Obreros ¡a la victoria!

6 May 2009

Orwell in Spain

I finished the Penguin edition of Orwell in Spain sitting on the floor of an overcrowded train out of Sevilla after féria, a collection mainly of Homage to Catalonia filled out by a lot of letters & a pre-September 11th preface by Christopher Hitchens written on May Day, ’00.

It was because of Orwell that I’d recognized the red-yellow-purple tricolor of the Second Republic hung in fluttering rows in the féria tent of the Andalucían Communist Party, where I drank beers wearing a Burberry tie & a suit. Posters called for a Third Republic, and everywhere you looked were symbols dating from the Civil War.

Orwell was shot in the throat outside of Huesca in 1937 while serving with the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, & couldn’t sing for a long while afterwards. He fled Barcelona when the Communists started to ban non-Stalinist Marxist parties & imprison anyone associated with them; his journal, among other things, was stolen from his hotel by police, and a footnote rumours that it found its way all the way to the KGB archives in Moscow.

It’s odd to read accounts of the Guerra Civil now that’m familiar with little fragments of Spain — but because Orwell spent all of his time in Catalonia, none of pieces that surface are direct. They’re all asides, glancing references:

When the Fascists told us that Málaga had fallen we set it down as a lie, but the next day there were more convincing rumours, and it must have been a day or two later that it was admitted officially. By degrees the whole disgraceful story leaked out— how the town had been evacuated without firing a shot, and how the fury of the Italians had fallen not upon the troops, who were gone, but upon the wretched civilian population, some of whom were pursued and machine-gunned for a hundred miles. The news sent a sort of chill all along the line, for, whatever the truth may have been, every man in the militia believed that the loss of Málaga was due to treachery.  (Homage to Catalonia, 63)

Somehow reading it this way, summarized, a second-hand report, it’s as though Málaga just fell, that the stories were just emerging. Later, in a footnote I read on the train an hour outside of Sevilla:

1. General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Serra (1875-1951). Nationalist, who on 18 July 1936 in Seville, when commander of carabineers, ‘carried out an outstanding coup de main and took Seville for Franco. From the radio station he made ‘a notorious series of harangues. In a voice seasoned by many years’ consumption of sherry, he declared that Spain was saved and that the rabble who resisted the rising would be shot like dogs’ (Thomas, 221, 223). In his most famous broadcast, he said, ‘tonight I shall take a sherry and tomorrow I shall take Málaga’ (520). In 1947, though now an avowed republican, he accepted a marquisate from Franco (948). (Orwell in Spain, 265-6)

Shortly after all of this, Orwell gives all of Andalucía this shout-out:

There was a section of Andalusians next to us on the line now. I do not know quite how they got to this front. The current explanation was that they had run away from Málaga so fast that they had forgotten to stop at Valencia; but this, of course, came from the Catalans, who professed to look down on the Andalusians as a race of semi-savages. Certainly the Andalusians were very ignorant. Few if any of them could read, and they seemed not even to know the one thing that everybody knows in Spain— which political party they belonged to. They thought they were Anarchists, but were not quite certain; perhaps they were Communists. They were gnarled, rustic-looking men, shepherds or labourers from the olive grows, perhaps, with faces deeply stained by the ferocious suns of further south. They were very useful to us, for they had an extraordinary dexterity at rolling the dried-up Spanish tobacco into cigarettes. (Homage to Catalonia, 89)

On the one hand, Andalucía was for a long time one of the poorest parts of Spain, & Orwell’s right, the most illiterate. After the Guerra Civil, Franco allocated educational resources at prewar levels, so that there were no new universities built in Andalucía or Extremadura for decades.

On the other hand, it certainly is an odd feeling to have the place you’ve been living transformed into this exotic, distant land beaten by ‘ferocious suns,’ filled with gnarled & dextrous natives. I got the same feeling when I told people in Valencia I was from Andalucía; a boy in a Valencian pueblo of 8 or 9 asked me if I thought the Andalucíans were stupid. I said something to the effect of what did he think?. “They are,” he said, reassuringly.

Let’s pretend this was written on May 1st.

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