Though Orwell’s name has been idiomized in reference to the totalitarian watchdoggery of 1984, his non-fictional works are no less insightful or intelligently crafted. Written after having spent roughly five months volunteering for the Marxists in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell’s 1937 Homage to Catalonia is no exception.
A breakdown of the extremely complex political situation in Spain before the outbreak of WWII, Homage to Catalonia is also a report on conditions from the war front. Gaining the equivalent rank of corporal, Orwell saw first hand action in the trenches of the front lines in Spain’s northwest during 1936. Both guarding against and attacking the Fascists who were attempting to control the region, Orwell lucidly describes daily life fighting alongside the poorly-fed, poorly-armed, and poorly educated Spaniards. Their lack of the most basic of amenities, like firewood, fresh water, and food, even bullets, did not make the time any easier. Orwell likewise found time to unravel the incredibly multifaceted internal politics causing the war - not only in Catalonia, but on the streets of Barcelona and beyond. His clean, crisp sentences relaying information in precise strokes, the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, Socialists, Nationalists, and the conservative and liberal groups each subsist of are expounded upon in relevant detail, painting a clear (as can be) picture of the sides and their subsequent agendas. With Franco’s regime beginning to show signs of taking power (as it ultimately did), Orwell’s allegiance dictates an interesting and somewhat suspenseful escape from Spain, a chapter which nicely closes the book.
In our modern day cultural-relativism-this and social-liberalism-that, perhaps most remarkable about Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s unabashed passion in opposition of Fascism. His willingness to pick up a rifle and take a shot at the “enemy” is something today’s journalists and writers would undoubtedly be skeptical in light of the political correctness permeating all regulated statements coming from the media these days. Reading of the shocking and unique injury Orwell suffers while on the front lines is a sacrifice we rarely if never read of occurring to today’s social and political scribes. All of this sets into motion interesting questions regarding not only the duties of the writer to make such situations known to the public, but also to what extent the public itself warrants involvement in pressing political situations and what exactly a journalist is.
For its comprehensive content related to civil war conditions and its scrupulous dissection of the political environment of Spain circa 1936-37, Homage to Catalonia is worthy of a special place among the 20th century’s wartime texts. But that it’s written in a superb, detailed fashion that expresses informed (and occasionally) personal opinions on the general state of social and political affairs in Europe before WWII pushes the book near the front. Orwell’s account of trench warfare, street fighting in Barcelona, and escape from the harrowing situation in Spain is a must for anyone interested in WWII, Spanish, or modern European history. Simply a great, informative read.