Friday, 20 June 2014

George Orwell- Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia
Penguin Classics

George Orwell
1936


“When I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.” 

The first time I read Homage to Catalonia, a borrowed copy about six years ago, I didn't really like it. This left me with the nagging sensation that this was unacceptable; a feeling that grew with each subsequent novel by George Orwell that I read. I habitually drew out the process of reading through bibliographies of my favourite authors, and when I finally finished off the set with Burmese Days I still couldn't get over it, so a re-read was absolutely necessary. I fear that when I first read it I rushed it and was far too distracted, but I found it to be not what I was expecting. My love of Orwell was, at the time, completely entwined with my love of Nineteen-Eighty Four and its subversiveness, and I felt a lack of similar traits made it seem, well, just not cool enough to care about.

Upon re-examining the book, the things I found most immediately curious about Homage to Catalonia were firstly the sheer nerve of the whole thing, and secondly the more passive, observational tone of the prose. Orwell barely touches on his arrival in Spain in the midst of civil war nor his reasons for doing so (most of these details are saved for the two appendices- more on those later), with his need to join the fight against the progression of fascism in Europe really needing no justification. The relative lack of political commentary, usually so prevalent in Orwell's books, is very noticeable, and is almost certainly what upset me about it upon first read. Bearing that in mind as I started again gave it a better chance for its particular style to sink in, but in hindsight the genuine lack of that cutting, insightful analysis Orwell is so revered for does leave Catalonia a step behind his best work.

What Orwell does instead is write a very descriptive and well-constructed account of his time trudging across Spain with a misfit militia, occasionally encountering great danger, constantly enduring great discomfort, and eventually becoming an enemy of the police state. It has all the ingredients of an enthralling narrative, and Orwell's typically dry prose becomes much more observational than usual (except for perhaps Down and Out in Paris and London). As an Englishman myself I tend to read Orwell's work in one hundred percent relation to British society and sensibilities, and so the humid Spanish atmosphere comes across as positively alienesque, reflected through Orwell's disposition and occasional struggle to communicate away from home. The heavily observational style hugely benefits in this regards, capturing this period in time superbly and leaving me enthralled at times- but I have to reiterate that the lack of a more powerful, decisive analysis of the events as a whole leave this trailing Orwell's best.

The narrative is engaging to the end, where it the book is concluded by two additional appendices in which Orwell attempts to untangle the various political parties and figures that clashes to create the whole mess in the first place. When I first read the book I was excited to reach this, hoping for the real facts of the matter to come to life for Orwell to viciously tear apart. Instead, Orwell actually warns the reader that these segments will be boring for those not interested in party politics, and that the reader should skip these if this doesn't interest them. The first time I tried they bored me to tears, so this time I skipped them. It's a really disappointing ending to the book to be honest, since it really did need a more reader-friendly conclusion to put things more in context.

It's undeniable that Homage to Catalonia is another massively important step on the road to Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially in giving the author a personal view of the advancing effects of facism, but for me my enjoyment came from the differences in Orwell's style here as a first-person non-fiction narrator, creating a more adventurous, thrilling tone in a strange (well, to me anyway) environment. I enjoyed this much more than the first time I read it, though it does suffer in comparison to some of Orwell's bibliography. To me it's more of an intriguing curio that I can't really see myself returning to for a long time, if ever, but it shouldn't disappoint any prospective Orwell completists too much.