‘All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting…’
George Orwell has inadvertently become a central figure in this hellish culture war that we all try so hard to ignore, but end up being involved with anyway from time to time. For the right, he is the final word in free speech. He predicted that an insidious cabal of freedom haters would attempt to curb language itself by making certain ideas illegal. To the left he is a minor deity. The natural precursor to Noam Chomsky, and the man who predicted media control and a submissive populace. Orwell was himself a socialist of course, but this seems to have no effect on his snowballing influence on both the right and the left sides of the political sphere. As that great philosopher Ice T recently pointed out, both the left wing and the right wing of modern day politics increasingly appear to be wings from the same bird.
This scramble to ‘claim’ Orwell misses the point. He is, first and foremost, a great writer. While he is perhaps most famous for his fictional works, it is in his non-fiction that he really reveals the kind of man he was. His values, his beliefs and the incredible life he lived. Homage to Catalonia chronicles his time fighting fascism during the Spanish civil war, and as with both Down and Out in Paris and London and Road to Wigan Pier, it is his candour and honesty that make his prose so compelling, so captivating. Orwell dissects what is a ridiculously complex and intricate war with both humour and a great sadness. His description of life on the front with rifles that won’t fire and bombs that go off seemingly at random is both informative and hilarious, and his suffering at the hands of the cold and the rain is as evocative as Wilfred Owen’s heartbreaking poetry on that same subject. It is striking how life on the frontline is always described in the same way, no matter the war. The cold, the damp, the infernal boredom, and ultimately the grotesque sideshow that is going over the top.
Homage to Catalonia is a lot of things. It’s a history lesson on the Spanish civil war. It’s the diary of a soldier on the frontline. But mostly, Orwell’s sixth novel is a call to arms to fight for what you believe in whilst also acknowledging the utter futility of war. This paradox drives Homage to Catalonia and Orwell seems as perplexed by it at the end of the war as he did at the start.
This is probably not the best starting point for George Orwell, but if you have enjoyed 1984 and Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia should be your next stop.