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Book Review | Homage to Catalonia

June 29, 2021

At Southern, you will be exposed to a wide variety of literary works, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, as they say. The most important literary works typically fall into just a few genres—poetry, drama, and fiction.

But there’s another genre less known for literary greatness, and that’s nonfiction. Everyone has heard of Moby-Dick, but not everyone has heard of, say, The Affluent Society (1958) by John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006), a nonfiction critique of the American social order.

Galbraith was a famous economist. The Affluent Society had a dramatic impact on American social thought. Not every such book, however, reaches the level of literary greatness. Great literature is not measured by whether or not the imagination is the driving force. Great writing makes great literature.

Literature worth keeping around far after the time of its publication is of such a high quality that its factual nature is of little consequence. Nonfiction prose can affect an audience in exactly the same way that a great drama might move an audience with deep emotion and sympathy and interest.

George Orwell (1903-1950) was a British author who wrote fiction and nonfiction. But distinguishing the fiction and the nonfiction of Orwell is almost beside the point. His works are generally superbly written and highly laudable.

One of those works is Homage to Catalonia (1938). Orwell was a Democratic Socialist who battled against totalitarianism of all kinds. In the case of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s battle was literal. He joined a militia unit on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

Each side of this civil war was a combination of many political philosophies. They were combined on the left as Republicans and on the right as Nationalists (popularly known as Fascists). Eventually, Francisco Franco, army commander and leader of the Nationalists, led his side to victory with the assistance of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Other well-known English authors also fought on the Republican side; writers such as John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway.

Homage to Catalonia is the vivid story of Orwell’s experiences in the war. He and his wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy spent a harrowing six months in Spain. Orwell himself spent time on the front lines under terrible conditions of filth, death, and tremendous cold. Eventually, he was shot through the neck, an injury he somehow survived.

The rest of the story concerns his struggle for survival in Spanish cities as his particular militia was declared illegal and its members hunted down, jailed, or killed by his own side! Factions were rife in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell and his wife were able to escape Spain in June of 1937.

Orwell’s prose is beautiful: clear, imagistic, ironic, cynical, but ultimately hopeful. An example: “In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy. In winter on the Saragossa front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last. Except at night, when a surprise-attack was always conceivable, nobody bothered about the enemy. They were simply remote black insects whom one occasionally saw hopping to and fro. The real preoccupation of both armies was trying to keep warm.”