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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, read by Jeremy Northam

23 May

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell, read by Jeremy Northam

Orwell’s prose, Northam’s voice – it’s a marriage made in heaven and easily the most lucid breakdown around of the Spanish civil war.

Sue Arnold, Guardian, 21 May 2011

Jeremy Northam can hardly be said to be ubiquitous these days, so his new audiobook, Homage to Catalonia (published by CSA Word) is like a much longed for glass of sangria to his parched admirers.

Jeremy’s last audiobook for CSA Word was George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. You can read my thoughts about that here. I enjoyed it enormously, so I was delighted to discover Jeremy had been asked to read Orwell’s account of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

I must begin by exposing my ignorance. I knew nothing very much about the Spanish Civil War beyond having seen a documentary or two, and I can’t say I’ve ever been inspired to find out more. Until now. The ‘marriage made in heaven’ Sue Arnold describes has suddenly rendered the subject fascinating!

George Orwell spent from December 1936 until June 1937 in northern Spain, wanting to fight against fascism. He travelled to Barcelona, and more by luck than choice, joined the P.O.U.M. militia. The P.O.U.M. were an independent Trotskyist political party, opposed to Stalin.

At the beginning of his war experience, Orwell was, by his own admission, largely ignorant of the factions and complexities involved in the political situation. The novel charts both his discovery of the political reality and his disenchantment with Stalinist communism. Orwell’s experiences of fighting with (and the Stalinist repression of) the P.O.U.M. heavily influenced his political views, and his later novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four in particular.

I’m afraid, no matter how beautifully written or read, for me, politics alone is a dry diet, and being rather a dim bulb about such things, I did struggle to grasp the whys and wherefores. Happily, there is so much more to make this novel the great book it undoubtedly is.

The road wound between yellow infertile fields, untouched since last year’s harvest. Ahead of us was the low sierra that lies between Alcubierre and Zaragoza. We were getting near the front line now, near the bombs, the machine-guns, and the mud. In secret I was frightened. I knew the line was quiet at present, but unlike most of the men about me I was old enough to remember the Great War, though not old enough to have fought in it. War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold. It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy. The thought of it had been haunting me all the time I was in Barcelona; I had even lain awake at nights thinking of the cold in the trenches, the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours on sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot-tops. I admit, too, that I felt a kind of horror as I looked at the people I was marching among. You cannot possibly conceive what a rabble we looked. We straggled along with far less cohesion than a flock of sheep; before we had gone two miles the rear of the column was out of sight. And quite half of the so-called men were children–but I mean literally children, of sixteen years old at the very most. Yet they were all happy and excited at the prospect of getting to the front at last. As we neared the line the boys round the red flag in front began to utter shouts of ‘Visca P.O.U.M.!’ ‘Fascistas–maricones!’ and so forth–shouts which were meant to be war-like and menacing, but which, from those childish throats, sounded as pathetic as the cries of kittens. It seemed dreadful that the defenders of the Republic should be this mob of ragged children carrying worn-out rifles which they did not know how to use. I remember wondering what would happen if a Fascist aeroplane passed our way, whether the airman would even bother to dive down and give us a burst from his machine–gun. Surely even from the air he could see that we were not real soldiers?

George Orwell with the P.O.U.M. at the Aragon front (Orwell is the tall man, third from the left)

The reality of trench warfare is not the hand to hand combat Orwell imagines, but frustrating, cold and lice-ridden. Whilst on leave in Barcelona, Orwell is caught up in street fighting against, not fascists, but factions within what he assumed was his own side. His appreciation of the complex realities of the war, and his view of communism, are transformed. On his return to the front, he is shot in the throat and, back again in Barcelona, is forced to flee as the P.O.U.M. is outlawed. Orwell’s account of what really happened is at odds with the propaganda published at the time, and Homage to Catalonia is now regarded as one of the few honest, first-hand accounts of this aspect of the war.

Homage to Catalonia is a beautifully written, vivid account of  a man’s journey from idealistic naivety to enlightened disillusionment. There are edge-of-the-seat, life or death moments, and in amongst the chaos of war, characteristic wry humour. Though I can’t say I easily understood all the intricacies of the political situation (I did say I was a dim bulb!), for me, the Spanish civil war is no longer the ‘forgotten war’.

What can I say about Jeremy Northam’s skill in interpreting this book, in peppering it with wit, in creating a perfect voice for George Orwell that, most of all, filled me with great admiration and affection for this brilliant, endearing and passionate man? I ran out of superlatives to describe Jeremy’s work a long time ago, so I’ll just say: I really can’t think of anyone who could have read this book better. CSA Word told me:

… we were thrilled when he consented to be the voice of young Orwell during one of the most important formative periods for the the author, … Homage to Catalonia. Jeremy’s skill can sustain an intense unabridged production like the Down and Out audiobook and the longer text of Homage, something which may not come as easily as you’d think, even to experienced actors. We want readers to feel like they are listening to the thrilling man himself when they listen to our Orwell non-fiction, and this is what Jeremy delivers.

If you enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London and want to meet Mr Orwell again (under rather different circumstances, but very much the same man), I highly recommend Jeremy’s reading of Homage to Catalonia.

Homage to Catalonia from CSA Word, read by Jeremy Northam, is unabridged  (8 hours, 7 CDs). At the time of writing, it is available on CD from Amazon UK. When it becomes more widely available, I will update you.

by Gill

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