Homage to Catalonia is a fascinating choice of title for George Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War. The connotations of the word ‘homage’ – respect, reverence, deference – do not aptly describe Orwell’s experiences during the war: a dirty, stifling, almost pointless interlude in his life that he could not wait to escape. Yet that is precisely what this memoir is: an homage. It is a tribute to a period that Orwell retrospectively attributes with vital importance, an acknowledgement of trials and pettiness and the kindness of individuals.
Orwell’s gift for rendering his experience in concise, beguiling prose is one that is undeniably threaded through the text. This is not just a memoir for readers who have an interest in the Spanish Civil War, or even fans of Orwell; its appeal rather lies in Orwell’s ability to create an eminently readable account of his own experience, a talent that I often feel is underrated. Homage to Catalonia feels truthful, and manages to reconcile its innate humanity with his depiction of the rightness of the battle against Fascism, about which Orwell has no compunctions. Although evidently aided by notes – he mentions his diary in several places – his memory for details and events is impressive, and his detailed evocation of a bygone world is such that it feels easily accessible.
This is particularly intriguing considering the period in which was written: less than a year after Orwell’s involvement with the Civil War had ceased. It has an obvious and natural immediacy, but also a prescience and a detached musing quality that speaks of careful observation and thought. Despite the book’s obvious merits, however, the book can be a little dry at times. Perhaps this was my mistake in reading it in one day – perhaps it is more of a slow book, to be appreciated in more depth – but it is a reasonable result when considering the periods of lengthy, tedious inactivity that Orwell so eloquently describes.
Although I personally preferred Down and Out in Paris and London – purely because of its content and subject matter – I’m yet again keen to read more of Orwell’s memoirs, and memoirs in general (I doubt, however, they will all be of this quality). It is just one account of the Spanish Civil War, but Orwell’s depiction of events, which concerns itself much more with the human aspect than the continual political cartwheeling, is a thoroughly stimulating read.