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21 April 2010

Book Review: Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia 
by George Orwell 

This slim tome is Orwell's account of a portion of the Spanish Civil War. He was a POUM militia member for about 6 months in 1937 and this part-memoir, part-convoluted-history-lesson, part-news-brief is one of the results.

I cannot say I loved it. Perhaps this is because my knowledge of the Spanish Civil War is far from intimate; in fact, I would say I know nothing about it. One should know something about it, I think, before one reads this book. In its defense, Orwell does tell the reader to skip parts upcoming, as they will be full of "political controversy and the mob of parties and sub-parties with their confusing names ..." I didn't skip. And perhaps he expected those of us who only have surface knowledge to heed his warning but those chapters were a a convoluted mess. I found myself even more confused about the labels (Government, Fascist, Leftist, Trotskyist, Anarchist) than I was prior to reading.

Overall, I found it to be a messy read. I enjoyed parts; when Orwell first arrived in Spain and described the attitude of revolution; "Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine."  His sudden brilliant description of a village near the front; "... a mass of mean little houses of mud and stone huddling round the church ..." and of a group of Italian soldiers; "Obviously, they were Italians. No other people could have grouped themselves so picturesquely or returned the salutes of the crowd with so much grace ..."   But these moments were few and far between. Mostly the book reads like a poorly edited
New Yorker article.

Orwell does end with one very meaningful point, a jab at comfort and privilege and lack of care and awareness; only slightly made but made nonetheless.

"And then England - southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesmen will come out on Friday ..." 

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