I don't suppose I was quite so guileless when I first read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia at the age of 19, although it was a stretch. I had only the dimmest notion of where Catalonia was--did it have something to do with Barcelona? I certainly had a tough time getting my mind round the idea that the "government" were also in some sense the "revolutionaries," and I certainly needed instruction on how to decide whether Franco was a "fascist" or merely an ally of the feudal landlords.
But I shouldn't be too coy. As a college student in the Dulles era, I certainly had no monopoly on vulgar oversimplification. Which leads me to my main point, namely: the extraordinary thing about Orwell is just how sophisticated he is--he has a hammerlock on the pretensions, betrayals and internal incoherence of left politics when so much of the world was just learning its political ABCs.
What makes Orwell Orwell--aside from his vaunted unvarnished prose style--is his extraordinary capacity to profit from a kind of experience not at all unique to him, but of a sort that so many of his peers seemed to live through untainted and unenlightened. In his early essay, "Shooting an Elephant"--still one of the best things he ever wrote--he shows us the falsity and also the sheer paralysis of the imperial system. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he brings himself face to face with the realities of poverty and also of class in England. But in Catalonia, it seems to me he deals even more directly with the realities of power.
I think a lot of readers misunderstand the book--I think I did in my first reading--because it is almost not a "war" book at all. Orwell spends most of his actual combat time basically out of range of enemy gunfire, and they of his (his service ends when he is shot in the neck, almost by accident). The more dynamic narrative is his account of the "Barcelona spring" of 1937, when the "Republican" government, allied with the Stalinists, undertake to liquidate the anarchists and the independent left. Many readers have complained--and apparently some of his friends warned him at the time--that he gives too much space over to a necessarily tedious account of just who did what to whom in that spasm of internecine conflict. I don't share that complaint. I think it was important for Orwell to show us the realities of war, but just as important to show us the realities of politics that did so much to cripple not just the left in Spain, but so many another generous impulse in world politics over the ensuing 75 years. In he end, I can sign on to the view of Orwell's great appreciator, George Woodcock, who says:
If I were asked to pick the best of Orwell's books, I would immediately name Animal Farm. If I were asked which I liked most, I would select Homage to Catalonia. ... The great virtue of Homage to Catalonia is not merely that it brings the period back to life in one's mind, but that it does so with such exceptional radiance. ... To reread Homage to Catalonia is an experience quire unlike rereading most other books, for so vivid and direct has the first impression been that afterwards it is like recollecting part of one's own life.
--George Woodcock The Crystal Spirit 163-4 (1966).
Technical Note: I began my reread with the dog-eared paperback that came into my possession in 1955. I finished with the Amazon edition on the crisp, backlit screen of my Iphone.
Political Note: I'd say that Franco is better understood as an ally of the feudal landlords than as a fascist.