war under a specific party, the P.O.U.M., without giving it a second thought. There to fight fascism, he assumed a unity amongst the opposing republican parties. But an ominous note early on bodes ill when he asks someone about a fellow acronym-based group and is told “they’re the socialists”, to which Orwell replies “Aren’t we all socialists?”
Turns out there’s some majorly important distinctions between the political groups of the republic. There’s socialists of various kinds, communists, and anarchists, which should share many of the same tenets, but Orwell goes at length to show that this version of communism is based entirely on the military interests of Russia (the only party supplying the government with guns) and not much on ideology. This becomes essential later, when the communist-backed government clashes with the P.O.U.M. while George is on leave in Barcelona and the city devolves into street fighting. The end game is complete disillusionment with the war as he watches all his friends thrown in jail and escapes to France by the skin of his teeth. He has a particular hate for the misleading foreign journalism abroad, and the rampant censorship and harmful propaganda within Spain. You can almost see 1984 being written.
Something of a side note that I found fascinating was the political anarchism that briefly gripped Spain. Orwell writes that capitalist hierarchy was eliminated in Catalonia. In the militia, officers pulled the same pay as raw recruits and enjoyed the same social status; if a grunt didn’t like the order his ‘superior’ gave him, he had the right to question it. Land ownership was abolished and food freely distributed. It’s easy to think of political anarchism as nice in theory but totally impractical and before he engaged with it, Orwell thought the same. It’s fun and a little bittersweet to ponder what might have happened in Spain had the anarchists prevailed.
George Orwell is from a different era. It’s easy to forget. His writing, especially 1984 and Animal Farm, are still widely read and relevant today. Big Brother is a concept rooted in international parlance. I write this because his mentality on joining the war in the first place is thus: he thought it was the only decent thing to do. To go to Spain and fight fascism by killing some fascists. To modern eyes, the idealism and sense of duty present is almost shocking. He infuses the book with a certain violent moral force. Amidst the war is an appraisal of human decency, which through individual interactions he maintains a high opinion of, regardless of the widespread hate and oppression swirling around.