The origins of Animal Farm

I first read Animal farm when I was about 8 years old. My parents were normally remarkably liberal about reading material. There weren't any bookshelves off limits to me, so I read a lot and very widely. The only exception was Animal farm, for some reason my father, who had never read it himself, thought it was an extraordinarily subversive book, and so it was hidden away in a drawer. For most children I suspect, but especially for a child obsessed by books, this was a sure fire way to make me want to read it. And so I did, in snatched moments when my parents were out of the house. And I loved it, I just read it as a sort of fairy tale, I suppose. It was only when I re-read it in my teens when it was no longer a banned book that I understood the allegory behind it.

From the first moment of reading it though I loved George Orwell, and my admiration for him deepened when I read Homage to Catalonia sometime in my late teens. It has remained one of my favourite books ever since. Orwell was in his 30s when he joined POUM, a militia branch that was loosely allied with the Anarchists, to fight in the Spanish Civil War. It's easy to forget however his age, he has that clarity and enthusiasm that you often have as a teenager. I guess it's that feeling that life is before you, and what you do can change the world. And I think as a teenager it was this idealism that so endeared the book to me. The Barcelona that Orwell arrived in in late 1936 felt genuinely revolutionary. The workers were very much in the driving seat, people were working together to get the militias supplied and sent to the front ready to fight Franco's fascists. And a motley bunch of people they were in the militias - working and middle class Spanish, refugees from the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany, the politically naive, and the politically aware. 15 year old boys who didn't know one end of a gun from the other, and career soldiers from across Europe - all there to fight for the ideals of the republic.

As Orwell points out after a series of reverses in which the fascists had come out on top in the '30s with little opposition from democratic governments, Spain seemed to be the place in which the ordinary man could stand up and challenge Hitler and his ilk. But then things changed.....as the war progressed and the Soviet Union became more involved in supplying armaments and influencing the Communist party militias within Spain, the Anarchists and the Marxist/Socialist groups that they were allied to become unpopular with the Commisars back in Moscow, as they refused to tow the Soviet line. The end result was to be that POUM was outlawed and treated as though it was a fascist organization. The Soviets tore the unity of the republican militias apart, and in effect eventually handed Spain over to Franco.

Although it hadn't reached this stage by the end of Orwell's narrative, that was clearly the way that events were headed. Orwell was seriously wounded - shot in the throat - on his return to Barcelona, he was greeted by a very different city. Class barriers were back up again, people queued for hours in the streets to get basic food supplies, while the Duchess of Atholl complained about the lack of butter in upper-crust hotels. Orwell spent some time on the run around Barcelona trying to avoid being arrested for being a member of POUM, while others who had fought bravely for republican Spain disappeared into Spanish jails never to be seen again. The parallels with the later novel Animal farm are clear.

Homage to Catalonia is a wonderful piece of journalism, but in a way apart from the war itself, it's also a tale of everyman. If the idealism appealed to me as a teenager, it's the cynicism that gets my older self every time. We all know that we change, and I know that although part of me will always be that teenage idealist, the older me is much more cynical. In microcosm this was exactly what Orwell found in Spain - he thought he'd found his ideal society, indeed in some ways he had, but these aspirations were to be brutally shattered as the internecine fighting tore the left apart, and subjected Spain to 40 years of fascism. Sobering and completely inspiring, Owell is a great writer, and Homage to Catalonia is one of his finest works.

Comments

Ryan said…
I've not read Homage to Catalonia. In fact, I've never even heard of it. Thanks for the interesting read!
Book-hound said…
Glad you enjoyed the review - the book is well worth reading as are his other 1930s biographical works - The road to Wigan Pier, and Down and out in Paris and London.

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