Kim's Reviews > Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
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Should anyone want to understand why George Orwell, a life long socialist, developed the antipathy to the Soviet Union which informed his best known novels Animal Farm and 1984, then this is the book to read.

When Orwell travelled to Spain in December 1936, intending to fight fascism and write about the Spanish Civil War, he stepped into a complex and murky political situation. The left-wing forces supporting the Republican government against the fascist forces led by Franco had different and conflicting aims. The pro-Republic forces included the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM – Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) which supported the Trotskyist aim of world revolution, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia. The latter was a wing of the Spanish Communist Party and was backed by Soviet arms and aid. Orwell's accreditation in Spain came from the British International Labour Party, which was linked with POUM. He accordingly joined the POUM militia and fought with it on the Aragon front at Alcubierre, Monte Oscuro and Huesco.

Orwell's account of experiences in Spain focuses on four distinct periods. Firstly, it deals with his initial time in the trenches on the reasonably quiet Aragon front. The next part of the narrative covers the internecine conflict in Barcelona in May 1937 which involved street-fighting between Communist groups loyal to Moscow* and anti-Soviet communists, socialists and anarchists. The third part of the work concerns Orwell's experience of being shot in the throat by a sniper when he returned to the Aragon front and the treatment he subsequently received for his injury. Finally, Orwell deals with the suppression of POUM and the consequent arrest of those associated with the organisation, which contributed to Orwell having to leave Spain in a hurry.

What led Orwell to turn so conclusively against Soviet style communism was the banning of POUM, the persecution of its leaders and members and his conviction that Moscow was behind the vilification of anarchist and non-Soviet aligned communist groups and specifically the accusation that they were fascist agitators. In the work, he analysed the propaganda against groups like POUM which was published in the communist newspapers at the time, both within Spain and abroad, and explained why he believed the claims against POUM and similar groups were baseless.

I know very little about the Spanish Civil War and this memoir, which was first published some nine months after Orwell left Spain, is not in any sense a history of that conflict. It obviously cannot be, given that it was published before the war ended and deals with Orwell's own experiences rather than with the bigger picture. Reading the work is like listening to an intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed friend talk about his experiences. The prose is clear and concise and the style is conversational, without being simplistic. The fact that Orwell wrote about his experiences so soon after the events in which he was involved took place gives an immediacy to the narrative.

The most difficult part of the work is coming to terms with the different groups involved in the conflict: they make up a veritable alphabet soup. But Orwell's explanation of the politics is clear and, as uninformed as I am, I found it very interesting. Just as interesting are the accounts of Orwell's fairly dull time on the front, where boredom, cold, discomfort and an infestation of lice made up the daily reality of life, his account of what it feels like to be shot in the throat and his account of being in Barcelona after POUM was suppressed. Ultimately, Orwell's departure from Spain read like a thriller.

I love Orwell's writing and this is an excellent example of what makes it so good. The work is honest, moving, passionate and sometimes prescient. The very last sentence - written in 1937 or 1938 - foretells the war yet to come. Orwell refers to the English "sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England" from which he feared that they would never wake until "jerked out of it by the roar of bombs".


*When Orwell referred to communists in this work, he was generally (although not always) referring to pro-Soviet groups and individuals. Substituting "Stalinist" for "communist" is a handy way of distinguishing between the various left wing factions.
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Reading Progress

July 5, 2013 – Shelved
November 5, 2013 – Started Reading
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November 15, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-20 of 20 (20 new)

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message 1: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King Kim, What an excellent review and also a social document.

I know very little about this period of history in Spain and also I was intrigued by your first paragraph.

I had a father who detested communism with a passion and so we had books galore on the subject at home which I have slowly "ploughed" through over the years. Some of them were really depressing and so I do believe that I need to read this book.

Thanks again Kim...


Nigeyb Glad you got so much out of it. I went on to read a number of other SCW books after this. It's a fascinating topic.


message 3: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King Kim, I've ordered the paperback. I hesitated between the paperback and the hardback and finances prevailed unfortunately. I'm looking forward to reading it.


message 4: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Excellent review Kim. I read this years ago but I think it is time I read it again...


message 5: by Ted (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ted This is a well-thought out review, Kim. You are right, I think, about this being the source (at least a very important one) of Orwell's antipathy towards Russia. You are also right (again, I think) in assessing his views of the SCW; he didn't see enough of it to really have a "historian's" view of things.

He apparently didn't speak Spanish, so what he heard of the internecine struggles between the left-wing factions was of necessity mostly what the Spanish men that he came in contact with told him, perhaps usually translated by an English speaking Spaniard, or a Spanish speaking Brit. Thus he cannot help but reflect the views of the POUM more often than not.

That is not saying that those views were correct or not, simply that Orwell's testimony is not historically persuasive. I think this is the judgment of historians who have studied the conflict. They don't generally quote Orwell much.


message 6: by Monica (new)

Monica Agreed...a great review...thank you!


message 7: by Kim (last edited Nov 16, 2013 12:00PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Lynne wrote: "Kim, What an excellent review and also a social document.

I know very little about this period of history in Spain and also I was intrigued by your first paragraph.

I had a father who detested c..."


Thanks, Lynne, I really hope you find it interesting and I'll look forward to reading your review.


message 8: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Nigeyb wrote: "Glad you got so much out of it. I went on to read a number of other SCW books after this. It's a fascinating topic."

It is indeed a fascinating topic. Can you suggest something else for me to read about it?


message 9: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Kalliope wrote: "Excellent review Kim. I read this years ago but I think it is time I read it again..."

Thanks, Kall. I'm really interested in Spanish perspectives on the Civil War. The effects of it must have taken a long time to heal.


Nigeyb Kim wrote: "I'm really interested in Spanish perspectives on the Civil War. The effects of it must have taken a long time to heal. "

Try Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past. The best (actually the only) book I've read that addresses that particular angle.


message 11: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Ted wrote: "This is a well-thought out review, Kim. You are right, I think, about this being the source (at least a very important one) of Orwell's antipathy towards Russia. You are also right (again, I think)..."

Thanks, Ted. From the text, it appears that Orwell could speak a little Spanish - at least enough to get by - but he indicates that he spoke it very poorly and tended to lapse into French. So you're right in that he must have obtained a lot of his information from Spanish speaking comrades.

I can readily understand SCW historians not citing Orwell. This is such a personal account of quite limited experiences, both in time and in place, that it wouldn't have much historical value even if Orwell's perception of the politics was accurate. But I'm left with the impression that Orwell was telling the facts as he saw them and that it's an accurate account of his experiences. However, I've just ordered a biography of Orwell (Gordon Bowker's), so it will be interesting to read about those experiences from another perspective.


message 12: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Libby wrote: "An excellent and thoughtful review."

Monica wrote: "Agreed...a great review...thank you!"

Thank you, Libby and Monica!


Nigeyb Kim wrote: "Can you suggest something else for me to read about it?"

Here's a few related books that I really enjoyed: A Moment Of War; For Whom the Bell Tolls; The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939; and Granny Made Me an Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me.


message 14: by Ted (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ted Kim wrote: "Ted wrote: "This is a well-thought out review, Kim. You are right, I think, about this being the source (at least a very important one) of Orwell's antipathy towards Russia. You are also right (aga..."

Yes, I would certainly agree that Orwell was being very honest about his views and experiences. I think in general I would view Orwell as the epitome of an honest person. It's part of his very lofty reputation in my opinion.


message 15: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Kim wrote: "Kalliope wrote: "Excellent review Kim. I read this years ago but I think it is time I read it again..."

Thanks, Kall. I'm really interested in Spanish perspectives on the Civil War. The effects o..."


They have not healed.


message 16: by Ted (last edited Nov 16, 2013 03:30PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ted Kalliope wrote: "Kim wrote: "Kalliope wrote: "Excellent review Kim. I read this years ago but I think it is time I read it again..."

Thanks, Kall. I'm really interested in Spanish perspectives on the Civil War. T..."


Here's an interesting perspective on this war which will not end. I've seen reviews on Amazon of more than one book on the war, which are almost all 1's and 5's, depending on which side the reviewer is in sympathy with; and how biased, and in which direction, the author is perceived as being.


message 17: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C Good review, Kim. Don't think I've read this one yet. I did read Laurie Lee's book, A Moment of War. I've been reading, off and on since the late '70s, Hugh Thomas' The Spanish Civil War. It is a humongous work. I think in college I started with Guernica by Gordon Thomas. And after that I just wanted to know more about it.


message 18: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Kalliope wrote: "They have not healed. ..."

Ah ... That is very understandable. I really need to remedy my complete ignorance of Spanish history.


message 19: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Jan C wrote: "Good review, Kim. Don't think I've read this one yet. I did read Laurie Lee's book, A Moment of War. I've been reading, off and on since the late '70s, [author:Hugh T..."

Thanks Jan. Reading something since the late 1970s is a pretty amazing effort!


message 20: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Nigeyb wrote: "Here's a few related books that I really enjoyed: A Moment Of War; For Whom the Bell Tolls; [book:T..."

Thanks, Nigeyb. I'll check out your recommendations with interest. I have the audiobook "For Whom the Bell Tolls" to listen to and I'll do so shortly. I recently read a biography of Ernest Hemingway and it seems he may have been a little confused in his approach to the SCW, notwithstanding his familiarity with Spain.


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