George Orwell in the Trenches
An Appreciation on the Importance of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia
By Alex Pijanowski
When I first read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, I was actually in Catalonia—Barcelona, to be exact. I did most of my reading in my bed in a 24-bunk room in my hostel, which also seemed fitting; as I knew at the time, it was the closest I was likely to come to personally re-creating the barracks environment that Orwell depicts so memorably. Any actual parallel I draw between myself and one of the giants of twentieth-century letters should be regarded as absurd, as my greatest exertion during that period of time was probably the amount of walking I did, I was (so far as I know) never in mortal danger, and I was able to launder my clothes. Even so, my attempts to mimic him, however ridiculous, undoubtedly enhanced my enjoyment of the place, and made my reading of one of the great nonfiction books of any era more profitable.
Homage is one of those books where the reader will be inspired so often to take down Orwell’s words for later reference that doing so would almost be transcribing the entire book again. You realize at a certain point that it is far easier just to have the book handy at all times; in fact, I brought it with me all over the city during the four days I was there—in view of the Arc de Triomf, on a bench in the Parc de la Ciutadella, in the lobby of my hostel, in a run-down bar whose name I have long since forgotten—and was thus able to simultaneously see Barcelona as I saw it and as I thought Orwell would, based on his written observations.
To me, tourism in a city like Barcelona without a well-grounded understanding of its history leaves something to be desired.
My experience roving about with Homage in hand taught me that this book should complement any map and/or guidebook a traveler carries in Barcelona. Rick Steves’ Spain guidebook was a well-written and very helpful reference, but omits to mention the region’s role in the Civil War. To me, tourism in a city like Barcelona without a well-grounded understanding of its history leaves something to be desired; the sort of historical knowledge found in Homage is absolutely necessary, and must be gotten somehow.
To give one example, I enjoyed strolling down the Ramblas, the pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants which is Barcelona’s signature tourist thoroughfare, but it was more interesting once I knew that Orwell had once taken part in street fighting there. I was, and still am, arrested by the fact in 1937 no one with any regard for his own safety would walk casually down the Ramblas, that shots were fired across it routinely, and yet none of this is apparent in 2015. To some extent, I am still deciding how I feel about Spain’s semi-institutionalized forgetting about the war and the Francoist regime, but I am reasonably certain that more regular reflection upon what war takes from us would be a good idea. If you are visiting a place and really hope to understand it, I also realized at that time, you have to try to unearth the history we can’t see.
Another thing which struck me was the author’s misplaced modesty. When Orwell describes the politics of the Civil War, he says, “When I came to Spain, and for some time afterwards, I was not only uninterested in the political situation but unaware of it,” and goes so far as advising apolitical readers to skip that chapter. This was, however, the most enlightening chapter of the book to that point, mainly for its thesis that the Soviet Union were an anti-revolutionary force working against more radical left-wing groups. In general, a reader would do well to take Orwell’s advice, unless that advice is that you skip part of his book.
Reading Orwell’s thoughts on Spain might not have been as edifying to me had I not lived there for two months already. His comments on the lack of tipping in Spain illustrated the relative constancy of Spanish culture, as it is still the case after 78 years that tips for bartenders and waiters are extremely uncommon, although I do not believe this practice is now illegal, as he claims it once was. He also tells us that the Spanish soldiers “got on well” with the English volunteers, which reminded me of how warmly I was received by the citizens of Spain, even though I am clearly a byproduct of the Anglo-American tradition.
If you are visiting a place and really hope to understand it, I also realized at that time, you have to try to unearth the history we can’t see.
The directness of Orwell’s prose is inseparable from his mission to inform, which he of course does better than nearly anybody. Near the end of the book, for instance, he writes, “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail,” after which he tells us that, “roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion.” Although the nonchalance and acute objectivity with which Orwell describes the moment border on the comical, I found that these qualities made it very clear to me what the experience of being shot is like. Levity is, in fact, rarely far from Orwell’s analysis, such as when he comments that “it was rather fun wandering about the dark valleys with the stray bullets flying overhead,” which I think captures that the mood of the time was not entirely somber.
I promised myself that, during my stay in Barcelona, I would seek out a landmark I noticed on my map: Plaça George Orwell. Paying a visit seemed the natural completion of my ‘Orwell in Spain’ tour. The plaza is at the end of some narrow streets tucked back behind the city’s Ayuntamiento, which houses the city’s government. Although it doesn’t approach the grandiosity of the Plaça Catalunya or Plaça de Espanya, as far as plazas go, I found it to be pretty impressive. The plaza is, roughly, triangular in shape; the buildings are of the same Spanish-infused Parisian style of the old city; there are several restaurants with outdoor seating and a small park in the middle where children played as I took in the scene.
Plaça George Orwell was wanting only in one respect: there was no statue of the man himself to be found, before which I would certainly have stopped for a reverent moment to pay homage to the efforts of the man himself.