It is quite an achievement to get a literary worked linked forever with an event but Ernest Hemingway achieved that with For Whom the bell tolls and the Spanish Civil War.
An account of the Spanish Civil War from the view point of an American explosives expert who is sent on a mission to blow up a bridge. Trough a story that lasts only four days we get a whole gamut of emotions ranging from love and lust for Maria to despair at the end and hatred and frustration on the way between. The sense of frustration about the way the war is managed that echoes from Orwell is highlighted with the mad French communist general but the added dimension to this story is the multiple view points that lead to the conclusion that all war is senseless and there are victims on both sides. Reading it against a backdrop of the 70th anniversary of the civil war (which it is this July) also made it resonate that little bit more deeply.
is it well written?
There are parts of the book that are so powerful, particularly between Jordan and Maria, and the climax of blowing the bridge that it puts the reader right in the action. His ability to step inside any of the characters including even those fascist soldiers fighting against Jordan is something that most other authors avoid sticking instead to one narrative position. Even at the end he reminds us that the officer Jordan is about to kill was one of those involved with fighting against Sordo.
There is a pace to the book kept going by the tension created between the principle characters and the mission. Hemingway continually draws on the palm reading Jordan received from Pilar early on and we can all guess it showed his death. He also highlights the battle between bravery and cowardice in the figure of Pablo.
Aside from the descriptions and the characterisation the other skill is weaving in at various points the story of the war and the differences between the two sides.
Should it be read?
It’s rare that a book can appeal to someone without an interest in the context but this should be read even by those without an interest in the Spanish Civil War. It is a story about two sides fighting and the decisions that are made in a conflict and for that reason it could be about any conflict and is about human beings and not about generals and military manoeuvres. For anyone who starts to think that most American literature is obsessed by class and race this is a demonstration that there are other basic human emotions that can be tackled very cleverly indeed.
This could be a springboard into more Hemingway, books on the civil war or as a spur to read some more American great writers. I am taking the later course because of the Beevor and Orwell stuff already being done. Hemingway will be returned to but just not yet.
Version – Penguin Modern Classics range, published 1961