Review: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

I first read George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain many years ago, and now re-read in advance of a visit to Barcelona. I am actually writing this review from the hotel in which Orwell and his wife stayed during the terrible events of May 1937. There is no question that Orwell’s book is a masterpiece and critical to our understanding not only of the events that took place in Barcelona at that time, but of the twentieth century as a whole. Because it is in this book that the George Orwell we now know, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, is born. This is the George Orwell who came to Spain to fight for the Republic against the fascists and was actually happy to sign up with the Communists in that fight. By accident, he wound up in the militia of the POUM, a dissident Marxist group that has often been mislabelled as “Trotskyist” and whose leader, Andreu Nin, was tortured and murdered by Soviet secret police agents.

Returned to Barcelona after being injured on the front, Orwell was an eyewitness to the successful attempt by the Soviet-directed Spanish Communists to bloodily suppress both the POUM and the much larger anarchist movement. What surprised me most in re-reading this book is not how unfairly anti-Communist this is (as some have claimed) but rather how little Orwell understood then of the monstrous behaviour of the Soviet Union in Spain. But of course he learned these things too, over time.

Tonight I will go for a stroll down the Ramblas, and I will look at the theatre on whose roof-top Orwell sat for three nights, guarding the POUM headquarters across the street, and at the cafe below where the POUM fighters had entrapped some Civil Guard troops, sharing beers with them as those troops feared for their lives. But for now, I sit in a room in the Hotel Continental imagining what the author of Homage to Catalonia thought as he stayed here more than eighty years ago.

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