Orwell’s Catalonia

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Having just been to Mallorca and read Lydie Salvayre’s Cry, Mother Spain, a novel about the impact of the Spanish Civil War on rural families in Catalonia (and parallel descriptions by Bernanos of atrocities perpetrated in Mallorca by fascist Francoists), about which I posted last week, I needed to reread George Orwell’s contemporary account of his experiences as a militia volunteer in Homage to Catalonia. It’s decades since I first read it, but it remained pretty clear in my memory as a searing, sad, highly personal story.

Salvayre Orwell covers First published in 1938, it describes his experiences in Spain from December 1936, soon after the war broke out, to June 1937. He’d served at the Aragón front, where to his frustration ‘little or nothing happened’, having spent the first weeks in desultory training in the Lenin Barracks, Barcelona, then recuperating in horribly ill-equipped and inexpertly staffed medical facilities after being shot in the throat.

On leave in Barcelona in May ’37 he found that bourgeois class distinctions had returned and the revolutionary idyll had ended. He also found himself caught up in internecine street fighting instigated by the communist assault on the trade-union controlled Telephone Exchange, which resulted not surprisingly in an armed response from the non-Stalinist leftists. The loosely Trotskyist POUM militia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), to which Orwell had been assigned, naively unaware of the significance of its political allegiance, was anathematised by Moscow’s Comintern as traitors in the pay of the fascists, and hence a divisive and fatally distracting crisis ensued, probably enabling Franco’s forces to prevail while his opponents fought each other. It was an only too familiar leftist splintering and infighting that produced his enduring hatred of the Stalinist hard line with its intolerance of anything other than one-nation revolution and unwavering party loyalty, that he later satirised in 1984 and Animal Farm, and was to criticise in much of his non-fiction.

In his 1989 introduction to this PMC paperback edition Julian Symons rather harshly suggests that Orwell combined a ‘capacity for subtle and complex thought and argument with a sometimes tactless ardour and simplicity.’

Orwell got to Spain under the auspices of the British Independent Labour Party, (and, as he later learned to his cost, links with the largely Trotskyist POUM militia), whose recommendation took him to the revolutionary hotbed of Barcelona (setting of the key testing ground for the anarchist fervour of the two idealistic siblings in Salvayre’s novel), which was still under the control of the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, rather than to Madrid, where the struggle against the fascists was led by the Soviet-supported communists.

Orwell was surprised and ingenuously delighted to find ‘one breathed the air of equality’ in a classless Catalonian capital, ‘where the working class was in the saddle.’ Symons isn’t far wrong when he describes the ‘romantic puritan’ Orwell’s reaction as ‘childlike wonder’. Who can blame him. Salvayre’s José was also delirious with excitement at what seemed the Spanish utopia: a truly classless society.

But the euphoria was partial and short-lived. Orwell quickly realised there was something ‘pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrases of revolution.’ Like José, he became disillusioned with the endemic lack of organisation , urgency or discipline in the militia (the ‘mañana’ mentality), largely peasant and urban trade unionist men with little military aptitude, and an average age of about twenty, with many as young as fifteen: ‘we were not real soldiers’.

Life at the front, and his experience of war, was far from romantic or heroic; weapons were scarce, antiquated and more dangerous to the users than to the enemy. He rarely got to fire his decrepit rifle. ‘Above all it meant mud, lice, hunger and cold.’ He caustically lists, in decreasing order of importance, the five key things in the warfare he experienced: ‘firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy.’ He notes the things only a person who’d been there could know, like the fact that ‘At the front, everyone stole’. So much for class solidarity. Even idealistic revolutionaries, he implies, are ultimately venal, materialistic and corrupt.

The story of the communist purge of ‘undesirable elements’, meaning those who’d fought so bravely with Orwell at the front, including his own brave and selfless commander, and the POUM leader Andreu Nin, who disappeared, were tortured to death or allowed to die from neglect in prison by the communists, disgusted him. Yet I think he’s honest when he insists this book is not ‘a book of propaganda’ and that he does not intend to ‘idealize the POUM militia.’

As I noted in my post on Salvayre’s semi-fictional account of the war in Catalonia, there are timely references to the use of media and other propagandist modes of manipulation of opinion; in Orwell’s case this includes his scathing criticism of the blatantly biased reporting in the European press, either pro-Franco from such right-wing papers as the British Daily Mail (which continues to produce xenophobic, counterfactual ‘news’, in a manner encouraged and endorsed by the so-called alt right), or pro-Moscow in the leftist press.

This is not a dry, political or even socio-historical treatise, though it doesn’t flinch from exploring such aspects of the complexities of this terrible war – that ‘appalling disaster’ he calls it near the end. There are numerous touches that reveal the flawed and only too human personality of the writer, who ruefully acknowledges that he played ‘so ineffectual a part’ in the war. He admits that when he was frightened in combat he didn’t function well as a soldier, or became so infuriated at the factionalism that, like José, he lost patience with those around him, revealing perhaps unwittingly his upper-class, Eton-educated origins, which he rejected but couldn’t entirely transcend.

But it’s that bitterness about what could have been that lingers: those heady days in ‘equalitarian’, classless Barcelona, that so quickly reverted to the normal hierarchies of rich and poor. We still endure that legacy of power wielded by the power elites, who increasingly denounce, as the commissars did in Spain, any deviation from their truth, as fake news and, most cynical of all, unpatriotic.

Ken Loach’s 1995 film ‘Land and Freedom’ depicts the experiences of a young working-class Liverpudlian man fighting in a POUM unit and undergoing a similar process to Orwell’s of elation followed by disillusionment.

My thanks to Jacqui for her comment to my post on Salvayre, pointing out this piece on the novel by Naomi at The Writes of Woman blog.

Lydie Salvayre: Cry, Mother Spain

#WIT Women in Translation month I don’t know why but I’ve been unable to upload my photo of the book’s cover; here’s a link to the Maclehose Press website which has a blurb and fine picture of it.

I returned yesterday from a holiday in north Mallorca – more on that maybe another time. It seemed appropriate to read there this novel by Lydie Salvayre: Cry, Mother Spain, translated by Ben Faccini and published by Maclehose Press, Quercus London. It was first published in French in 2014 (when it won the Prix Goncourt) with the title Pas pleurer (Don’t cry). In an interview at the World Literature Today site Faccini explained that he wanted to avoid using a negative term. The author told him she wanted to highlight, with that French phrase, the protagonist Salvayre’s mother Montse’s determination not to cry in the face of humiliations, political and personal disasters arising from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Faccini himself wanted to accentuate the central theme of mothers and daughters, of interrogating the past in the context of one’s mother country from a place of exile. There’s maybe an echo of the title of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.

It’s a deeply moving, powerful account of that bloody conflict, fusing elements of autobiography, political history and literary allusion – threaded through the narrative are references to the account by the monarchist Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, Les Grands Cimetières de la lune. In an author’s preface Salvayre says she read that book in 2012 and was ‘shocked by it’. Bernanos describes in it the Francoist atrocities he witnessed in the opening months of the Civil War in Mallorca in 1936 – crimes carried out in many cases with the complicity of the Catholic clergy (‘that despicable institution’ is how the narrator describes the church, when it showed its ‘true and terrifying face’) who dominated Spain’s life – spiritual, social and political – at the time, as the opening words of the novel starkly show:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. A ceremonial ring on his venerable hand, the Most Reverend Archbishop of Palma pointed at the chests of the “guilty poor”, singling them out to the vigilante firing squads…[these victims] were those who dared to open their mouths, and on July 18, 1936, my mother opened her mouth for the first time. She was fifteen. She lived up in the hills, cut off from the world, in a village where wealthy landowners had kept families like hers in the most abject poverty for centuries.

Montserrat, known to her intimates as Montse, is a name Salvayre is ‘happy to appropriate and revive for a short while, rescuing it from the oblivion to which it has been consigned’:

For the time being I don’t want to introduce any invented characters into my account…She’s ninety years old as she sits and remembers her youth in the crossbred, trans-Pyrenean language she has adopted since Fate hurled her into a village  somewhere in the south-west of France more than seventy years ago.

That language Salvayre describes in another interview at Music and Literature as ‘Fragnol’ – a hybrid of French and Spanish. Montse was raised speaking Catalan, but her Andalusian husband insisted on Castilian been spoken in his household. It’s a novel as much about the struggle of women in the face of patriarchal social oppression as it is about the class struggle and the insurrection against the stifling Catholicism of early 20C Spain.

When the main local landowner considers Montse for a job as a maid – about the only work available to a girl of her class outside of peasant toil in the fields – she’s deeply insulted and outraged at his assessment of her as seeming ‘quite humble’. When the war breaks out next day she feels liberated from that destiny of drudgery in that month when she ‘discovered life’: she never worked as a maid for him or anyone else. She’d found her voice.

Her brother José returns from Lérida full of utopian ideas and slogans of the Anarchists, and he fuels her incipient feelings of mutiny against the oppressive social norms for women by instilling in her those same idealistic political dreams. Sadly for him and his country they come to nothing, defeated by the forces of Fascism, aided by the Germans and Italians, and with the growing support of an ignorant, timid, ultra-conservative peasantry, and self-interested bourgeoisie.

After an initial period of euphoria when the remote, backward village, ‘where things repeated themselves, identically and endlessly’, where ‘the rich had their prosperity, the poor their burdens’, and ‘nothing new ever came along to add hope’, becomes elated by those naively optimistic ideas of José’s, the peasants gradually shift to adopt the cynical and manipulative ideologies of the Stalinists. The lukewarm support of Soviet Russia – the only nation prepared to provide  political and financial aid to the Republican, anti-fascist cause (the foreign volunteers of the International Brigade were eager but mostly ill-equipped and poorly led and trained) – evolved inevitably into an anti-revolutionary, anti-Trotskyist purge as vicious and treacherous as that of the Francoists – as Orwell has starkly described in Homage to Catalonia.

This novel is more affecting than his account, because it has at its heart the true story of a Catalan families caught up in the internecine turmoil and factional viciousness, denunciation, betrayal, retribution and shameful slaughter. More importantly, it’s told from a woman’s perspective, filtered through the modern sensibility of her novelist daughter, who perceives, and subtly weaves into the narrative, the parallels with events today in which cynical media manipulation and shameless courting of ultra-nationalist bigotry have become too familiar; here’s an example, where she considers the fascist supporters’ fervent advocacy of ‘nation’ and ‘nationalist’: this ‘thrusting’ of those terms about ‘like a banner’ is done

to mask their true aim of separating nationals from non-nationals. In other words they are creating a system that differentiates and categorises humans. This is, I suppose, just another form of xenophobia, and the objective is to go on and discredit the non-nationals, to marginalise them, and finally to get rid of them like parasites.

 

Former Prime Minister Cameron comes to mind, likening migrants to ‘swarms’. Orwell said in ‘Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War, talking of atrocities committed by both sides, that they are ‘believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.’ And on fake news:

Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists.

Elsewhere Salvayre quotes Bernanos:

‘The wealthy despise those that serve them, either through conviction or foolishness, as ultimately they only believe themselves to be defended by the corrupt; they only put their trust in the corrupt.’

José and Montse leave their stultifying village for the heady revolutionary hub of Barcelona, but the brother quickly becomes disillusioned by the ‘interminable squabbles’ between the communists and anarchists, ‘one blinding and the other self-deceiving’. Disgusted by the hatred and casual murders perpetrated by his fellow militiamen, he returns, sickened, to the village to face its increasing hostility which leads to inevitable catastrophe for him – and them. Instrumental in José’s fate is the character of Diego, an interesting character whose sad past has embittered him and encouraged him to adopt a communist stance for opportunistic reasons. Their two lives play out with the sombre inevitability – like the civil war and the lives of those caught up in it – of Greek tragedy.

Montse has a more uplifting experience in Barcelona which, though short-lived, transforms her life – to the chagrin of the daughter to whom she tells her story. For she insists that she remembers or cares for nothing that happened after 1937 and that love affair – not the terrifying flight across the border with other refugees from the fascist regime; the struggle to settle in a foreign land which viewed her with suspicion.  All that matters in her fading memory is the brief moments of exhilaration and love in the Catalan capital in that dazzling summer of liberty and hope, never entirely erased by the horrors that followed.

There’s an excellent post on Cry, Mother Spain at Grant’s blog 1st Reading