Tag Archives: Spanish Civil War

George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia

downloadHomage 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.

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Read this, not Hemingway – Javier Cercas – Soldiers of Salamis, now with added podcast!

This was my choice for the next book club being as I didn’t want to read Winter in Madrid again.  It was a risky choice after no-one read for Whom the Bell Tolls when I chose that but I saw this listed as one of the must read books about Spain in a list somewhere and it was not a disappointment.

Soldiers of Salamis claims to be a novel but in fact the bulk of the novel is based on real occurrences during the Spanish Civil War. The founder of the Falange (Spain’s fascist party) Rafael Sanchez Mazas is about to be executed along with 49 other Nationalists by the Republicans in the closing stages of the war as the Republicans realise defeat is looming.  Mazas claims to have escaped and is hiding in the woods when he is seen by a Republican soldier, instead of killing him or handing him over the soldier simply looks at him and walks away.

The author Cercas, at this time perceives himself to be a failed writer and is working as a journalist when he hears about the story of Mazas.  After further investigation and interviews with some of the people involved in the event, or their descendants he decides that this would make an excellent book.  As he investigates further he begins to wonder about whom the man was who saved Mazas and begins a search to find him.

This book is a very moving account of the Civil War and questions Spain’s past and the idea of what makes a hero.  It is well worth reading although I would recommend that if you are not au fait with the Spanish Civil War that you read the translators afterword first in which the background to it is explained.

NB found this whilst listening to my great BBC world service podcasts, here is Cercas talking about the novel



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Laurie Lee – As I walked out one midsummer morning

Laurie Lee – As I walked out one midsummer morning  was another book club choice.  I was originally a bit disappointed when this was chosen after reading Cider with Rosie and not really enjoying it.   When the book arrived I was even more upset; I am sure Laurie Lee didn’t walk around Spain wearing jeans as shown on the cover.   The only positive for me  was that this one was set in Spain and one particular part in Almuñecar where I used to live.  In fact I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.

It is a true story set in the 1935 of the Stroud poet Laurie Lee setting  off to London armed with just his violin in order to do some busking and have an adventure.  He later decides to catch a ferry to Vigo in Galicia and he then walks (!) through Spain right down to the Andalucian coast.  I found this element of the unknown really fascinating.  Today if we go travelling we normally have money and are also able to communicate with our family.  My journey from Almuñecar  to Santander seemed adventurous enough and I drove in a car (admittedly a banger over 20 years old).  He knows nothing about Spain apart from the Barber of Seville and that Barcelona has nuts, but he manages to set of on this amazing, lone journey.

Along the way Lee gives quaint descriptions of the Spanish,  which could seem patronising but  are also affectionate.  He meets lots of poor locals willing to give him shelter.   One humourous part for me is when he goes to the Post Office to pick up a letter and it is filed under E for Esquire.  He makes some interesting observations such as the Civil Guards are the poison dwarfs of Spain, in my experience nothing much has changed.  In Toledo he visits a beautiful gorge, Pena Gajera  where he discovers it is the local traditions to throw criminals over.  Folklore tells of an innocent girl who was  miraculously saved but this doesn’t stop other criminals being thrown over subsequently.

Lee reaches  Almuñecar just as the Civil War is starting so to protect identities he refers to it as Castillo.  He describes it as  “grey almost gloomily Welsh”.  This isn’t my experience of the area but his writing and descriptions of the Spaniards are so interesting as is his journey through this country on the verge of a Civil War.  It was admittedly written in the 1960s so some parts may have been embellished but it is still a great piece of travel writing.

Lee´s grave in Slad


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I love History, am interested in the Spanish Civil War so why do I hate Ernest Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’?

I chose this for my book group to read – what a big mistake!  I have read Death in the Afternoon and the Old Man and the Sea and was largely bored, the saving grace of the latter was its brevity, unfortunately For Whom the Bell Tolls  is 500 pages of depressing boredom.  Now I wasn’t expecting to have a laugh whilst reading this but I thought the story would be interesting considering it is based during the Spanish Civil War.

The protagonist Robert Jordan is a young American volunteer fighting with a Republican guerilla band.  It describes the three? days he spends with the band trying to blow up a vital bridge.

This novel deals with the horrors of the Civil War and although told from the Republican perspective shows the atrocities on both sides.  One of the most disturbing passages deals with the horrific beating to death of fascists in a village and their bodies being thrown over the cliff.  As I read this I thought it sounded familiar and later realised that it is based on  events that took place in  Ronda in 1936.  I find it so  difficult to reconcile what I have read about the Civil War with the Spain of today and its friendly people and the beautiful, quiet villages like Ronda, especially when you consider that the events that occurred are relatively recent.   This is because they are not spoken about a great deal the El Pacto de Olvido (Pact of Forgetting) made after the death of Franco still seems to be very strong despite the Ley de Memoria Historica (Law of Historic Memory) of 2007  which tried to recognise the victims of the Civil War allowing mass graves to be open.

A passage that particularly stumped me was, “you forget the beauties of a civil war when you keep your mind too much on your work”. This is said just after a description of how best to kill yourself by slitting your carotid artery.  Now I would say this meant to be ironic but could not find much evidence of irony in this passage.

People praise Hemingway’s direct and simple style of writing but I didn’t like it.  Apparently the prose style and dialogue in Hemingway’s novel has been a source of controversy and some negative critical reaction. His translations of Spanish are strange with characters talking as if they are from the  Medieval period, constantly using thee and thou.   I also read that much of the dialogue in the novel is an implied direct translation from Spanish, producing an often strained English equivalent.  There is also a lot of Spanish swearing which is often untranslated, which seems to be pretty realistic to me – Spanish people are always swearing but it is not really considered as harsh as it is in English.

My favourite part was the title, it comes from John Donne’s Meditation no. 17 (1624):

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The book mirrors this with its frequent references to premonitions of death.  So overall not my top read of the year but at least we will have something to talk about at the book club.

If you are interested here is a link to a radio 4 programem with Melvyn Bragg on the Spanish Civil War.



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