Orwell in the Maze of Memory

Against the Current, No. 148, September/October 2010

Victor Pardo Lancina

[This article, by Victor Pardo Lancina, appeared in Heraldo de Aragon, December 13, 2009. It has been translated for ATC by Michel Vale with the assistance of Susan Weissman. We present it here, abridged, for its interest in connection with our 70th anniversary issue on the tragic defeat of the Spanish revolution, ATC 143, Nov.-Dec. 2009. — The Editors]

ON 23 JUNE 1937, George Orwell and his wife Eileen boarded a train in the Barcelona station, destination Portbou.

They were leaving Spain for good, clandestinely, despite their passports being in order, since the POUM (Party of Marxist Unity) had been declared illegal after the May events, which pitted the anarchists and POUMistas against the government. The police, implacable, were tracking down and imprisoning militants and sympathizers of the party of Andres Nin.

Orwell and Eileen were not alone: They were traveling with John McNair, the Catalonian representative of the ILP (Independent Labor Party), and with Stafford Cottman, a young militant of this British organization, allied politically with the POUM. After crossing the border, McNair and Cottman continued to Paris, and Orwell and Eileen stayed on to rest at Banyuls.

They were lucky to have escaped an almost certain arrest inasmuch as the police had been informed of their “pronounced Trotskyist affiliation.” Fortunately for them, and “thanks to the incompetence of the police” wrote Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, the damning information did not reach the border officials.

The Orwells’ abrupt departure from Spain occasioned the loss of documents and photographs, as well as the diary Orwell was keeping up-to-date with jottings and notes taken down at the places where he had taken part in the fighting.

His diary, confiscated by the police from the hotel where he was staying with Eileen, may perhaps be in the Moscow archives. Yet so resolute was his determination to tell his experience in the Civil War that within a few months Orwell had written — without notes even — Homage to Catalonia, a classic document of the Spanish conflict.

Given the political circumstances at the time the manuscript was rejected by his normal editor Victor Gollancz, but Homage to Catalonia was in the end published on 25 April 1938 by the London publishers Martin Secker and Warburg in a run of 1500 copies.

No sooner had the book appeared than it became clear to Orwell that it contained quite an abundance of errors, a product as much of the haste to get it published as to the loss of his valuable field notes. He immediately set about undertaking a thorough expurgation of the many errors with a view to a possible new edition.

The book did poorly in the marketplace, however, and Orwell died on 21 January 1950 in London, wasted by tuberculosis, without ever having seen a new cleaned-up version. At that time the Martin and Warburg edition had sold only 1000 copies. This first Homage to Catalonia, with its ballast of errors, would have a long life, as Peter Davison, editor of Orwell’s complete works, tells us in the introduction to the corrected edition published by Penguin Books in 1989.

The Italian translation of 1948 was not amended, nor was the second English edition, referred to as the Uniform Edition of 1951, actually a reprint of the 1938 edition even though Orwell had sent the publishers a copy of this edition annotated with all the necessary changes. The same ill fortune befell the book in February 1952, when it was published in the United States.

From Monte Oscuro to Monte Irazo

The French translator Yvonne Davet became interested in Homage as soon as it appeared, despite not yet having found a publisher for a French edition. From correspondence with Yvonne, we know that by 11 September 1938 Orwell had corrected the translations of the first six chapters, and the remaining ones by 19 June the next year.

The outbreak of World War II postponed a potential publication until finally Gallimard brought it out in 1955 under the title La Catalogne Libre, though still with some errors and without the Foreword they had requested from Andre Malraux.

Still, the French edition managed to incorporate some substantial changes. For instance, Chapters V and XI, the “most political” according to the author, were moved to the end of the book as Appendices. Also, references to the reopening of the Barcelona brothels shut down by the workers’ patrols were moved to a footnote. It glosses over, however, Orwell’s odd confusion between “guardias civiles” and “guardias d’asalto,” a teaser left to Davison to address.

Peter Davison, the meticulous and caring editor of Orwell’s 20-volume complete works, comments in volume 6, in a “text note” introducing Homage, that his effort “is an attempt to make the wishes expressed by Orwell in his Errata to this book a reality.” Among the most significant of those enumerated, one in particular refers to the locations of the front in the Alcubierre range: “the name Monte Oscuro could be changed to Monte Trazo, I probably made a mistake.”

Orwell had also addressed this point on other occasions when pinpointing where he stayed before being sent to the siege of Huesca, in the areas of “Monte Pocero” and “Monte Trazo,” respectively, between the towns of Alcubierre and Lecinenea, although actually according to the place names used locally the places are known as “Monte Pucero” and “Monte Irazo.”

According to Professor Alberto Lazaro at the Universidad Alcala de Herares, who has studied the translations of Orwell’s works, the editor had possibly taken the changes directly from the manuscripts and in the process the “I” could have been become a “T” just as Pucero became Pocero for similar reasons, e.g. euphony.

Monte Oscuro, in Perdiguera, despite its evocative and literary tone, was not one of Orwell’s destinations in the hard winter of early 1937. Nor would he have seen republican flags raised by fascist troops, since the tricolor was officially banned in the rebel area from late August 1936. “Now,” he says, “I am not completely sure that I saw the fascists hoisting the republican flag, although I believe (underscored in the original) that occasionally they raised it with a small swastika inserted.” He continues, “as I am not completely sure it would be better to eliminate these two references.”

Rayner Heppenstall, novelist, scriptwriter, BBC producer and Orwell’s companion at the front, mentioned on his radio broadcast of 14 April 1969 that he and the author of Rebelion en la granja had loaded some gravely wounded victim on a mule and took him to the hospital at Alcunberre where, to their amazement, they saw “Franco’s red and yellow flag waving.”

Such an incident, which Orwell himself does not mention, hardly seems plausible in a village that had stayed loyal to the Republic until the Aragon front fell.

Unfortunately Davison’s “textual note” says nothing about where on the broad Huesca front Orwell was wounded on 20 May, nor are there any mentions or conjectures in this regard in the voluminous compilation of articles and interviews published by Audrey Coppard and Bernard Crick Memoria y Evocación de George Orwell (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989).

The canonical Spanish edition of Homage to Catalonia was published by Tusquet in 2003 with an informative preface by Fabra Miquel Berga, Professor and department head at the Universidad Pompeu, who in the same year at a meeting commemorating the centennial of Orwell’s birth, retraced precisely the path over the inhospitable mountain range where he had fought.

ATC 148, September-October 2010