I have always liked George Orwell books (who hasn’t, really?), having read long time ago 1984 and Animal Farm. But after reading recently two of his less known novels, Burmese Days and Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell is in a whole new level for me.
I don't remember having read so many novels of one writer and having liked (I mean, really liked), all of them. It is also quite meaningful that I read them throughout quite a long period of time, around ten years, the first two when I was in my teens.
After reading Homage to Catalonia I have developed a profound respect for George Orwell, both as a writer but even more as a person. Throughout the book I have been amazed by his intelligence, sincerity and straightforwardness.
In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell often expresses his personal opinions on politics. What I like most is that he always speaks with the utmost sincerity, not hesitating to say he was too naive at the time. Just after arriving in Spain at the beginning of the war (1936) to fight for the Republican side, he admits he had this idealized idea of socialism and the proletarian revolution. Although more than fighting for socialism the reason why he was willing to risk his life in a war was to fight against fascism, an ideology that was getting strong all over Europe.
Things were not as simple at it may appear at first sight. Over time the whole conflict has been simplified into a flight between Communism and Fascism. I am not going to deepen into Communist theory here, but let’s just say that many people at that time in Europe saw in Communism a way to fight many of the social inequalities of the time, and fighting Franco in Spain seemed like an ideal way to start changing things. Orwell puts it this way:
“The thing that happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ´Fascism versus democracy´ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.”
Here Orwell is very critic with the British press. While they supported Spanish government in its struggle to fight fascism, Orwell explains how they were also afraid that the revolutionary aspect could propagate to Britain and threaten the rich social classes.
Orwell also explains how, during the first months of the war, Catalonia (in the Republican side) was a socialist dream come true. There were no social classes, people called each other comrades and stopped using “usted” (Spanish personal pronoun equivalent in English to “you” but used when you want to show respect to the person you are talking to), etc. But things didn’t last long that way, and internal fights started appearing inside the Republican supporters.
“Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy and cynicism, where the world ´comrade´ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug.”
The Spanish Republican Army was supported by Russia, with Stalin as a head of the country. Stalin didn’t like Trotskyists, and so they forced Spanish Republicans to make things difficult for them. Orwell was himself a Trotskyist, and he tells how all of a sudden they would be hunted down and put in jail for absolutely no reason, under the pretext that they were spies of the Germans. Orwell tells us how some of his friends (there were quite a few foreigners fighting in the Spanish war) were put in jail just after having risked their lives at the front. He himself had to hide in Barcelona for few days before he could make it back to England. What I loved most about Orwell is his sincerity when telling how stupid he was for not having realized earlier how things would turn out. All over the book this sincerity prevails. It is easy to empathize with the writer, since you can see he is a humble guy telling things how he felt them as that time, without excuses, without bullshit.
To me, as a Spanish, it has also been interesting to read about Orwell’s opinions on Spaniards. In some of his quotes you can clearly see the honesty I was talking about before.
“Even more in Spain than elsewhere it seemed to be the tradition to stuff sick people with heavy food. At Lérida the meals were terrific. Breakfast, at about six in the morning, consisted of soup, an omelet, stew, bread, white wine, and coffee, and lunch was even larger-this at a time when most of the civil population was seriously underfed. Spaniards seem not to recognize such a thing as a light diet. They give the same food to sick people as to well ones-always the same rich, greasy cookery, with everything sodden in olive oil.”
I find it amazing that I can agree with what someone said seventy years ago. I find the quote below especially true and funny:
“One morning it was announced that the men in my ward were to be sent down to Barcelona today. I managed to send a wire to my wife, telling her that I was coming, and presently they packed us into buses and took us down to the station. It was only when the train was actually starting that the hospital orderly who travelled with us casually let fall that we were not going to Barcelona after all, but to Tarragona. I suppose the engine-driver had changed his mind. ´Just like Spain!´ I thought. But it was very Spanish, too, that they agreed to hold up the train while I sent another wire, and more Spanish still that the wire never got there."
But not everything was criticism. Orwell had a great opinion on the character of Spanish people. Here he praises their solidarity:
“A Spaniard’s generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing. If you ask him for a cigarette he will force the whole packet upon you. And beyond this there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances.”
He even goes as far as to pointing out that, even if Fascism would win in Spain, it would not be as bas as other Fascisms in Europe:
“I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself. They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility, that do not really belong to the twentieth century. It is this that makes one hope that in Spain even Fascism may take a comparatively loose and bearable form.”
Interestingly, Spanish Fascism was the longest prevailing in Europe, after winning a war that lasted for three years. So in a sense the effort of George Orwell was in vain. He risked his life (was almost shot death in the neck) and lost many friends, but it was not the Fascists who caused most of those deaths, but the police of the Republic, the side he was fighting for. That would surely have left an everlasting impression on anyone. Yet Orwell finishes the book by saying that he left Spain with “more belief on the decency of human beings”.