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Homage to Catalonia


A few months after the Spanish Civil war broke in 1936, George Orwell travelled on the pretense of covering it but, his true intention was joining the fight against fascism. He enlisted in an anti-Stalinist group called POUM (Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification) that fought for the Republicans (along with anarchists and socialists) against the Nationalists under the leadership of Franco.

Orwell shares his 115 days on the war front in a book called Homage to Catalonia (published in England in 1938). The book is divided into 12 chapters that spans between his arrival to Spain on December of 1936 to his lucky escape on June 1937, accompanied by his wife Eileen Blair. To Orwell’s great surprise, his comrades in arms were poverty-stricken Spanish peasants — few were young teens whose fathers had exchanged them for bread- with no military discipline.

Many were equipped with malfunctioning weapons — mostly from the 1890’s- that caused fatalities when not handed well. This motley crew kept expanding as more Spaniard volunteers joined in — especially from Málaga that was just conquered by Franco — with one common factor uniting them: the majority were ignorant of the fighting factions and their political agendas; all they cared about was fighting for justice and freedom.

Orwell admires their kindness and down-to-earth attitude with foreigners like him who came to fight by their side, but not their easygoing attitude where everything is done mañana! His days on the frontier were not as exciting as expected: there was no action happening as each side awaited the other to attack. The soldiers were either digging trenches, firing warning bullets at the enemy that was far away, collecting food and sodden wood for the fire.

As for Orwell, he’s either reading, drinking tea, fighting lice infestation, or trying to communicate in super bad Catalan with his comrades. Unfortunately, Orwell leaves the frontiers after receiving a bullet in his neck and is suspended from the POUM. He returns to Barcelona for recovery and witnesses the general change of mood of the public: at the beginning of the war the people’s concern was the obliteration of social ranks and being treated equally, now they’re queuing for hours to get bread while street wars break around them.

The May events starts and within days from them the POUM is declared a fascist party. This gives rise to an inquisition of its former members — including Orwell — who had spent a few days hiding in abandoned buildings before managing to escape to France. However, Orwell’s description of his surroundings is astonishing as nothing seems to escape his attention: from seasonal and terrain changes that he comes across while travelling through northern Spain to detailed description of the war-burdened atmosphere surrounding him. The comrades he mentions are competent and impressive.

Moreover, the book has two appendixes that describes different factions participating in the civil war and the Western ignorant view of it — obviously politically driven — which could be boring to some readers. Orwell struggled to find a publisher for a year as the book’s content was considered socialist and anti-Stalinist.

Even though the book is very Spanish in nature, yet the Spanish censored version came to light in 1970 (20 years after Orwell’s death), with many changes that didn’t vilify Franco’s dictatorship. Fortunately, this censorship was lifted in 2003 — almost 30 years after Franco’s demise — enabling Spanish readers to peruse the original text. Homage to Catalonia — along with Franz Borkenau’s the Spanish Cockpit — are rare firsthand accounts of the Spanish Civil war. As other Orwell’s books, it’s richly texted, skillfully structured, and truly enjoyable. An epic treat for history lovers.

Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of: The World According to Bahja.

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