I just finished "Homage to Catalonia," George Orwell's account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, fighting on the Republican side. I earlier read another Spanish Civil War classic, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," by Ernest Hemingway. What impressed me about both these books--and what has given them their enduring value--is the willingness of both authors to include details and stories that are deeply discomforting to their own side. Both Orwell and Hemingway retained their critical eye and commitment to the truth in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, in the middle of a battle.
While both authors draw on their own personal experience, their perspective is very different. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is a novel, told in the third person, through the eyes of an American participant. The protagonist, Robert Jordan, describes terrible atrocities committed by both sides in the service of a "higher cause." "Homage to Catalonia" is non-fiction, told in the first person, through Orwell's own eyes. In addition to his own time at the front, mainly waiting around in the mud and the cold for something to happen, he also describes the fratricidal fighting in Barcelona between the Communists and Anarchists/Trotskyists. His account of the revolution turning on itself, and devouring the original revolutionaries, prefigures his later masterpieces "Animal Farm" and "1984."
As in these later books, Orwell describes a post-fact society, in which "truth" is determined by the political needs of the ruling party. Some quotes from Orwell's book that seem particularly pertinent today:
Having visited Barcelona, and taken the obligatory Gaudi tour, I was amused by Orwell's description of the Sagrada Familia cathedral (see photo above) as "one of the most hideous buildings in the world." Still unfinished eighty years later, Gaudi's masterpiece was one of the few churches in Barcelona that was not damaged during the revolution, spared because of its alleged "artistic value." Comments Orwell sourly: "I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance."
Which just goes to prove that, when it comes to opinions about art, there really is no such thing as "the truth."
Michael Dobbs is the author of seven books, including the best-selling One Minute to Midnight. His latest book, King Richard, is about Nixon and Watergate.