Letters at 3AM: A Night in Barcelona

The collision between human truths and political truths results in no truth

Letters at 3AM: A Night in Barcelona
Illustration by Jason Stout

Place: Barcelona, Spain. Time: 1937. Dramatis Personae:

Eileen O'Shaughnessy, 31. Violet eyes, pale skin, dark hair. Wears no makeup. Dresses inattentively. Friends' descriptions: "a look of disarming innocence"; "bright, argumentative, provocative"; "rather tough"; "one can never be certain if she is being serious or facetious." Recently married to Eric Blair.

Eric Blair, 33. Writes under the name "George Orwell"; thus far, has had little success. Formerly a policeman in Burma. Six foot three, thin, smokes incessantly. China-blue eyes. Friends' descriptions are paradoxical: "affable" yet "aloof"; "mild" yet "outrageous"; "awkward" yet "imposing"; "an immense charm very difficult to define"; "shy" yet "absolutely fearless."

Georges Kopp, 34. Nationality uncertain. Fluent in several languages. Burly. Friends' descriptions: "brash"; "wise"; "jovial"; "had all the gallantries"; "a mercenary with a good heart"; "he was everything Orwell wasn't." Commands a battalion in the Spanish Republic's fight against Francisco Franco's fascist coup.

Toward the end of my screenplay, Barcelona, these three await an attack in which they may be killed. Kopp and Eileen are in a fortified hotel. Kopp has ordered Orwell to a post across the street.

INT. LOBBY, HOTEL POUM – 3am-ish. Men and women sleep any old way beside their antiquated rifles. Kopp sits warily by a window.

ON EILEEN, leaning against a wall. Draws a cigarette from a pack – her last. Crumples the pack. Goes to Kopp. Lights up, takes a drag, hands it to Kopp. He takes a drag and hands it back.

EILEEN: This may be the last anti-Stalinist cigarette in Barcelona.

KOPP: Then we shall have to surrender.

EILEEN: I see no other choice.

They smile ruefully and intimately.

I like them that way, awaiting doom with a humor and a detachment that we seem to have lost when contemplating our various possible dooms.

My commission was to write a movie based on Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, his account of the Spanish Civil War. My employer was an English director who liked and didn't like me. I liked and didn't like him. In his high-ceilinged manor house (straight out of a BBC miniseries), he sometimes rang David Lean (director of Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) and outlined to Lean our disagreement of the day. Before handing me the phone, he'd say, "David, do please explain to Michael why he is wrong."

I was supposed to be intimidated. I was, a little. Mostly, I thought it was fun. It was only a matter of time until I was fired. That was not fun.

Our major disagreement concerned Eileen and Kopp.

Thick volumes have not sufficiently explained the Spanish Civil War, but, more or less, it went like this:

The liberal Spanish Republic granted more and more rights to Spanish workers, many of whom were socialists and anarcho-syndicalists. This made the United States, Great Britain, and France nervous; it was the Great Depression, and they feared revolutions at home more than wars with fascist foreign powers. As for Spanish conservatives and the Spanish Catholic Church, they were furious. General Francisco Franco staged a coup. Spain's army was largely on Franco's side, so the Republic armed the workers. Civil war ensued.

Hitler's Nazi Germany and Mussolini's fascist Italy supported Franco with military wares and troops. Though Spanish workers were fighting fascism, the United States, Great Britain, and France gave no military aid, but adventurers from many nations came to join the fight to save the Spanish Republic – among them, Eric Blair (Orwell), his wife Eileen, and Georges Kopp.

Stalin's Soviet Union sent military aid, but with a catch. Its arms went only to Spain's Stalinists. They grew stronger as many joined them (because they had the best weapons). But anti-Stalin socialists and anarchists resisted Stalinist domination. What with these pro-Republic factions disagreeing about everything big and little, often violently, the Republic lost the war.

On the night in question, Stalinists denounced all anti-Stalinists as traitors. Stalinist forces surrounded anti-Stalinist Barcelona. An attack was expected at dawn. Outnumbered and outgunned, Barcelona refused surrender. As Orwell would write: "In this game that we're playing, we can't win. Some kinds of failure are better than other kinds, that's all."

Instead of attacking, the Stalinists declared a false peace; then they began a campaign of assassinations and arrests. Kopp was imprisoned until the civil war's end. Eileen and Orwell barely escaped Spain.

Enter me, 50 years after the fascist victory, trying to make a coherent story of these complexities. Reading many accounts, I came upon consistent discrepancies. Battalion commander Kopp was often absent from his duties, accompanied by Eileen. The night before the expected Stalinist attack, Kopp ordered Orwell to a rooftop across the street from their barricaded hotel, to cover the entrance; Kopp and Eileen remained in the hotel. I suspected a romance. (Orwell barely hints at this in Homage to Catalonia.)

I interviewed Orwell's surviving Spanish Civil War comrades. Speaking of Eileen, Jon Kimche said, "There was this man Kopp – I think she rather liked him." Bob Edwards, Orwell's platoon leader, said, "Oh, it was quite true." Stafford Cottman agreed. Asked if Orwell suspected an affair, Cottman believed so: "Maybe he thought of his own peccadilloes. He would be fair-minded enough to be tolerant about this."

In my business that's called "confirmation." My director would have none of it. Nor would the Orwell estate. I had the peculiar idea that the human truth was as important as the political truth. Exit me.

Kopp and Orwell, in spite of their rivalry, admired each other. They and Eileen shared the conviction that in a losing battle there is always something that can be won: your own integrity, your own dignity. And they believed what Mexico's Emiliano Zapata said, words the Spanish workers often quoted: "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."

I've recited the dialogue quoted below to friends who judge it cynical. I gesticulate wildly and say: "You're not getting it! These aren't the words of a man on the sidelines. This is a man in the midst of the struggle – a man who'd go on to spy for the French Resistance and be captured and tortured by the Gestapo. This is a man who'll sleep with his friend's wife, yes, but he'll fight for the good, even if he's certain he hasn't a chance."

To which one friend replied: "Stay away from my wife."

INT. HOTEL POUM. NIGHT. ON EILEEN AND KOPP. She has the cigarette. Smoke swirl catches the light.

EILEEN: It's horrible to be English in a crisis when there is no tea.

KOPP: You'd think the telephones would be out. There's no food, no electricity, but I could ring up the Stalinists if I thought it would do any good.

EILEEN: What will happen?

KOPP: Every day of my life, I will think of you.

EILEEN (pleased and irritated): I mean – the situation.

KOPP: Ah, the situation. It will get worse. For some, it will be very, very bad. Then it will get better – for some, it will be very, very good. Then things will get worse, then things will get better –

EILEEN: Stop it.

KOPP (fiercely): – and worse and better and worse and better –

EILEEN: Damn you.

KOPP: – and this will go on and on and on, no matter what anyone says or thinks or does. And, as it goes on, every day of my life I will think of you.

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'Barcelona', Barcelona, George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Georges Kopp, Eileen O'Shaughnessy

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