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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 28 comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

No se peude vivir sin amar

March 17, 2013 14 comments

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry 1947 French title: Sous le volcan

Under the volcano! It was not for nothing the ancients had placed Tartarus under Mt. Aetna, nor within it, the monster Typhoeus, with his hundred heads and—relatively—fearful eyes and voices.

After a disconcerting first billet about Under the Volcano, this is my attempt at writing a sensible one. I still have Pulque, mescal y tequila playing in my head as I try to collect my thoughts. I started reading that masterpiece without knowing anything about it, apart from the difficult masterpiece tag.

Under the Volcano is located in Mexico, precisely in small town named Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, November 2. On that very day of 1939, M Laruelle recalls the drama that occurred the same day the year before. The novel tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic British consul in position in this little town. His wife left him the year before and on that day of November 2, 1938, she comes back to him. It is also the day that Hugh Firmin, the Consul’s half-brother returns to town too. Geoffrey expected Hugh, but not Yvonne. The novel relates that day, the day these four people with intertwined lives gather again and try to communicate and interact with one another.

The Consul is an alcoholic and his disease impacts the lives of the ones who love him. Yvonne loves him madly, would like to save him but is at loss what to do. She tried to leave to save herself or him.

Yet they had loved one another! But it was as though their love were wandering over some desolate cactus plain, far from here, lost, stumbling and falling, attacked by wild beasts, calling for help– dying, to sigh at last, with a kind of weary peace: Oaxaca.

Everything but the first chapter happens the same day. The narrative alternates between M Laruelle, the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh. Each of them ruminates about their life and the reader discovers about their past lives and their current predicaments and anguish. (What was life but a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn?)

The Consul is the main character. Laruelle is his childhood friend, Yvonne is his wife, Hugh is his half-brother. The chapters where the reader sees the event through the Consul’s eyes are the most difficult. Because he’s drunk and Lowry manages to put you into the mind of the drunkard like no other writer does. I felt a lot of sympathy for the Consul’s struggles.

The Consul felt with his right hand his left bicep under his coat. Strength—of a kind—but how to give oneself courage? That fine droll courage of Shelley’s; no, that was pride. And pride bade one go on, either go on and kill oneself, or “straighten out,” as so often before, by oneself, with the aid of thirty bottles of beer and staring at the ceiling. But this time it was very different. What if courage here implied admission of total defeat, admission that one couldn’t swim, admission indeed (though just for a second the thought was not too bad) into a sanatorium? No, to whatever end, it wasn’t merely a matter of being “got away”. No angels nor Yvonne nor Hugh could help him here. As for the demons, they were inside him as well as outside; quiet at the moment—taking their siesta perhaps—he was nonetheless surrounded by them and occupied; they were in possession.

He tries to keep up appearances but his vision of reality is blurred. The pages of his delirium tremens are amazing; you’re there, in his head, seeing the world through his blurred and confused mind. He wants to make a decision, but he needs a drink first. He hides bottles everywhere. He wants to resist but cannot. The booze comes first, whatever the situation, even if his life is at stake.

For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.

Hugh is also an interesting character. He’s a product of the 1930s, he’s probably read La condition humaine by Malraux He comes from a wealthy family, tries to be a songwriter, decides to be a sailor to piss his family off and much to his dismay, they don’t fight against it. He becomes a journalist, covering wars and especially the Spanish Civil War. He’s into a bolshevist or communist (whatever the right term is) movement and supports the Spanish Republicans. I suspect Lowry put a part of himself in Hugh, just as he put his experience with alcohol into the Consul.

Lowry excels at describing landscapes (as in the quote in my previous post) and at creating bonds between his characters and their surroundings.

There was something in the wild strength of this landscape, once a battlefield, that seemed to be shouting at him, a presence born of that strength whose cry his whole being recognized as familiar, caught and threw back into the wind, some youthful password of courage and pride–the passionate, yet so nearly always hypocritical, affirmation of one’s soul perhaps, he thought, of the desire to be, to do, good, what was right. It was as though he were gazing now beyond this expanse of plains, and beyond the volcanoes out to the wide rolling blue ocean itself, feeling it is his heart still, the boundless impatience, the immeasurable longing.

The volcanoes are characters themselves, the landscape interacts with the humans living there. Does it come from his reading of Indian legends and cosmology? Like here, about a storm:

Up in the mountains two drunken gods standing far apart were still engaged in an endlessly indecisive and wildly game of bumblepuppy with a Burmese gong.

 Under the Volcano is also about politics. The story takes place in November 1938 and the political context of the 1930s is both present in the background and plays deus ex-machina. It’s set during the Battle of the Ebro, the decisive battle in the Spanish Civil War. Franco ruled the country after that. This war made people pick a side in other countries too and it weighed on local political contexts. It filters through the pages.

The poultry was a sad sight. All alike had submitted to their fate; hens, cocks, and turkeys, whether in their baskets, or still loose. With only an occasional flutter to show they were alive they crouched passively under the long seats, their emphatic spindly claws bound with cord. Two pullets lay, frightened and quivering, between the hand brake and the clutch, their wings linked with the levers. Poor things, they had signed their Munich agreement too. One of the turkeys even looked remarkably like Neville Chamberlain.

In addition to the Spanish Civil War, Lowry evokes the Jews and anti-Semitism and the situation in Germany. The political context in Mexico also plays a role. The communist ideas are spreading; Hugh is involved in political movements. I’m not qualified to discuss this and I actually missed most of the political references mentioned. I don’t know anything about the history of Mexico and I don’t remember much about the Spanish Civil War although I plan on reading about it later. (I have Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Geroges Bernanos on the shelf.) I decided not to research this aspect of Under the Volcano. Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes not to understand all the political implications of the novel but a reader can enjoy it without that. The content is rich enough and the style is so breathtaking that it doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter to me.

Under the Volcano is full of literary references, questions about the meaning of life.

Yes, indeed, how many patters of life were based on kindred misconceptions, how many wolves do we feel on our heels, while our real enemies go in sheepskin by?

You can find useful explanations about the references here. (Leroy, if you read this, thanks for the link)

Lowry’s language is his own and sometimes a strange pix-and-mix of English, French and Spanish. His sense of English grammar and use of vocabulary can drive MS Word’s spelling and grammar check tool go wild with green and red waves. I don’t speak Spanish but I discovered I’m not that bad at guessing the meaning of the sentences sown in the text. Thank God for seven years of learning Latin in school. I suppose it helps being French, especially for sentences like this one: The Consul decapitated a dusty coquelicot poppy growing by the side of the gutter with his stick. A coquelicot is a red poppy. The dialogues with Spanish native speakers attempting at English are funny.

You were so perfectamente borracho last night I think you must have killèd yourself with drinking. I think even to send a boy after you this morning to knock your door, and find if drinking have not killèd you already.

It’s an untamed flow, a new way of disposing of words. Lowry can write proustian two-pages digressions between brackets. His sentences are long, full of strings of adjectives, propositions. I don’t have the words to describe it, suffice to say it’s different from any other writer. Was he influenced by Virginia Woolf? I’ll leave the analysis of his astounding style to specialists.

On a personal level, several coincidences pulled me toward Under the Volcano. Details kept on bringing back fond memories. M. Laruelle comes from Moselle, like me. I bought my copy during an extraordinary trip to New York with colleagues; I was in a bookstore while they were queuing at Abercrombie and they thought I was nuts to prefer books to shirtless salesmen. I spent my honeymoon in Bristish Columbia, so I loved the descriptions of the region by Hugh and Yvonne when she imagines living there with Geoffrey. And last, but not least, Huston, who directed the film Under the Volcano also directed The Roots of Heaven.

I hope I did better in this billet than in the previous one. Let’s face it, Under the Volcano is a difficult read but please, try it.

PS: I have a special message for the writer Emilie de Turckheim and to the question she left in the comments of my billet Promising French women writers, they say. She wrote “Take Under the Volcano, read it as if you were reading a foreign language, and tell me if it wasn’t worth disturbing the dust on your shelf !”  You are so right. It was more than worth it.

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