Saturday, January 5, 2013
Homage to Catalonia Review
The book really feels like two books. The first section where he talks about the initial phases of the war, the confusion, the midnight attacks where no one has any idea where the enemy is, or the trenches and positions that are on mountainsides way beyond range of any rifle yet where the "combatants" still shoot at each other, seems Monty Python esque. Orwell is honest in the opening portraits of how no one really had any order, structure or discipline and no one really knew what they were doing. The political ideals that led men there to fight are not forgotten, but how one actually fights a war where there are no hierarchies is detailed. Surprisingly he makes it clear that an army composed of socialists and anarchists becomes a tight fighting unit after the initial phases because of the willingness of the men to be there, and not to have been forced to fight for political ideals they don't understand.
Then about midway through the book gets deadly. Orwell describes in detail the brutality of the mechanized war: charging machine gun nests, capturing enemy positions and being unable to hold them, chasing an enemy soldier through the trenches and in one brief existential flash wondering how he came to be doing this, and the dreadful confusion of a battle where no one is sure who is winning.
He puts the reader in the mix with details a novelist would notice: running across open ground and under enemy fire his reflex is to shield his face with his hand. He knows his hand wont stop a high caliber bullet but he has a terrible fear of getting wounded there.
When he is wounded he describes the experience unforgettably: the sense of detatchment, the numbness, the fear of death rushing in on him,and the pain that arrives after the shock wears off.
Later, when he is recovering in hospital he describes in detail the propaganda campaigns that discredit opposing political parties. This is all the more poignant because the division occurs with the troops fighting on the same side: the socialists, the communists, the anarchists are all allies against the fascists yet the communists conduct smear campaigns and regularly arrest people who they suspect of being "trotskyist." Orwell writes about the arrests, the imprisonments, the executions, and disappearances of men he served with all because of differing political ideals, and he does so with a clarity rare in light of todays corporate owned political machine.
And yet what comes across is not "the folly of politics." Rather it is the need for politics to be deadly serious because of the dangers of excess in the name of a political ideal. For Orwell the political lies and propaganda do as much damage as a grenade in a market square. What really intrigued me about the book was how it contrasted with the narratives of political wars we see today. Rather than lose his sense of purpose Orwell seems to quite deliberately remain strong in his convictions. He fought for a political goal and he is proud of it. He does not abandon his politics because his side lost.
In the end I found that the most remarkable, and praiseworthy part of the book