George Orwell speaks of his catalytic impulse for violence in plain terms: he wants to kill Fascists. He travels to Spain during the opening movement of its Civil War (1936-1939), and joins a social-anarchist militia. In doing so, Orwell sets himself against not only the fascists, but also the powerful Stalinist strains of Spanish communism. He moves to the frontlines with little equipment, and significant uncertainty. Along the front, the militiamen sleep little and fight less, and Orwell portrays the war with candor and humor. In the process of killing fascists, he sleeps with lice, eats ice-crusted beans, side-steps death, and bombs parapets. Ironically, the book's great climax of Barcelona street fighting occurs hundreds of miles from the frontline action. The communist police agents eventually hound Orwell out of Spain, and back to England at the dawn of the Second World War. Orwell tried his best, and it did not do any good: "If this was history," he complains, "it did not feel like it." Orwell admittedly failed to achieve military or political victory, but he succeeds with words, and therein gives voice to the violent heartache of twentieth century soldiering and revolutionary ideals.
Orwell's account remains the best English-language book on the Spanish Civil War because he combines a soldier's romanticism with an intellectual's idealism, and then skillfully cuts the two perspectives to ribbons. Like the smooth and colorless puzzles of an M.C. Escher drawing, Orwell's unaffected grace paradoxically simplifies Spanish political tensions while showing their intractable nature. Orwell holds a clear perspective, and it leads nowhere: Fascism approaches, jingoes lie, and politics smells worse than war. Orwell's book, ultimately, feels like the work of a cartographer. He marks the intellectual ground in a tremendous rush, as though he knows the churning tide of Fascist conflict must come further up the shore, and he wants to preserve a moment in time in which he chose to act. Yet he saw that action amount to no more than wet sand. The British public largely ignored Homage to Catalonia at its initial release, but Orwell's book speaks with a strong and nuanced voice, and continues to attract a steady stream of readers who prefer their disillusionment to come from the pages of Orwell's book rather than from battlefields.