In 1937 Ernest Hemingway spent considerable time with republican forces as a journalist, covering the Spanish Civil War. His experiences formed the basis of For Whom The Bell Tolls, published in 1940. It centers on the American Robert Jordan, a dynamiter and demolitions expert in the International Brigades, fighting for the Republic against Spain’s fascist forces in the country’s civil war. Tasked with blowing up a key bridge behind enemy lines, he travels to the camp of a republican guerilla group based in a cave hidden in the hills near Segovia. The former leader of the guerillas, Pablo, has become a drunk and has lost the respect of his men. Pablo fears the repercussions from the fascist forces if they assist in blowing of the bridge, leading to a clash with Robert Jordan, but Pilar, Pablo’s wife, usurps him and pledge their allegiance to helping the American. It is here that Jordan also meets María, a young Spanish woman who has recently escaped from fascist forces who murdered her family and raped her.
Hemingway’s trademark writing is present here. The prose is simple, perhaps deceptively so, when dealing with some powerful themes, and his syntax is uncomplicated for the most part. At times For Whom The Bell Tolls is slow and laborious, its dialogue awkward and antiquated (Hemingway chose to use words such as ‘thou’ and ‘thine’). But apart from some initially jarring conversations, Hemingway’s style is present here and as readable as ever. There are extended sequences from the point of view of Jordan, where he internally considers his role in the war, his future prospects, his love for María. These thoughts are among the highlights for me, with Hemingway delving into his characters and exploring their fears. Having only read The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls is more powerful, broader in scope, and packs emotional punches throughout.
Death looms over everything and death and sacrifice are arguably the main themes present in the novel. A celebration of life and love, and the fear and acceptance of death. So frequently does the writing switch between describing beauty and violence, love and brutality. One outstanding chapter which highlights the cruelty where Pablo and his republican men have captured a group of fascist sympathisers in the village of Ronda, and form a line of men who beat the victims before they are forced to throw themselves off a cliff into a deep gorge. Another is the final stand of El Sordo, the leader of another nearby anti-fascist guerilla group, who fight with bravery and resolve before being killed by mortar fire.
‘You have killed?’ Robert Jordan asked in the intimacy of the dark and of their day together.
[Anselmo]’Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even Fascists whom we must kill. To me there is a great difference between the bear and the man and I do not believe the wizardry of the gypsies about the brotherhood with the animals. No. I am against the killing of men.’
‘Yet you have killed.’
‘Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.’
‘Who knows? Since we do not have God here any more, neither His Son nor the Holy Ghost, who forgives? I do not know.
‘You have not God any more?’
‘No. Man. Certainly not. If there were God, never would he have permitted what I have seen with my eyes. Let them have God.’
The finale is tense and a (welcomed) change of pace to the rest of the novel. Considering the story only covers Robert Jordan’s four days and three nights with the guerilla group, the emotional weight I felt towards the end was considerable. As so often is the case, there are no happy endings in war and Jordan is forced to say goodbye to María and the rest of the guerillas who have a great deal of respect and camaraderie for the American. For Whom The Bell Tolls is a compelling account of a dark but important era in Spanish history, and while not perfect, its slow and meticulous build up to its thrilling, beautiful finale wrought with emotion, is a more than worthy payoff.