Sunday, 9 September 2012

Shooting Orwell

I think about Orwell a lot, partly because of who I am and partly because of where I live. I grew up reading him: most of the novels and - over and again - the first part of the Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism.

I live a few kilometres back from where the front line was - in this part of Spain - during the Civil War. I used to live in the city, Huesca, which Orwell was beseiging. And we rent a lock-up in Tierz, part of the Republican front line during that siege and not far from where the Manicomio (mentioned in chapter six of Homage to Catalonia) was situated.

I read a few years ago in the local paper that the Manicomio had just been demolished: I assumed it was the same building, though I don't know that for sure. I wasn't disappointed that I never got to see it. Spain is not a Civil War theme park, just as the UK is not a Royal Family theme park, though many foreigners (and, for that matter, many Brits) often seem to think so.

It's marked by the Civil War, for sure: deeply so, marked more by its past, I'd guess, than any other Western European nation with the exception of Northern Ireland. Its process of recovery from Franco is far from complete and will likely never be completed, either economically, given the crisis, or psychologically, given the amnesty and the prohibition against investigating Civil War and Franco-era crimes. I've been to the Ruta Orwell and for all I know, I'll end up giving tours in Huesca to Orwell enthusiasts. But it's not a theme park. The present is not a backdrop to discussion of its past.

For all that, I think of Orwell frequently. Not every time I have coffee in Huesca, but often. Sometimes when I am in Siétamo, where he was in hospital, and sometimes when I am in Barbastro, where he met the Italian militiaman. This was after he was shot. Confused, as I often am, I had always thought he was shot when he was on Monte Irazo, close to the border between Huesca and Zaragoza provinces and not far from Alcubierre. But he wasn't: re-reading his chapter twelve he says
There was not much happening at the front. The battle round the Jaca road had died away and did not begin again till mid June.
The Jaca road runs north out of Huesca, while Monte Irazo is a long way south. Orwell was actually shot while on the Huesca front, and for that matter, not very far out of Huesca at all.

According to The Orwell Society, Orwell was probably shot from the tower of the Ermita de Salas, which is close enough to Huesca "un kilómetro al sudeste de Huesca" - that my wife, when living in the city, used to exercise by jogging there and back.

Close to the Ermita flows the river Isuela, or does when there is actually any water in it. The Flumen is about a kilometre further on, to the east, and east of the Flumen is Tierz. The Orwell Society, who were kind enough to respond to my enquiries, tell me that they don't yet know precisely where Orwell was when he was shot, but I'm assuming he was somewhere between the Isuela and the Flumen. Perhaps I will walk over there some time and take a look. And then remind myself that Spain is not a theme park.

But I think of Orwell often. His account of being shot begins:
I had been about ten days at the front when it happened. The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail.
The whole experience of watching the destruction of a country is very interesting, and I think it is worth describing in detail. And this is why I write.

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