There’s something wonderful about second-hand bookshops. In a normal bookshop you know what you’re going to find: the latest fiction and non-fiction in hardback, the newest paperbacks, and a standard backlist of the most-popular fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, the variety of which entirely dependent on the size and market of the shop.
Second-hand bookshops, on the other hand, don’t conform to any rules. The stock of the shop depends entirely upon the taste, or lack thereof, of its donors. You find everything from unwanted, new releases to battered 1930s editions of obscure travelogues.
It was within the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, the musty odour of well-read literature permeating the walls, that I came across Homage to Catalonia which was quite a coincidence because it had just been mentioned in the book I was reading at the time (Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism). I decided to give it a go.
Homage to Catalonia is an account of George Orwell’s experiences on the frontline during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell, a keen socialist, had gone over as a journalist to chronicle the struggle of the left-wing republic against Franco’s army. When he arrived in Barcelona he found the city in the thrall of an oddly charming version of socialism and he decided to enlist instead.
When it comes to his time in the trenches, Orwell portrays the Hell of War to be more a combination of the tension, tedium and poor conditions rather than the actual fighting, of which not too much occurs to begin with. But we’re all familiar with the horrors of war, and it’s refreshing to read an account that gives due attention to the conditions, camaraderie and daily minutiae of being a soldier.
The real horrors come after Orwell returns to Barcelona on leave following his first tour. As, against his will, he becomes more deeply embroiled in the local politics and different factions, Homage to Catalonia begins to show that the more sinister side of war isn’t the battles themselves but the madness of the politics that divide people who were once once on the same side, slowly rendering a charming tourist destination a police state. What started out as an exploration of war becomes an obvious influence upon the dark and twisted world of 1984.
Orwell is always a pleasure to read. He approaches his experiences with a mix of keen observation, political understanding, wry wit and a surprising amount of impartiality. Orwell’s quick to point out that he must write with a certain bias, but there’s nevertheless a genuineness to his writing that’s undeniably charming.
As an introduction to the Spanish Civil War with a personal spin, Homage to Catalonia proves to be a readable, engaging and enjoyable account. But Orwell’s experience and analysis of the situation also proves to be a worryingly relevant text to wider politics, and an important warning as to the dangers of political in-fighting and the powers of propaganda.