Friday, July 27, 2012

Homage to Catalonia (George Orwell)

I was reading in the news today that Spain is having some kind of financial crisis or something.  Greece, Italy, Spain...come on Europe, get your act together.  Although actually I don't follow the financial news all that thoroughly, which combined with my hobbies of reading, blogging, and drinking fine American whiskies probably accounts for why I'm not going to be able to retire for another 94 years.  Nonetheless, even I know that something is amiss in Spain, and it sounds like no good will come of it, whatever it is.  Bonds, maybe...something to do with bonds.  Or banks, or maybe the Euro.  Whatever.  But as bad as it might be at the moment, and we'll just assume that it really is dangerous, it can't be anything like the Spain that George Orwell describes in "Homage to Catalonia", his memoir of the Spanish Civil War.  I mean, as he describes it that place was seriously fucked up.

Now I know, you're thinking "WTF is he writing about this book for, because it's not on his list?  Maybe he's so addled by old age at this point that he doesn't even remember he has a list, or something like that".  Well, I may indeed be addled, but as I've said before in this blog, I will occasionally read a book not on my master list just because I want to.  In this case, this book has been sitting on my shelf for about 25 years (I kid you not).  I was stirred into reading it after watching "Hemingway and Gellhorn", a made-for-HBO movie about Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, a war correspondent who eventually became Hemingway's wife and later went on to become Hemingway's ex-wife.  It was an amazingly shoddy movie, especially given the cast and given that it was HBO, but regardless it stirred my interest in the Spanish Civil War and so I decided to read Orwell's book since I really did buy it about 25 years ago and figured it was now or never for reading it.  Especially since my brain apparently is becoming addled with age.

The Spanish Civil War was unlike any war today.  For one thing, artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives of all caliber seemed to flock to the thing and pick up rifles and fight.  Boy, that would never happen now.  I don't see Seal or J.K. Rowling picking up some body armor and rushing off to Afghanistan.  In fact, if anything, they'd stay as far the fuck away from that place as they could, or from any other war zone for that matter.  But something stirred the creatives of the world to flock to Spain in the 1930s and pick up arms against Franco and the Fascists.  I guess everyone could agree that the Fascists were bad, but then can't we all agree that the Taliban is bad?  Whatever.  But as we all might suspect, it turns out that artists and poets make pretty crappy fighters because eventually Franco and the fascists won.

Orwell, however, did not know the eventual winner of the war when the events in the book take place, and he didn't even know when he wrote the book.  That in itself is poignant enough, but what really makes this book memorable is his descriptions of life at the front, and life in Barcelona during a period of street fighting.  Orwell headed to Spain and signed up to fight with a regiment made up of members of a political party called P.O.U.M.  No, that's not the Pomegranate Juice...P.O.U.M. was the Partido Obrero de Unificaci√≥n Marxista, or the Worker's Party of Marxist Unification.  There was a whole alphabet soup of political parties in revolutionary Spain, and while Orwell goes into great detail about the different parties, this was one part of the book that was hard to follow, and frankly a bit dry.  It seemed like P.O.U.M. were communists associated with Trotsky somehow, as opposed to other communist parties which were not, and possibly associated with Anarchists, but also maybe not.  I don't know.  The take-home message was that there were a lot of parties all struggling against one another and trying to position themselves, while maybe they all would have done better if they just focused on fighting Franco and the Fascists together.  Which they did, when they weren't undermining and fighting one another.

Orwell talks about when he arrived in Spain there was truly a revolutionary atmosphere.  Workers had seized all the buildings and communist, revolutionary, and anarchist flags were everywhere.  Everyone called each other "comrade".  No one was allowed to tip, and even in the army everyone was assumed to be equal (which would seem to make it hard to fight a war if everyone could question their commanders).  In short, a revolutionary worker's paradise.  Unfortunately of course, it didn't last.

Orwell joined a P.O.U.M. militia unit and was sent to the front to fight the fascists.  He describes what it was like to fight at the front in very evocative details.  He talks about the sights and smells of living in the trenches (to sum up: it's all bad) and he talks about the ubiquitous rats and lice that plague everyone (memo to self: avoid lice.  Also avoid trench warfare).  These parts made the most interesting parts of the book.  Orwell alternates between (1) telling his story and describing what his life in wartime Spain was like, and (2) describing in detail the political machinations between the various parties and factions.  In other words the chapters alternated between gripping and not so gripping.

After spending time at the front, Orwell returns on leave to Barcelona, where he notices the revolutionary fervor that was so rampant when he first arrived is completely gone.  The workers have been beaten down and are back in their places.  But more importantly the P.O.U.M. party that he has been a member of is suddenly outlawed, which is not good for him.  They have been accused of being Stalinist sympathizers, or maybe Trotsky sympathizers, or maybe fascist sympathizers.  As a result, the government militia, or maybe its the communists, have turned against them.  But wait, are the communists and the government working together...or do they hate each other?  Ah, who the fuck knows.  Why couldn't these fricking Spaniards have a regular civil war like we had in the good old U. S. of know, the North against the South, Yankees vs. Johnny Reb, freedom vs. slavery...with just two sides, making it easy to figure out who's who and what's what?  That would have made things a lot simpler in Spain, and who knows, maybe the good guys would have won then.  But now I'm getting off track.

And speaking of which, I just need to say that I'm drinking a Margarita in order to salute my Spanish heritage, which consists of having ordered burritos in taquerias all over California.  Those things are Spanish, right?  Along with the Spanish flu and Spanish fly...

So where was I?  Oh yeah, so P.O.U.M. gets outlawed and street fighting breaks out all over Barcelona.  Of course in all the revolutionary confusion it's not clear who is street fighting against whom.  That's the problem with street fighting, as opposed to two armies facing one another across no man's land while hunkered down in lice-filled trenches.  Nonetheless, Orwell survives the fighting and confusion in Barcelona, and survives the P.O.U.M. purge, and makes it back to the front lines of the war, where in short order he is shot in the neck.  He is seriously injured but he survives (as evidenced by the fact that he wrote this book).  His doctors tell him that "a man who is hit through the neck and survives is the luckiest creature alive", but Orwell wonders if it would even be luckier not to have been hit at all.  So Orwell lingers in Spain for a short time longer, but then leaves the country in order not to be killed in the continuing P.O.U.M. crackdown.  The End.

One can think of the Spanish Civil War as a prelude to World War II, with communism and democracy fighting against the fascists.  Yet the fascists won the Spanish Civil War, and his experiences lead George Orwell to write "1984".  I suppose all ideological moments end in frustration and apathy, and this one was no exception.  Still, one can't help but wonder what would have happened if Seal had picked up arms and joined Orwell on the front lines of this conflict.  Perhaps history would have turned out completely different and this whole financial crisis thing would have been averted.  Or not.

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