Book Reviews

George Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ – a short review.

This is a re-read of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s autobiographical adventure of experiencing the Spanish Civil War during late 1936 till mid-1937. George Orwell managed to get to Spain to fight for the Republicans against the Fascists with the British Independent Labour Party (the ILP) as he was refused by the Communists in Britain to go and fight with the International Brigades. I think this is one of his best journalistic novels; his descriptions of the Aragon front in Catalonia are really incredibly descriptive, detailing the privations all the militia at that time had to endure, and also this combined with several months of really no activity on the front lines – they just held their positions and suffered from cold, louse, poor weapons, bad food, limited tobacco with nothing really going on to relieve the boredom, apart from the occasional sniping that took place between the trenches (of note, there is little to distinguish this part of the front with the 1914-18 war of trenches – a period starting to change gradually in warfare stemming from the Great War, with the first proper use of aircraft with any real effectiveness; this was the end of ‘old warfare’ and the entrance into the ‘new’).

At the start of the book, Orwell explains distinctively what was going on in Barcelona when he arrived in December 1936; he, as George Orwell considered himself a Democratic Socialist, experiences a city in the throws of Revolutionary élan, with no class distinctions in any part of the city; Red and Black flags, denoting the CNT-FAI (Anarchist-Syndicalist) colours flying everywhere and so on, and he states in the first few pages that this was a city ‘with the working class in the saddle’; it seems as if he had never been so inspired to what he believed he was fighting for – against fascism and for some sort of workers democracy. A defence against the increasing dominance of fascist powers from Italy and Germany that had taken hold of Europe at this time.

However, this is a journalistic book, and later on, it becomes full of disillusionment; he witnesses first hand the May days in Barcelona, a period where the Republican Government try and take control of CNT-FAI owned collectives, the Telephone Exchange being the most notable, under influence from the Stalinist Communist Party (PSUC) to try and halt any further advance of any form of social revolution that had occurred from the first days of the attempted coup from Franco’s fascists (falange). It confuses Orwell that how could two sides, despite their ideological differences in their theories of Socialism, end up causing a ‘civil war within a civil war’, which is how it was portrayed? How could two sides, both equally hating Franco, end up causing internecine strife that could only strengthen the opposing side? This makes Orwell think more deeply about the role of the Stalinist Communist Party, and the fact that he slowly begins to understand their role in suppressing both the Anarchists and POUM (a quasi-Trotskyist organisation of some forty thousand members) because they saw that the only way to win against the fascists was to continue their program of collectivisation and workers control, whereas the official Communist line was that of ‘win the war, then social revolution’.

Orwell became wounded when he returned to the front after the May Days, with bullet through his neck, which meant he was out of action. He mentions towards the end of his journalistic novel that several of his ILP friends ended up being incarcerated in the dreadful Spanish Prisons, such as Bob Smillie, grandson of the Scottish miners leader, who later died. However, I would argue and like to suggest that Orwell, being a Socialist of a Democratic viewpoint, saw through what was actually occurring with the suppression of the POUM and CNT-FAI with the official Comintern line that a social revolution in Spain could only have weakened Stalinist Russia, that in effect he saw the Communists as actually the harbingers of, and eventual defeat, for both the Spanish workers along with its peasants whose land had been, early on the civil war, collectivised. Only a few years later, did Stalin make the Soviet-Nazi pact. A total kick in the teeth for all the old revolutionaries who had struggled and fought in Spain during this period. The accusations of ‘Trotsky-Fascism’ against the POUM and CNT-FAI led, maybe I would suggest, into the Second World War and the total defeat of the Spanish Civil War. And I could go on. But I will not. Old history, but still, in a modern society, holds many ramifications.

Frank Herberts Dune.

Dune – a seminal work of American 1960’s Science Fiction. Published in 1965, Frank Herbert probably created a universe to fit his series of books which maybe has only been equalled by Tolkien. Perhaps Dune did for Science Fiction what The Lord of the Rings did for Fantasy Fiction. Both works are heralded as being classics in the alternative novel genre, the Grand-Daddies of their fields. Frank Herbert created this universe after studying about sand dunes in Oregon and wondered what it would be like to create a desert world. Dune is set eight thousand years into the future on the planet Arrakis, a desert planet which holds great political and social importance in Herbert’s Universe. Arrakis, or Dune, produces a narcotic substance called ‘Spice’, a drug which alters ones consciousness allowing some to gain incredible prescience. It is used widely throughout the Galaxy; ordinary citizens; Guild Navigators (who without it would never be able to safely guide Spaceships and see into the future); The Bene Gesserit whom are a Religious Sisterhood and use it for mystical purposes and last but by no means least – the Fremen who are indigenous to Arrakis and have a heavy Spice diet. The melange Spice is an incredibly addictive substance and the people who use it are characterised by their deep blue on blue eyes, denoting a user. When you understand how fundamental this narcotic is to the Galaxy and its adherents, then you slowly begin to understand what importance this desolate, desert planet is to Politics and the Dune Universe.

I think it is clear that this book drew upon the 1960s drug experimenting counter-culture, as basically it is about transcending consciousness using narcotics, and I guess the Spice could be seen as the equivalent of LSD, if you want an analogy. The novel is not just about drugs however. Dune is an epic work of Science Fiction, the first novel containing such a wide spectrum of issues; religion, politics, messiahs, family feuds, conflict, ecology and space-travel are all wrapped up in Frank Herbert’s world. Also, there is this kind of paradox throughout the Galaxy (and the story); yes, the setting is eight-thousand years into the future, but Religion still plays a very fundamental role here along with this medieval kind of Feudalism, as political association is based around Family Houses. We have House Atredies, House Corrino and House Harkonnen – the three main Families portrayed in the first novel. There is not so much advanced technology, and that aspect of Science Fiction is not really what the book deals with. The book, in its appendices explains that there was a Jihad (called the Butlerian Jihad), a holy conflict several thousand years previously that had eradicated computers and I guess most of, what would be seen as, our modern technology. Computers or thinking machines have been replaced by what are known as Mentats – highly intelligent ‘human’ computers. Also, people are fighting with knifes and swords; lasers, whilst they exist along with personal protective shields, are rarely used here. You could describe this as some sort of futuristic Universe that heralds back to a Feudal age with a pseudo-sci-fi slant.

Dune basically is a hero story. A son of one of the Great Houses, Paul Atredies, essentially becomes a messiah figure amongst the indigenous Freman of Arrakis. Paul, it is clear as the book begins, is no ordinary boy; trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, a Religious Sisterhood, by his Mother, he from an early age suffers from visionary dreams and acts older than his age should dictate. The Bene Gesserit, for generations, have been trying to breed what is known as a ‘Kwisatz Haderach’, a male version of one of them, and a super-being who has the ability to ‘be in many places at once’. When the Atredies family arrive on Arrakis, both Paul and his Mother become revered amongst the Fremen who, in their religion and prophecy, see him as their saviour, partly due to the Atredies family benignity towards their new subjects, but also fitting into the part of their mysticism and beliefs about their saviour. So, the hero becomes their long awaited prophet and messiah, saves the planet, unleashes a holy crusade with the Fremen, deposes the Emperor and replaces him. Classic hero story ingredients. This book is seen as a classic in the sci-fi world and in some ways it’s a cross between fantasy and science fiction, because of the feudal element. The science aspect mainly deals with ecology. One of the Fremens ideas for their eventual utopia is a terraformed Dune, one where there are plants and an abundance of water, and this they believe their prophet shall lead them into, away from their harsh, strict existence they currently lead. Paul is seen to herald the beginning of this new golden age.

Having read the book in my teens, I occasionally re-read it and with each reading I gleam something new. There was a film version directed by David Lynch in 1984 and also a TV-mini series. Both I think are good, and despite its many criticisms the film is not bad, with I think, great representations of Sandworms. Great series.

Sebastian Faulks – The Girl at the Lion d’Or – A review.

This is a historical romance novel, the first of Sebastian Faulks’ ‘French Trilogy’, the other two being ‘Birdsong’ and ‘Charlotte Grey’, and all three are set in France, during the Great War, the Inter-War period and the Second World War. This novel, being the first he wrote in this trilogy, is set during the Inter-War period, the year being 1936 and the time of the Popular Front Govt. of Leon Blum. It is basically about a young Woman called Anne, her life and illicit affair with a rich married Lawyer called Hartmann. Its quite a short novel, but its main themes are those of love & despair, set within an historical wrapper which gives a small insight into French Society during the 1930s, detailing through the lives of the various characters in the book the conflict with Germany, French internal social divisions, life under the Popular Front Govt. (mentioning the paid holidays they introduced etc), and, for a book if its size (~250 pages), gives a strong historical feel of the time.

Anne is basically a young Woman who travels from Paris to a small coastal village to work in a hotel, The Lion d’Or, as a waitress and general worker. It is clear near the beginning of the book that she has some underlying issues, which are well suppressed in her life, but the dreams she suffers from are disturbing to her. Whilst working at The Lion d’Or she meets Hartmann, a wealthy Jewish Lawyer who lives in a manor house near the village. She immediately falls for him and tries her hardest to seduce and eventually succeeds in getting a part time job working as a maid for his house. Slowly their relationship develops, Hartmann finding Anne alternative accommodation, having a weekend away together without his wife finding out and eventually, during this weekend, making love together, thus cementing their relationship.

Both Anne and Hartmann have issues – this is made very clear early on. Anne, trusting her new lover, slowly explains her past and it is not a pretty one. The effect the Great War had on France controls this book and its characters, made all too clear with Annes problems and to a lesser extent, but no more profound, Hartmann too. Anne lost both her parents during the conflict, her Father because he shot an Officer during the time of the mutiny of the French Army in 1917 (and was subsequently himself shot), her Mother as a direct consequence of being victimised by the village they lived in after the war because he was turned into a public scapegoat by the press. How nasty they can become towards victims. She committed suicide as a result of both the loss of her husband and the subsequent abuse in her village. Anne was brought up in Paris by a foster father, but her memories of seeing her Mother dead, and the loss of her Father and the resulting abuse the family received is only opened up with Hartmann. I think he becomes more paternal towards her from her opening up about her past, this is clear, and I suppose the reasons Anne falls totally in love with him is in part due to the fact he is the only person she has ever opened up to, as she had always been evasive about her past.

I found Hartmann to be a confusing character; it’s clear, compared to his friends in the novel, that he is no womaniser, and his relationship with Anne comes as something natural for him – he has fallen in love. His wife, Christine, probably is the only real victim, but she is so upper class that my sympathies lied with Anne (well, she is the focus of the book), but we do understand Hartmann’s problems with his marriage – Christine having miscarried and can no longer bear children seems to be the main underlying factor in their distance as a couple, or at least I got that impression. Towards the end of the book, Christine hears rumours about her husband’s relationship with Anne, and this seems to be the main reason why Hartmann finishes the affair. Selfish of him certainly, and he is the only one as well who knows the effect this will have on Anne, who has being rejected almost a third time; the loss of her parents, her foster father and now the only person she has probably only really fallen in love with all her life. He is as much disturbed by the end of the affair as Anne is I think, because he knows deep down what damage this will cause her and the life she had made in that coastal village. And it does cause her damage, quite severely. She ends up leaving the coastal town, her job and apartment, and travel back to Paris. Walking the streets in a distressed state, she ends up in a garden in a rich area of the Capital, finds a knife in a garden, and almost tries to commit suicide. But she survives and lives another day. She would probably grow up to be a strong Woman.

I liked this book. In some ways, it has more depth to it than Charlotte Grey, but not quite the same as Birdsong (which, in its own rights, is a classic novel). I liked the way it was wrapped up in the fortunes of the Popular Front of 1936/37 (with Hartmann trying to save a minister of that Govt. in the book who later also commits suicide over wrongful allegations), the way also how the Great War of 1914-1918 shaped all the characters in this novel (and probably the whole of French Society of this period), really coming into its own with the relationship of the protagonists. I recommend.

Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles – A Review.

I am re-reading The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I first came across this book in my teens, after watching the TV mini-series of it, and fell in love with it all those years ago (mid-’80s). Now, re-reading it after nearly 20 years I am still amazed by its prescience and intellect. And it’s much more potent now than it was back then. It’s quite interesting after reading a book on Christopher Columbus which gave an alternative insight into his legacy (see my previous blog), to see how another planet would be colonised based around the same principles. The Age of Discovery inaugurated by Columbus in 1492 died after the colonisation of America, and this colonisation was basically centered around the pursuit of wealth and eventual exploitation of man and nature. The pursuit of riches was the fundamental purpose and result of the discovery of the Americas. In The Martian Chronicles the same thing happens. Humans, facing an atomic war on earth around the year 2000, look towards Mars for their salvation. Martians exist, and have a highly rich and philosophical society. The first three expeditions to Mars are unsuccessful, with the Martians apparently fearing any outsiders and they kill the new explorers off, probably more as a way of defending themselves and their way of life. Come the fourth expedition and the Martians have all but died of chicken-pox, a disease which obviously has been contracted via the first three expeditions. Any similarities here and the Taino natives of the Caribbean and Americas? Yup, quite a bit. Spender, an archaeologist of the fourth expedition becomes dismayed of what has happened to the Martians and sees all too clearly the possible result of the colonisation of Mars by humans. He sees that Mars would be used as a base for nuclear weapons, be fought over and eventually contaminated by human culture and total disrespect and disregard of what had been before they arrived. The same thing happened to the conquest of the Americas. He sees in the Martian culture a deep, ancient way of life which was never allowed to get to the stage of what humans had turned themselves into. He knocks both Religion and Evolution, both attacking each other rather than peacefully co-existing together and both enriching each other. What the Martian civilisations had done was to combine them both and have a total respect for nature, to live with it and understand it and appreciate it as it is.

“..They quit trying to hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more of an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful. Its all simply a matter of degree…”

And so Spender discusses this with the Captain of the expedition after he has gone native and tried to kill off some of the crew to try and stop the colonisation of Mars. The Captain sees this way of life and Spenders interpretation of their culture as pagan, but Spender says its about respect for what is; instead of trying to analyse the purpose of life, just live it as it is, accept it, don’t over-question it.

The book has religious overtones, but they are quite deep philosophical ones. However, if we did have the technology to colonise another planet, any planet, today, in all fairness it would be like 1492 all over again, with the rich having the first shares in it and it would be looked at as another source of enrichment. Kim Stanly Robinsons’ ‘Mars’ Trilogy of books (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) are also a good read about the future colonisations of Mars but based around a much more scientific explanation, and it does pose similar questions about the role of Transnational Corporations in any future space exploration. Interesting.

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