Last year I read and wrote a short reviews of A Moveable Feast, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. But this book is something else. I read it after reading Paul Preston’s The Spanish Civil War. Now being outside of living memory, the events of this terrible period in Spanish history (and European history) struck me afresh in terms of their terror. For readers at least, the suffering and bravery of Spanish people, and the witnesses to this suffering in terms of various writers, artists, journalists and international volunteers is so well documented that you might ask what a novel can bring, especially when read now. In my case, at least, reading Hemingway after gaining some understanding of the period through wider reading really helped me to imagine and to empathise, and it’s clear that Hemingway wanted this, as well as a broader, more objective view than some might credit. I’m reluctant to try to really review a book that is such a known classic, so I will limit myself here to a few observations.
In terms of the viewpoint adopted, Hemingway opts for a young American language teacher who has joined the International Brigades. He is behind enemy lines, in Fascist/Nationalist held territory, and has a dangerous mission to blow up a bridge at the start of a nearby offensive, and not before. Robert Jordan has experienced enough of the war to lose a good deal of his naivety and to have taken the shine of any simple ideological beliefs when it comes to the politics of the conflict. But his belief in the Spanish people is undiminished. Despite the horrible truths he hears about some of the Republican atrocities, Jordan’s hopes are refreshed by his contact and work with a guerrilla outfit who have raided trains in the area, and naturally fear that the bridge operation will either bring their ruin or force them to leave the territory where they are currently hidden. It isn’t a simple hope – the group leader’s distrust and initial betrayal illustrates to Robert that war can corrupt a person just as much as it might lead them to a higher purpose. Like one of Hemingway’s carefully constructed shorter narratives, the timeframe is limited to a few days; the characters are beautifully crafted – they both serve as illustrations of humanity and resonate with the particular conflict and time. There is also a love story which helps to give significance to Robert’s life and fate. His feelings are portrayed in a clever way – by incorporating a stream of consciousness technique, followed by narrative interventions. For example, in reflecting on his beliefs, Robert thinks – “It was a feeling of consecration to a duty towards all the oppressed of the world which would be difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience …” (p.243). Also typical is the way that Hemingway follows such higher hopes with Robert’s doubts about them: “I suppose it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years … What nonsense, he thought” (p.173).
So what do we learn along the way? Apart from the story of Jordan and his relationship with a group of Spanish guerrillas, we hear about both Nationalist and Republican atrocities and cruelty (this provides a balance which the narrative might otherwise lack). The sense of fate is also portrayed through the inevitable movement of an army when a battle plan is set in motion, and the demented nonsense of internal politicking within Communist, anarchist and more pragmatic participants in the Republic side. Marie’s hesitation but final confession to her own rape and her parents’ murders is all the more powerful by the restraint of its telling and the timing within the narrative, coming quite a way after Pilar has described in detail the murders of Nationalist-sympathisers in her home town. Hemingway also portrays the deaths of the nearby guerrilla group’s members from a number of viewpoints, before leaving us with an image so powerful that it stood out from all of the text for me, perhaps because it resonates today in the age of terror and beheadings:
“He could not see at that distance the load one saddle bore of a long rolled poncho tied at each end at intervals so that it bulged between lashings as a pod bulges with peas (p.377).
There is much more to say about For Whom the Bell Tolls; reading this novel is an enlightening and moving experience. Whether Hemingway is in or out of fashion, it is undoubtedly an important book that speaks about a particularly dreadful conflict but unfortunately resonates just as much today as it did then. By unfortunately, I mean that human cruelty continues; senseless wars continue; and yet giving into despair is no more the answer today than it was in 1940 when it was released. The original Time Magazine review ends this way – and I can’t think of a better way to end a review and bring together these thoughts.
“However he may fancy himself as a leftist sympathesier, as a great and sensitive artist Ernest Hemingway is well over the Red rash. The bell is this book tolls for all mankind” (October 21, 1940, no.17).