Tuesday 15 May 2012

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell-- Vintage Penguin 1699

Originally published 1938
(My Copy published by Penguin Books1962)
I have a very large collection of vintage Penguin books that I love but when it comes to choosing one to read I really struggle.  I get taken in by the wonderful covers of the 1950's and 60's. I love some of the titles of the very old ones such as The Owl's House or Dusty Answer or Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.  All of them have their individual appeal.  So I have decided now to use Random.org on line and simply read whatever book it chooses for me.  Also it's quite a bit of fun to see what number comes up and then search it out on my shelves. 

I must admit when old Random chose Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell I groaned inside but promising to stick to this type of reading challenge had me choosing an hour of uninterrupted time to begin it.

Well get into it I certainly did.  I have really enjoyed this orange Penguin. George Orwell is an excellent writer and I enjoyed his style of writing very much. I think  I just had too much of Animal Farm stuffed into me during high school and I never recovered. 

The first thing I thought when Random showed me his name was, "Oh boy, this will be political."  Well of course it is. 
The story is a biographical account of his experience fighting in Spain's civil war during the late 1930's against Franco. 
I was also a bit intimidated because I didn't think I would understand this book. I know little of Spanish history. Then I read:  

"When I came to Spain, and for some time afterwards, I was not only uninterested in the political situation but unaware of it. I knew there was a war on, but I had no notion what kind of a war. If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: 'To fight against Fascism and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: ' Common decency." I had accepted the News Chronical-New Statesman version of the war as the defence of civilization against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler.  The revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it." 
Orwell did not understand what was going on and yet he enlisted and went to the front at Aragon for 6 months in the freezing winter having little to eat, old weapons of limited use and little leadership.  I thought I could at least read the book. No danger in that. 

The politics are highly confusing. He discusses the many sides one person could be on and they are listed as a " kaleioscope of political parties and trade unions with their tiresome names - P.S.U.G., P.O.U.M., F.A.I., C.N.T., U.G.T., J.C.I, J.S.U., and A.I.T. "

Soldiers are French, Spanish, Russian, German or British. Some are religious, some are communists, some want democracy, many are socialist. 

Men at the front give orders in various languages and often don't understand each other. Warfare is conducted with the oldest, most decrepit weapons ever procured and often don't work or would fire on their own accord.  Some grenade bombs operated with bits of string.

The book tends to be set out in alternating chapters between explaining the politics happening in Spain alongside chapters of Orwell describing his experiences living in Spain with his wife and fighting at the front at Aragon in the country's north east.  

He fought with the P.O.U.M. and just when he thinks he has survived the worst he is shot through the neck. How he survived the warfare he actively participated in is due only to good luck rather than any type of planning or good leadership on anyone's part. 

He entered the war extremely idealistic and after being on the front line for 6 months he returned to Barcelona only to find out citizens there had little knowledge of what was happening nor did they seem to care. 

As he incredibly ponders this realization,  the entire city suddenly erupts into many factions of warfare and he ends up spending his R & R on top of a rooftop with a rifle defending what, he is not sure. No one knows the truth of this warfare because so many factions are producing their own campaigns in the press, distributing flyers and shouting slogans. Orwell describes this chaos well.

One of the things I found very interesting was the enormous amount of media, publications and anecdotal information that was pure 100% propaganda.  In this day and age of modern technology, where at the touch of a button we can see what is happening in any corner of the world, all of the information the Spanish citizens had to go on was what they heard in the street or read in the media. They seldom knew if anything was true or not and in most cases it was greatly exaggerated or blatantly false. 

It made me realise how much more information is available from all corners of the world and how much we take that for granted.  Although we complain about media overload this probably is not such a bad thing if one is living in a war zone. Orwell's experience would have been vastly different in perspective if he'd had a wireless netbook or telephone.

Although this book is approximately 220 pages I feel I learned an enormous amount of history from 
Orwell's experiences and the style in which he portrayed them. He writes very cynically of course but with so many factions in conflict I don't think that would be unusual.  One of the most irritating things about the book is all of the acronyms used were never explained. I had no idea who any of these groups were, just that they were fighting each other. I am sure I could still learn a great deal more about this topic.

One line from the book that made me laugh out loud was, (Orwell describing time at the front) 

"Sometimes I was merely bored with the whole affair, paid no attention to the hellish noise, and spent hours reading a succession of Penguin books which, luckily, I had bought a few days earlier; sometimes I was very conscious of the armed men watching me fifty yards away." pg127 

When I handle my Penguin books from that era with the dog eared pages, brown taped spines sometimes dirtied or marked with the old advertisements on the back page I wonder what its own journey has been from the time of publication to my bookshelves in Hobart. Makes them that much more precious.  Was one of my books in the trenches during the Spanish revolution or World War II?  If only they could talk.

Travellin Penguin in the
Spanish Revolution
I came to understand a bit more about activities between the Fascists, the Anarchists, the Communists, the Trade Unions, with other splinter groups moving between various groups.

Orwell's experiences were extremely difficult and yet as a Brit, he was there voluntarily and although I could not completely understand Orwell's eagerness to go to the front, risking death I admired his political idealism. Political activities were in huge turmoil across Europe at this time so perhaps he thought being a part of it all sooner was better than later. 

I have been left with many questions about the history of the Spanish war as well as George Orwell's motives, yet I found it interesting enough to want to learn more and that is the joy of a Penguin. 

The vintage Penguin books truly did provide a social history of the world.  I would like to read more of George Orwell. I enjoyed him very much as a writer and I think maybe I might even be able to bear Animal Farm one more time. We'll see.

(This book counts as 1938 when it was first published by Secker and Warburg in the Century of Books Challenge.)


  1. Nobody could be less interested in politics than I am, but I loved this book. Orwell writes so very brilliantly - not showy style, just somehow incredibly *right*. I must read some more of his novels. Thanks for your lovely, enthusiastic review - and I adore your Spanish Revolution Penguin!

  2. Thank you Simon on both counts. It was a fun exercise. Pam

  3. Lovely review. I've read Wigan Pier and Down and Out but I've always been a little intimated by Homage to Catalonia as I felt I didn't know enough of the background to the war. I think I'll to add it back to my TBR stack and hunt out a 'Brief Guide' type book to round out the history. Like you, I hate not to understand acronyms or references!

    1. Thank you, I think a guide would be a great idea. I wouldn't mind looking at one myself. Would love to know if you find one. Think a google search is in order. All the best, Pam

  4. Great review Pam. I had this thrust upon me by my Dad a couple of months ago and still haven't managed to pick it up. I am definitely excited about it and will get onto it even quicker after reading this. I studied the Spanish Civil War at University and think this may just tell the story in the right way for me. Out of his autobiographical books 'Down and Out in Paris and London' is also excellent - he doesn't seem to get too bogged down in facts and figures.

    Will you continue with the random Penguin generator? Seems to be doing well so far!

  5. Thank you for your comment. I hope you enjoy the book and I appreciate your suggestions of his other work to read. I will keep up with the random generator as it is a fun way to pick a book and helps me get through the enormous amount of books I have that need to be read!!!


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