This year marks the 75th anniversary of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s firsthand account of his journalist-turned-soldier tour in the Spanish Civil War. It’s especially appropriate that the anniversary comes at a time when a modern analogue is taking place, when another country is host to an internal conflict that’s blurring into a proxy war between foreign powers. Like all of Orwell’s work, Homage resonates easily and frighteningly in the modern world.
The book remains unique among firsthand wartime accounts for several reasons. One, it contains an in-depth description of the wartime atrocities of lice. Two, it was published almost a year before the end of the war, which means Orwell could not alter his perceptions based on resolutions that happened after he left combat. Indeed, the text frequently assumes that Franco will eventually be defeated (although he doubts that this will eliminate Fascism from Spain), which adds to Orwell-as-narrator’s authority and trustworthiness.
Not that he needs it. The book is refreshingly honest. Throughout the text, Orwell reminds us that his political and big-picture commentary are only possible after the fact. While serving on the front and later being caught in the interfaction street fighting of Barcelona, his primary focus is always survival. Ultimately, a good portion of the book describes the scrounging for food, warmth, shelter, and clothing that occupies the bulk of Orwell’s tour. Armaments, which were just as scarce, become a distant concern.
Perhaps the best moment in the book comes when narrator Orwell calmly describes his thoughts during bouts of intense action. Upon being shot in the throat, he concerns himself with the sniper who fired the bullet. “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think worth describing in detail,” he thinks. “If he [the sniper] had been taken prisoner and brought before me at this moment I would have merely congratulated him on good shooting.” In isolation, this quote begs to be condemned as embellishment for the sake of self-promotion, but Orwell’s consistent frankness and willingness to engage in self-criticism throughout the text let the reader trust him in describing this moment.
From seventy-five years later, sections of the book feel bogged down in details about the principal actors of the war and the political scene. Orwell himself acknowledges this, warning his readers when those sections are approaching, and giving his blessing for those parts to be skipped. The whole book maintains this conversational, almost apologetic tone of someone relating a story they don’t expect to be believed. However, as mired in details as those sections might be, they are crucial to any reader who seeks to find a connection between this text and Orwell’s later, more popular novels, Animal Farm and 1984 (published seven and eleven years later, respectively). In one scene, when Orwell finds Barcelona suddenly overrun with posters blaming the party he’s fought on the front for the multifaceted conflict in Barcelona, it immediately calls to mind the moment in 1984 when Winston notices anti-Eurasia posters being replaced with anti-Eastasia posters, and no one else seeming to notice.
As we are taken through the events of the war from Orwell’s perspective, we become frustrated by and ultimately furious with the propaganda and political machines that operate seemingly in isolation from the realities of the war zone. One of the most memorable lines in the entire work comes early on, when Orwell says that, “All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.” Perhaps this is the ultimate feat Orwell accomplishes with the book: showing how angry and disillusioned he is with the events by the end of the text, without letting that anger cloud the writing one iota.
It’s appealing to build a comparison with the other ubiquitous English-language text on the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. After all, both were written by men who originally traveled to Spain to cover the war as journalists. For Hemingway, though, the war almost becomes the backdrop to a story focused primarily on trust, death, and despair. The political commentary exists, but it’s dropped in sparingly. For Orwell, using his story to paint a big picture is the entire goal. It’s an attempt to combat the reduction of the conflict to a list of dates and casualties and the overly simplistic notion of good versus evil.
Throughout Homage to Catalonia, Orwell constantly reminds us that the account is purely his limited perspective, and that he has no access to causes and motivations beyond his own experience. Summarized, after-the-fact distillations of wars are all around us and easy to digest. Homage is more uncomfortable, more disturbing. A bitter pill well worth swallowing.