Homage to Revolution

Homage to Revolution

An unstable Europe, led by an unelected totalitarianism regime, is divided, facing an uncertain future with opposing fundamental ideologies, without a clear roadmap for moving forward. A fitting post-Brexit statement, proving the essence of history repeats itself, but one that sums up the 1930s world that George Orwell found himself.

Animal Farm is the best political allegory ever written. Nineteen Eighty-Four, his final novel, is almost prophetic. So what were the real life experiences that motivated him? Homage to Catalonia offers some insight into this, serving as a tool for him to recount his time in the Spanish Civil War.

If one is tempted to read this book for an exploration into intense battlefield activities, then it will not sate that appetite. There are rare occasions Orwell describes running the enemy line and taking ground, but as he explains early on, from his first-hand experience, war is mainly boring.

That’s not to say the young Orwell was eager to avoid conflict; his apparent bloodlust to kill a fascist may shock some. But that particular title for the enemy has taken on different ramifications over the years. Say “Nazi” and “Fascist” today, and two different responses will be evoked. To the Orwell of 1938, the evil was equal, the ideology just as dangerous.

It is this fear that means the option to not intervene was unthinkable. He joins the POUM and goes to the frontline with them. His original intention to write as a journalist passing immediately. What becomes apparent from the start is how ill-equipped the revolutionists are. After days of drill, he notes there is no weapons class because they lack any firearms to train with.

None of the disarray deters Orwell. Indeed, in the early chapters the rag-tag outfits parade the streets as a symbol for hope and change. Those that would oppose chose to wear working class garments to go undetected.

The accounts reflect, how after 115 days on the frontline, the class divisions have returned to the streets and the revolution isn’t as strong. During his leave from the front, he is involved in a stand-off, with opposing forces occupying neighbouring buildings, all with gentlemen’s agreements in place. Agreements he sees as fickle as the unity between parties.

Upon returning to action, a gunshot wound to his throat sees him leave conflict for good. He decides to depart Spain but the POUM are declared illegal and a suppression against their members means he has to evade detection. This further underlines the falsehoods and lies such wars bring about. He worries that those still fighting are being turned into scapegoats despite having honourable intentions.

Homage to Catalonia isn’t a perfect body of work, the language can become repetitive, proving, no matter the talent, there is a vast difference between journalism and storytelling. And his accounts here do not fill in the complete picture, he warns as much, but it’s an important snippet.

What is clear is the admiration he has for the Spanish people. Their generosity is highlighted on multiple occasions and he describes them as too noble (and albeit, too ill efficient) to serve a successful totalitarian regime.

His wider opinions aren’t explored in great depth. The arrival in Spain speaks volumes enough, and description included for democracy as the centralised swindling machine, shows he wasn’t fighting against communism, as he later would with words, but fighting with people to bring about change.

In time an extensive American propaganda machine would colour our perception of what communism was to the point it holds no value. In this raw, 1938 release, we see Orwell’s disillusionment with all methods to control the masses through misdirection.

That’s not to say he didn’t criticise the communist control of press but even papers back home in London failed to deliver true accounts, and on many occasion out-right lied about events in the Civil War. His views during this time have been labelled as Trotskyism but it’s fair to say Orwell had a democratic socialist heart that stood to fight totalitarianism.

Those efforts must have felt wasted in the immediate aftermath of his journey but sometimes making a stand is enough to ensure evil never wins. Franco may have retained power, but the damage inflicted from the resistance saved Spain in the long run.

By the time World War II arrived, Spain was crippled. Despite being in Germany’s pocket for over $215m of aid during the Spanish Civil War, they couldn’t align with a natural allied force. Even though Franco was receptive, he eventually submitted demands to Hitler he knew would be refused, sparing Spain further decline.

Without the anarchist’s intervention in the 1930s, Spain would easily have become an extension of Nazi Germany, possibly sending the whole world into a fascist state.

The fight for principles bared fruit in the passage of time.

Orwell couldn’t have foreseen how future decades would be shaped following his contribution to the Spanish Civil War but he strongly believed in standing against the opposing ideology. His future works would perfectly surmise complex political systems and falsities in simple terms. Homage to Catalonia lays bare the human cost of these deceptions and the lengths men will go to when protecting ideas.

Orwell demonstrates why revolution in the face of certain paradigm shifts is not only brave – it’s necessary.

Should have Stayed Away

Should have Stayed Away

Certain associations will always spring to mind when discussing any country. For Germany the most popular hits will be efficiency, success with their national football team, sausages, and two World Wars. The latter ultimately brings up thoughts of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. What doesn’t easily spring to mind is their aptitude for humour. That didn’t stop author Timur Vermes attempting to bring the two together in the 2012 novel Look Who’s Back.

It’s a brave concept, making one of the most diabolical men in history the protagonist of a satirical comedy. Vermes makes it more challenging for himself by setting the story in the modern day. So from the start he is left with difficult subject matter placed in a series of minefields, none more so than the genre itself.

All literature is subjective, comedy more divisive than most. Taking this into account some leeway can be afforded to Vermes. However, accepting it might not be a laugh a minute doesn’t disguise a failed attempt at humour or intelligent derision.

The idea of disarming the monster is nothing new in art or popular culture. In its cheapest form we all laughed at Saddam Hussein in Hot Shots! Part Deux. Vermes isn’t going for the slapstick, he wants a subtle disassembling of Hitler and his beliefs. Instead he creates a character ignorant to the reality of his situation or the true perception of those around him.

We go from Führer to Alan Partridge within seconds, and not in a good way.

Hitler starts the story waking in modern day 2014. His mind has no knowledge of world events following his death in 1945. Still dressed in full Nazi uniform he wanders the streets trying to make sense of his situation. He comes across a newspaper stand and befriends the owner. This chance meeting gives him and abode and serves as a catalyst for his acceptance of the year and time he finds himself.

Despite slowly becoming aware of the new world situation, he continues to reflect and assume that many of the current ways of life are because of Nazi influence. This is an easy way to highlight the ignorance of extreme views and paint Hitler as single-minded. But after an initial period of settling in, it becomes a distraction. Are we supposed to believe a man that must have had intelligence in order to initiate his evil intentions is suddenly so naïve?

As the story unfolds he is seen as a comedic method actor. His rants are seen as a clever way to belittle views that should never been aired seriously. This makes members of extreme movements assume he is a sympathiser and they send him warnings.

When anyone in the world of Vermes’ novel grows a brain and questions what he really stands for, they are removed. Like a national newspaper that ends up being sued by Hitler’s representatives and ends up singing his praises. Again, a nod to manipulation, but how those closest to Hitler fail to see his behaviour goes beyond the talent of an immersed method actor is questionable.

Some conversations take place that rely on the observer’s understanding that Hitler and those he is in dialogue with are coming from two different places. Some of these can be humorous, sadly they wear thin. A clever play on words only works so many times before the characters are reduced to mindless mush.

There is also an effort to show how Hitler won people over with a certain degree of charisma. Even that message fails when you consider in this version he goes from YouTube to TV star. Unless Vermes is trying to say the modern media is as evil as the Nazi war machine.

The actual translation of the German title is, He is Back. Thankfully for mankind, Hitler is dead and will remain so. Unless poorly implemented comedy is your thing, keep him that way and avoid this attempt at resurrection by ridicule.

Help over Hatred

Help over Hatred

Kathryn Stockett’s debut 2009 novel, The Help, was well received at the time and went on to win several notable literary awards. It has since been adapted for the screen, bringing the source material into further focus. During these times of social segregation, it seems more fitting than ever to review the message it tries to send.

Set in 1960s Mississippi, it closely follows the lives of three very different women. The opening section begins with Aibileen Clark. She is maid and cleaner for the Leefolt family, along with caring for their young daughter, Mae Mobley.

Aibileen’s calm, measured voice is a perfect way to introduce the reader to the town of Jackson. We see the love she has for the toddler. This despite previous experience showing her that when the babies grow up, a treasured bond is often cut forever.

Through her eyes we meet the women of the community. They have their own agendas and have no trouble ensuring the clear boundaries between blacks and whites are maintained. The early saga, revolving around Leefolt’s desire to have an outside toilet installed for Aibileen, is how a revulsion regarding archaic attitudes begins to simmer away with the reader.

Throughout, Aibileen remains dignified. She can ignore how the community ostracises, instigated most of the time by the ringleader of the white women, Hilly Holbrook.

Hilly is a readymade villain, almost a little too pantomime at times. She also acts as a link between the two worlds and lifestyles. The second of the protagonists we follow is Eugenia Phelan, or Skeeter as she is nicknamed for the majority of the scenes.

Skeeter is different from the other women in the clique. She misses her own maid that raised her, Constantine. Her unexpected disappearance which occurred months before Skeeter returned from university, drives her forward for answers. At first she views the common opinions surrounding the help with nothing more than indifference. She doesn’t discriminate out of her own nature.

Over time, when pressed and confronted with the separation between blacks and whites, she educates herself on the appalling laws and strives to make a difference. It isn’t an Oskar Schindler journey of realisation. Skeeter always treated people equally, but she started to see how deep the problem was.

Her and Aibileen first communicate in secret to help Skeeter complete a weekly newspaper column about housekeeping tips. Skeeter’s writing ambition, and the advice from a New York editor, make her look for a real story. And she realises the problem in Mississippi is a tale needing to be told.

The final voice to tell the story is Minny. For every piece of Aibileen’s calm, there is a bit of Minny’s passion. A woman whose mouth has gotten her into trouble more times than she cares to remember. Her anger and distrust is well justified and the fire in her belly doesn’t make her any less likable.

Her journey is forming a slow bond with Celia, a housewife who is seen to be too trashy for the usual social scene. This isn’t a natural fit to begin with but Minny has burnt her employment bridges to such a degree she has to persevere.

Of all the members of white society we meet in the story, Celia is the most naïve to the plight of the minorities. She truly can’t understand why Minny has walls surrounding their relationship and doesn’t see her employer as a potential friend.

Minny has a great comedic role to play in parts but her tale reveals a painful, difficult existence. She also offers herself up as a potential sacrifice to keep the group safe.

Which brings us to the main drive of the novel. When Hilly ensures her maid, Yule May, goes to prison for theft, the fellow maids in the town decide to help Aibileen and Skeeter produce a book detailing their experiences. During transformation and revelation, Aibileen is the cement that keeps everything together.

Stockett should be applauded for creating three strong voices to drive the story. Such is her talent, that at the end of each transition you wish you could stay with the woman you’re with, only to beg a few more chapters with the new voice in the cycle.

Switching to and fro is never jarring, sometimes it’s entirely necessary. The lives of these ordinary people are punctuated with historical moments in the civil rights campaign and the actions of JFK. They give a sense of the times and the social disharmony.

The only criticism is they don’t pound the problem home with enough force. There is never – despite hearing of horror stories – a real sense of fear. That isn’t to say they don’t suffer (you will shed a tear reading this book) but the plight of the people isn’t quite given the justice it deserves.

However, any shortfalls are made up with the execution of the main narrative and its moral points. There is no need to divide and separate. All people are equal. A baby is born without prejudice and loves those that are kindest, it sees no colour.

Hatred is taught and should never be allowed to overrule love.