No kinder people and no crueler

This is my review of For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.

Idealistic American Robert Jordan has joined an International Brigade fighting the fascists in 1930s Spain, although this means accepting orders from Russian Communists. He is ordered to destroy a bridge in the mountains, despite the lack of resources and an effective communication system. Can he trust Pablo, the brutal, now disillusioned leader of the republican guerrilla group on whom he must rely?

Although Hemingway was clearly excited by the risk-taking and violence of battle and bullfighting, and there are many tense moments in this novel, you may be disappointed if a pure action thriller is what you have in mind. The density of the prose, with the constant switches of thought, new ideas and unusual modes of expression slow the reader down, even at the moments when the suspense drives you to keep turning the pages.

Drawing on his first-hand experience as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway was keen to explore it from many angles, such as the incompetence of officers at all levels, or the fact that committing atrocities was not confined to the fascists. The female guerrilla Pilar (who, despite being tough, takes on the cooking), describes in vivid detail how all the men of property in a captured town were assumed to be fascist and forced across the square over a precipice: it is a shock to learn that this was based on real events in the now picturesque tourist centre of Ronda. Hemingway attributes Spanish violence to the fact `this was the only country the reformation never reached…Forgiveness is a Christian idea and Spain has never been a Christian country'.

Hemingway also takes Robert into repetitious stream-of-consciousness reveries over the meaning of life, and how best to spend what may be one's last three days. My idea of Hemingway as the master of the minimalist, pared-down style was shattered by the wearisome detail of many descriptions, from eating a sandwich with onions to constructing a makeshift bed or loading a gun. I grew tired of Robert running his hand through the `wheatfield' of his lover Maria's cropped hair. The frequent references to drinking wine, whisky and absinthe are also a bit repetitive, perhaps reflecting Hemingway's own reputation as a heavy drinker. Sometimes, the great outpouring of words, in particular hyphenated adjectives like `empty-calm' reminds me of Dylan Thomas and is perhaps the product of a creativity loosened by alcohol.

In a dialogue that is often amusing, the speech of the guerrillas is very odd, a stilted style of remarkable sophistication, peppered with `thees' and `thous'. Can you imagine a gypsy saying, `Thou art a veritable phenomenon'? Then there is the exaggerated blasphemy, `I obscenity in the milk of my shame', oaths at times shortened to `Thy mother!'

This is a masterpiece, if a little dated, as in the submissive character of Maria, and despite passages of violence which are hard to stomach. Most poignant of all is the knowledge that all this courage and sacrifice were in vain since the republicans lost.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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