Saturday, November 22, 2008

Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell's tale of his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil war. The book was first published in 1938, shortly after the 2 year war ended.

I read this book for my book club, and honestly otherwise wouldn't have picked it up, not being a huge reader of non-fiction and particularly war-based non-fiction. To tell the truth, I really didn't know a thing about the Spanish Civil War. I'm happy to learn new things, but it was a very challenging book for me to read. Something that became immediately apparent is that there's a lot of confusing information about the Spanish Civil War, and my efforts to do a little outside research were quickly abandoned because I just didn't have the time to become a expert on it. Turns out, all that conflicting information is one of the major reasons Orwell wrote the book, as he continually states throughout that it's his first-person account and attempt to set the record straight. Because there was so much propaganda floating around, especially about his (losing) side, he has a clear goal to make his truthful perspective known. I kept thinking about that old phrase, "History is written by the winners" while reading Homage to Catalonia, particularly when comparing it to some of the information I found about the war.

I found the book very readable, although quite a few in our club disagreed with me. To me, it read like a novel. Orwell's experience follows (or at least is written in) a fairly neat (by which I mean tidy) narrative arch, from his joining of the militia to getting shot and finally fleeing Spain altogether. Orwell's description of getting shot in the (goddamn!) neck is really something, as is his description of Barcelona for the brief period in which it was a completely communist city. It's fairly easy to see (or at least infer) how such events inspired Orwell to later write 1984. So many of his real-life experiences in the war were completely absurd, like being on the front lines without, essentially, a weapon, like being so close to the enemy and not fighting them. His describes a society with forced ideals (rather than slowly evolved over time), with all the strained ideology and (I think inherent) hypocrisy, that really couldn't sustain itself. It's as if you can draw a clear line from that description write to the society he creates in 1984 (although I have a bad habit of trying to draw straight lines when we all know they're more often circuitous).

A word on editions: my copy was published in 1952; a friend's copy from the 80's was quite different. In her book, several chapters had become appendices, supposedly at the request of Orwell, who thought those chapters disrupted the flow. The 1952 edition contains a ridiculous forward by Lionel Trilling that begins, "This book is one of the important documents of our time." which almost caused me to stop reading the thing right there! I thought it was a really fascinating book, and a great book for our club to read. There are also some parallels to Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (also about the Spanish Civil War), as you might imagine. And, it also got me interested in some other aspects, like propoganda posters and the role of women in the war.

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