Monday, July 9, 2012

George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia

It came as a surprise while reading Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain that George Orwell, the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, participated in the Spanish Civil War.  Since high school, I was under the impression that Orwell was a spectator on the sidelines or a journalist that composed commentaries behind the comfort of a typewriter; however, I learned that he actually volunteered to fight for a cause (and actually put his money where his mouth was, so to say).  My respect for the activist/novelist grew.  On top of that, he spent most of his time in Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain where I spent a better part of my LDS mission.  The citation piqued my interest and I purchased a copy so I could peruse it.

I got my copy of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia through a company called Indo-European Publishing, headquartered in Los Angeles, California.  The company released its edition last year (2011).  They stated on the copyright page that they based their publication on a 1955 edition, although other sources say the work’s first year of publication was 1938.  The publishers also stated that they formatted the text in a “completely new, easy” way.  I am not sure what they mean by this assertion.  If the publishers mean “font” or “typeset,” it is not anything new or different.  I still see typos and stylistic aberrations like hyphenated words with spaces in between.  If they mean organization or faithfulness to the original, albeit flawed, I cannot say for sure without finding an original edition to compare it with the current edition.  Whatever the case, the storyline flowed smoothly and I never felt flummoxed or patronized.  I suspect that they have copyedited the text exactly as it shows in Orwell’s manuscript.

Orwell begins his book by writing about his enlistment upon arriving in Barcelona, Spain.  He joins the P.O.U.M. with other associates of the Independent Labour Party and observes men of other nationalities doing the same.  He goes to the front near Zaragoza and observes the conditions that the Reds have to suffer through during the long, winter days and nights.  His wife also comes along, staying at a residential hotel in Barcelona while he serves on the front.  Later, he transfers to the front outside Huesca, stays there until spring, and returns to Barcelona for some R&R.  He participates in the fighting during the Barcelona May Days.  After the harrowing days in Barcelona when things calm down, he returns to Huesca to resume his duties, but becomes wounded by a bullet to the throat.  His convalescence is a tale in itself.  He stays in hospitals in Barbastro, Lérida, and Tarragona before settling back in Barcelona.  Matters get worse when a rival political group takes charge of the autonomous leadership in Barcelona.  He witnesses the suppression of the P.O.U.M. by other political organizations.  Once the P.O.U.M. is branded as illegal, Orwell sees gifted and valiant military volunteers get locked away, dying “pointless” deaths in unsanitary prisons and makeshift jail cells (160).  At last, the threat becomes imminent enough that Orwell and his wife have to leave the country quickly, thus cutting their time short in a war that ultimately succumbs to Franco’s armies.

Besides chronicling the conditions of the fronts, the soldiers, and the cities, Orwell is an astute observer of politics.  Orwell discusses his experiences as a militiaman and jots down his political theories throughout the book.  As a well-educated soldier, he cuts through the rumors and the propaganda to examine the hidden reality of the war.  From the information available to him, he fashions a theory that impressively states the current attitudes among the populace and the leadership.  “It was above all things a political war,” he summarizes (33).  In one of the very few chapters in which he delves into the muddy political waters, he concludes that the motivation for the war is quite different from what foreigners suppose it to be at the time: “The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution” (36).  This revolution, one that comes to a head after Franco begins the coup, intends to protect a foundation for a new communist or socialist state in Western Europe.  It is an ideology that Franco and the Nationalists resist and try to prevent in the first place.  One the reasons the revolution stalls is because “it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain” (41).  It seems ironic that the Communists would frown upon an uprising of the proletarians against the bourgeoisie, but this brand of Communists, backed by the U.S.S.R., had by this time set up a bureaucratic system to oversee their agenda.  Any spark of revolution would undermine the push they desired to span across areas outside the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, Orwell observes that Franco is not a fascist in the strictest sense of the word.  “To begin with,” Orwell figures, “Franco was not strictly comparable with Hitler or Mussolini.  His rising was a military mutiny backed up by the aristocracy and the Church, and in the main, especially at the beginning, it was an attempt not so much to impose Fascism as to restore feudalism” (34-35).  Franco, unlike Hitler, seeks to stop the disintegration of a decadent empire.  In the end, nobody denies that Franco’s intention is to rule Spain with a heavy hand.  Orwell’s prescient reason and clear foresight, in consideration of all possible outcomes, lead Orwell to write the following:

“It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed.  That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism.  Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties.  The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones” (133).

Orwell’s observation does not stray from the truth.  In fact, after the war, Franco and his dictatorship last for four decades before any changes occur.  After the death of Franco, the possibility of Spain dividing into separate frontiers becomes a real possibility.  Were it not for the current monarch’s efforts to keep Spain together, another conflagration would have started and separate countries would have been created.  Today, Spain is still unified, but the various regions have more autonomy.  For now, the possibility of Spain dividing into separate frontiers appears distant, but if the economy continues to worsen in the long term, the country could see another struggle that tears the peninsula apart.  For Orwell, even if his political predictions come true, he takes comfort in a common trait that the majority of Spaniards share despite their contentious propensities: “They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility, that do not really belong to the twentieth century.  It is this that makes one hope that in Spain even Fascism may take a comparatively loose and bearable form” (165).

Besides recording his political opinions and military observations on the front lines, Orwell also takes time to note his impressions of Spanish customs and culture.  It is on this topic that I relate with Orwell the most.  I nod in agreement when Orwell observes something like this: “Spaniards seem not to recognize such a thing as a light diet.  They give the same food to sick people as to well ones – always the same rich, greasy cookery, with everything sodden in olive oil” (141).  (My time in Spain has taught me to take a great liking to olive oil, although not to the extent that Spaniards take it.)

Orwell recounts another quality most Spanish people share: “I record this, trivial though it may sound, because it is somehow typical of Spain – of the flashes of magnanimity that you get from Spaniards in the worst of circumstances.  I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards” (165).  Again, I can corroborate that statement.  I noticed the same attributes during my stay in Spain, including the ability to give generously to friends and even to strangers.  Socially, I find Spaniards to be the most affectionate and caring people, even surpassing most Americans, and this despite having the most skeptical attitudes about religion and ideology.  “Curiously enough,” Orwell writes, “the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings” (170).

My favorite part in the book retells a benign moment that parallels the one I had while taking a train to Barcelona from Lérida, minus the weaponry and soldiers.  I know exactly the place Orwell is talking about when his train arrives at a station in Tarragona.  I still remember the very first time I came in contact with the Mediterranean, or any ocean for that matter, when I passed by the same place.  The memory of the view still mesmerizes me.  Surprisingly, Orwell’s descriptions of the scene indicate to me that he arrives at the spot at roughly the same time I do in my memory.  It is as if we were in the same train.  While my point of view happens during a time of peace and prosperity, Orwell’s recollection happens during a turbulent and violent war.  He tells his version eloquently in this way:

“We got into Tarragona as the sun was getting low.  The line runs along the shore a stone’s throw from the sea.  As our train drew into the station a troop-train full of men from the International Column was drawing out, and a knot of people on the bridge were waving to them.  It was a very long train, packed to bursting-point with men, with field-guns lashed on the open trucks and more men clustering round the guns.  I remember with peculiar vividness the spectacle of that train passing in the yellow evening light; window after window full of dark, smiling faces, the long tilted barrels of the guns, the scarlet scarves fluttering – all this gliding slowly past us against a turquoise-coloured sea” (141).

Orwell and I visit Spain for very different purposes, but I concur with his conclusions despite never having taken up arms to defend an ideal, confront an enemy, or risk personal life and limb.  The more I learn about the Spanish Civil War and its effects I realize how much damage the war has caused in the Spanish psyche.  It is very frustrating and aggravating to think about the specific freedoms each side will keep at the cost of other freedoms.  Then, the losers must inflict a type of willful amnesia or false recollection in order to survive in a system that keeps subjects quiet.  Conditions have greatly improved since the end of the dictatorship, but I secretly worry that resentment could get out of hand again, if not checked.  If Spain has to divide itself up, I hope the citizens can do so peacefully and not have to come to blows with cudgels.


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