Whatever your thoughts on Orwell's Socialism, we should all be able to agree that Fascism is bad. The Spanish Civil War pitted Communists against Fascists, and when George Orwell found himself trading his journalist's pen for a soldier's rifle, he found himself on the side of the Communists. He wasn't a Communist, but at least they shared Marxism.
War memoirs are among the best and most enduring literary works of the 20th century. There's William Manchester's Goodbye, Darkness, Charles B. MacDonald's Company Commander, Michael Herr's Dispatches, and Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn and What it is Like to Go to War. And there's George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.
One of Orwell's best assets as a writer is his attention to detail. We see the filth of men fighting to preserve human decency and yet not able to maintain it themselves. We see the violence of battle, and the chaos, and the terror. We even see surprisingly comic moments, like the time he was trying to sleep in a barn and punched a rat who bothered him.
But Orwell wasn't of the "show, don't tell" school. He certainly shows, but what is a memoir without the author's thoughts? At one point we get this stark comment after a man is shot at: "However, the sentry missed him. In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible."
Which reminds us that this was a Civil War. For the Spaniards, it meant killing one's countrymen in an age and in a place where national pride was much stronger than anything U. S. citizens in the 21st century can understand. They fought for ideals, but they fought their flesh and blood.
For Orwell it was not a civil war, but that presented its own problems. There was no thought for him of defending his homeland or preserving freedom for future generations of Englishmen. Instead, he fought purely for an ideal, but the harsh realities of politics and power eventually complicated things for him beyond endurance.
Rarely have the physical realities and the politics of war been brought to such heartbreaking life in a single book. Orwell's status as a foreign combatant uniquely equipped him to chronicle both stories, and to put human faces on leaders and common soldiers alike. Homage to Catalonia will be remembered as long as wars are fought.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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