Homage to Catalonia is an account of Orwell’s experiences whilst fighting for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Like other foreigners Orwell volunteered to fight for the Republican side, and he joined the POUM, a Communist, anti Stalinist, workers party which was eventually declared illegal and purged by the Republican government. As Orwell spends longer in Spain he becomes more disillusioned about fighting for the Republican cause and he begins to believe that Republican government were actually trying to delay a proletariat revolution, and this book shows his transition into an anti-Stalinist as reflected in Animal Farm and 1984.
I loved his descriptions of Spain and the Spanish and their open and hospitable nature. Even though I have read a lot about the Civil War I had not realised how many similarities it shared with World War I, even though some describe it as the first modern war. There was a lack of training for the troops, a shortage of guns so training consisted of constant drill, they fought using trench warfare and therefore had problems with lice and rats. Orwell describes how training with guns will be mañana (tomorrow) which of course never comes. The POUM come across as completely untrained: no-one knew how to load a gun apart from Orwell.
I know quite a lot about the Civil War but some of this book left me confused. The different factions within the Republican side are almost impossible to keep track of and Orwell himself in one of the appendices says if you are not interested in political controversy, to skip this chapter, I was interested but I wish I had followed his advice. I suggest leaving the appendices until last (originally they were chapters within the book) or skipping them altogether. In my opinion as a book on the Spanish Civil War this book was much better than For Whom the Bell Tolls but not as good as Soldiers of Salamis.
Even the cover looks scary
I have briefly stopped reading crime novels or 18th century history books to re-read this for my book club. The bleak start had me worried that I would not be able to finish reading it but I was soon drawn in again by this amazing novel.
My partner decided to choose it after watching the final episode of Simon Schama’s History of Britain TV series where he drew interesting parallels between the lives of Churchill and Orwell. Reading this book makes you aware of how amazingly talented Orwell was, considering he wrote this in 1948, it reflects his ability to write in a revolutionary style.
The story predicts a dystopian future. The English Socialist state (Ingsoc) Oceania (the Western Hemisphere), is represented as a terrifying totalitarian state giving a sense of doom from the outset of the novel. The leader Big Brother is a representation of Stalin who rules through a cult of personality and where individual thought is a crime. Orwell predicts that the world will be divided into opposing power blocks and Oceania is alternatively at war with opposing power blocks such as Eurasia and Eastasia. Despite supposedly being socialist, society is divided into the Inner and Outer Party and the downtrodden Proles. The language of the state is doublespeak, for example, the Ministry of Truth where Winston Smith works deals with propaganda and lies and the slogan of Oceania is ‘WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’. The book shows the struggle of the ordinary man Winston against the totalitarian state. Through the simple act of keeping a diary or having a sexual relationship, Winston is indulging in subversive acts.
Orwell created terms that are now widely used like the thought police, big brother and sexcrime (by the Eurythmics anyway). The only part of the book that failed to capture me were passages where Winston reads Goldstein’s (Trotsky) book of the Brotherhood book boring, as I found them overlong.
This is a really fantastic interesting read, and I am sure it will generate lots of discussion at the book club. I am now off to re-read Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia.