Recommendation: Pretty mandatory, all said and done
Where to read: Any hipster cafe like the liberal dilettante you are
Read with: Sherry
In brief: I don’t understand how anyone can be that chipper under fire or how anyone can seriously describe sniping and patrolling between trenches as a jolly old lark but there we go. For all that, you can very much sense the darkness of 1984 in the offing.
For an infinitely more informed take on some of the history, see Paul Preston’s overview in The Guardian.
Look, there’s literally nothing I can say about this that hasn’t already been said by someone older and smarter. To wit, see the following:
“The Spanish Civil war produced a spate of bad literature. Homage to Catalonia is one of the few exceptions and the reason is simple. Orwell was determined to set down the truth as he saw it. This was something that many writers of the Left in 1936–39 could not bring themselves to do. Orwell comes back time and time again in his writings on Spain to those political conditions in the late thirties which fostered intellectual dishonesty: the subservience of the intellectuals of the European Left to the Communist ‘line’, especially in the case of the Popular Front in Spain where, in his view, the party line could not conceivably be supported by an honest man. Only a few strong souls, Victor Serge and Orwell among them, could summon up the courage to fight the whole tone of the literary establishment and the influence of Communists within it. Arthur Koestler quoted to an audience of Communist sympathizers Thomas Mann‘s phrase, ‘In the long run a harmful truth is better than a useful lie’. The non-Communists applauded; the Communists and their sympathizers remained icily silent. … It is precisely the immediacy of Orwell’s reaction that gives the early sections of Homage its value for the historian. Kaminski, Borkenau, Koestler came with a fixed framework, the ready-made contacts of journalist intellectuals. Orwell came with his eyes alone.”
The whole thing is faintly absurd at times, between the musings on the vagaries of Spanish train timetables and the almost flippant tone Orwell adopts when describing trench warfare. There are also some deeply funny passages, including the oft-quoted line “I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it [La Sagrada Familia] up when they had the chance”.
For all this, Homage retains a distinct edginess and a profoundly dark undertone. A deep concern with truth and totalitarian attempts to control fact is evident in almost every page, as is Orwell’s hatred of authoritarianism. Hitchens observed that Orwell dealt with the oppressive government trifecta in the twentieth century – imperialism, fascism and communism – in a sequence of works from Burmese Days to Homage of Catalonia to Animal Farm and 1984. Homage is premised on the need to trounce to fascism but it’s Orwell increasing discomfort with the Communists that underpins the narrative (obviously, because he’s talking about precisely the experiences that shaped his views).