Tag Archives: history

for whom the bell tolls

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.

for whom the bell tolls2

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.’
‘By whom?’
‘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.


John Hersey was one of the first Western journalists to witness the devastation that the atomic bomb caused which reduced the vast part of Hiroshima to ruins. Published in 1946, Hiroshima focuses on six survivors of an atomic bomb dropped on their city. Six people from different walks of life who started that fateful day at varying distances from the centre of the explosion but who would all suffer, not just in the immediate aftermath but in the years to come as they struggle to reshape their lives after the cataclysm.

Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a reverend at the Hiroshima Methodist Church; Mrs Hatsuyo Nakamura, a war widow attempting to raise her three children; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a hedonistic man who owns a private hospital; Father Wilheim Kleinsorge, a German priest who despite his fondness and work for the community feels unaccepted by the Japanese;  Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young surgeon working at the Red Cross Hospital; and Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a 20 year clerk working in a tin factory and engaged to a soldier out at war.

These were six normal Japanese civilians, and at 0815 on the morning of 6 August 1945 their lives were changed forever as they were all, regardless of status or rank or position, thrown into a fiery turmoil of which they would all survive, but see things that would scar them and forever challenge their perceptions of war, and man, and life.

Some witnessed a ‘great, photographic flash’. Some who were looking in the direction of the explosion were blinded. Buildings crumbled and homes exploded. Shadows marked on the sidewalk nearer the epicentre in the form of vaporised men, woman, children. Miss Toshiko is crushed and trapped under books and shelves and the rubble of the building around her. Dr. Sasaki was unhurt but was the only doctor in the hospital able to help, and so began a grueling three day shift of nightmarish quality and exhaustion as the wounded shuffled in.

Tugged here and there in his stockinged feet, bewildered by the numbers, staggered by so much raw flesh, Dr. Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skilful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding.

The terror of the tremendous power of the bomb. The confusion as the emergency services were overwhelmed. Everyday life halted, paused during a painful recovery period of which some struggle through, some would die, but of which all would change. In the debris and wreckage survivors begin to rise from the ashes of their city to help whoever is still alive to help, as voices scream and cry from under rubble and bodies lie dead and dying in the streets. Groups of people evacuate to parks and rivers to avoid rolling fires that engulf streets and in those groups, scared and confused, they vomit, the skin falls from their bodies and blood streams from eyes and ears.

When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. […] Their mouths were mere swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot.

Hersey does not shy away from gory details. The scenes he narrates are visceral and horrific. But I think it’s important to mention that Hiroshima also showcases the power of the human spirit, of faith, of kindness and determination. The second half of the book details the lives of our survivors (a term coined for them was hibakushas, or explosion-affected people) as they attempt to continue their permanently affected lives in a permanently affected world.

These thoughts led her to an opinion that was unconventional for a hibakusha: that too much attention was paid to the power of the A-bomb, and that not enough thought was given to the fact that warfare had indiscriminately made victims of Japanese who had suffered atomic and incendiary bombings, Chinese civilians who had been attacked by the Japanese, reluctant young Japanese and American soldiers who were drafted to be killed or maimed, and, yes, Japanese prostitutes and their mixed-blood babies. She had firsthand knowledge of the cruelty of the atomic bomb, but she felt that more notice should be given to the causes than to the instruments of total war.


One account towards the end is particularly shameful. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who has worked hard to protect and help hibakushas, raising funds for cosmetic surgery and healthcare, is ambushed, finds himself in a television studio with cameras pointing into his face and broadcasting out to millions of Americans as a talkshow (This Is Your Life) unravels around him, centered on his life and brought face to face with the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the bomber which flew over Hiroshima and dropped “Little-Boy” onto the unsuspecting population below. Robert Lewis, who cried remorseful tears in front of the cameras but who turned up drunk and late to the show after discovering his appearance would not be resulting in a fat cheque. It felt like savage exploitation.

Throughout the final chapter, The Aftermath, which was added forty years after the initial publication, the progress of the survivors is updated, but intrusively interjected with dates detailing the “progress” of countries around the world, competing to develop atom and hydrogen bombs in a paranoid and ill-conceited game of creation. All the more infuriating when placed alongside the struggles of the hibakushas, years and years after the dropping of the bomb.

During the reading of Hiroshima and the subsequent writing of this post, political debate on the intervention and bombing on foreign countries by my own country is eerily relevant. There is no simple solution now, just as there was no simple solution in 1945. The protection of innocent lives must always be, in my opinion, imperative. Often, such decisions made on the other side of the world assume some human cost, as if nothing more can be done. It is just the way it is, a part of war.

John Hersey’s account of the bombing is haunting and emotionally exhausting. The narrative is respectful and dry, told as a story despite it being non-fiction. Hersey doesn’t need to play up or add unnecessary drama to the eye-witnesses’s tales. With his tactful delivery the truth itself is powerful enough. Hiroshima is saddening, angering, terrifying.

Kiyoshi Tanimoto was over seventy now. The average age of all hibakusha was sixty-two. The surviving hibakushas had been polled by Chugoku Shimbun in 1984, and 54.3 per cent of them said they thought that nuclear weapons would be used again. Tanimoto read in the papers that the United States and the Soviet Union were steadily climbing the steep steps of deterrence. . . He was slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.

the man in the high castle

Imagine a world where the Axis won the Second World War. Imagine America divided up between the Nazi occupied Eastern states and the Japanese ruled Western states, and a central buffer zone between the two. If that interests you, then The Man in the High Castle is worth checking out.

Philip K. Dick won a Hugo award for The Man in the High Castle, published in 1962, and while a little more grounded than his usual science-fiction works (there is nothing as out there as precognition or androids), it is considered a career highpoint. Themes include fate and free will, power, politics and prejudice, the value of cultures and authenticity.

On the history and following aftermath of the war, Dick reveals exposition through offhand comments, brief thoughts and throwaway statements. There isn’t necessarily an info-dump to tell us exactly what life is like under the Reich rule, but enough to inform the reader that it’s a truly evil place. It is never explicitly stated what the Nazi’s did in Africa, but what is implied is horrifying.

And then, he thought about Africa, and the Nazi experiment there. And his own blood stopped in his veins, hesitated, at last went on.

Dick does make clear, however, that compared to the fascist Nazi rule, the Japanese governing is relatively benign in comparison. Even Frank Frink, a Jew at the constant risk of extradition by the Nazis, would not be prepared to escape to the South US, for it seems they have a whole load of other issues down there.

What about the South? His body recoiled. Ugh. Not that. As a white man he would have plenty of place, in fact more than he had here in the Pacific States of America. But . . . he did not want that kind of place.

There are a number of plots which integrate with each other, bringing various characters together to interact and indirectly help each other. But the general focus is on the ‘little guy’, everyday characters who are struggling to cope in their varying positions in life, within this new totalitarian fascist society.

man in the high castle map

Robert Childan is an American antique dealer, seemingly conflicted in this new society. At times he seems to praise the Japanese, at others he comes across unashamedly racist. He admires the Reich rule of technological advances and getting things done (genocide!), and shows general disdain for the Japanese.

And anyhow, the flights to Mars had distracted world attention from the difficulty in Africa. So it all came back to what he had told his fellow store owners; what the Nazis have which we lack is—nobility. Admire them for their love of work or their efficiency… but it’s the dream that stirs one. Space flights first to the moon, then to Mars; if that isn’t the oldest yearning of mankind, our finest hope for glory. Now, the Japanese on the other hand. I know them pretty well; I do business with them, after all, day in and day out. They are—let’s face it—Orientals. Yellow people. We whites have to bow to them because they hold the power. But we watch Germany; we see what can be done where whites have conquered, and it’s quite different.

What’s more, he seemingly laps up the anti-semitic propaganda the Nazi’s put forward, presumably about their exaggerated facial features and their reputation as despicable, almost supernatural levels of deceit.

I don’t know why I didn’t recognize the racial characteristics when I saw him. Evidently I’m easily deceived.

He decided, I’m simply not capable of deceit and that renders me helpless. Without law, I’d be at their mercy. He could have convinced me of anything. It’s a form of hypnosis. They can control an entire society.

Yet when he is invited to a business clients house, a young Japanese couple Paul and Betty, he is conflicted. He appears in awe of them.  His speech patterns have even started to mimic his Japanese rulers. There is an awkward conversation where inevitably politics does end up in conversation, despite Childan’s attempt to keep it away, at the dinner table. Betty, not wanting to cause a scene, does not berate Childan’s racism, but calmly expresses her beliefs.

Betty said in a low voice, “Personally, I do not believe any hysterical talk of ‘world inundation’ by any people, Slavic or Chinese or Japanese.” She regarded Robert placidly. She was in complete control of herself, not carried away; but she intended to express her feeling. A spot of color, deep red, had appeared in each of her cheeks.

Nobusuke Tagomi is a Japanese businessman working in the Pacific States of America (P.S.A) and to the reader he may be the most relatable and likeable character in the book. It is through his chapters we witness a politics of a secret meeting between the Abwehr (the German military intelligence, represented by Agent Baynes) and the Japanese Imperial Army. Upon listening to potential replacements to the recently deceased Herr Bohrmann as leader of the Reich, his reaction is how we might all feel in such a situation;

Mr Tagomi felt ill as he listened . . . thought, I think I am going mad . . . I have to get out of here; I am having an attack.

There is evil! It’s actual, like cement.

In his own small way, towards the end of the book he makes a stand against the Nazi’s, an act which ends up freeing Frank Frink. Frank, after the war, had planned to join a resistance to violently expel the successful axis forces from America. But as the years passed, he learnt to accept the P.S.A and Japanese rule. However, he cannot live without fear. He is a Jew, and his narratives often remind the reader of the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

It horrified him, this thought: the ancient gigantic cannibal near-man flourishing now, ruling the world once more. We spent a million years escaping him, Frink thought, and now he’s back. And not merely as the adversary … but as the master.

His unexplained incarceration, his inevitable containment and death in the concentration camps back in Germany, only to be unbelievably and inexplicably released.

I’m an American,” Frank Frink said.

“You’re a Jew,” the cop said.

Frank is a passive character throughout the book, and this sums it up. He accepts his release without question. He goes on. Like many of the characters in the book, they can have no idea what is happening around them, and what will happen in the future. They just go on.

I want to comprehend. I have to. But he knew he never would.

Just be glad, he thought. And keep moving.

Julianna Frink is Frank’s ex-wife, and is a seemingly unstable, drifting, attractive individual. She begins dating a young Italian named Joe Cinnadella, who is actually a Nazi assassin sent to assassinate the writer of the book-within-a-book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book that describes what would have happened if the British Empire and the USA had beaten the Axis in the Second World War. It is banned across most of the world apart from the P.S.A, yet most characters have at least heard of it and read some of it. Julianna becomes obsessed with it. She is an incredibly hard character to pin down, in fact I found her a little annoying and damaged through most of the book. However, she experiences a moment of enlightenment at the end of the book which identifies her as probably the strongest character in the book.

the main the high castle cover

As is present in much of Dick’s work, there is also the idea of another version of reality. What is real and what is not. In Ubik, we struggle to make sense of who is dead in half-life and who is alive. In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, the confusion of who is human and who is android, and of course the bizarre visions that come with the religion Mercerism. The revelations at the end of The Man In The High Castle were difficult for me to comprehend. Julia’s confrontation with The Grasshopper Lies Heavy writer Hawthorne Abensden and his wife Caroline at the ‘High Castle’ leads to the revelation that Abensden used the I Ching to transcribe its answers into the book in its entirety. When Juliana asks the Oracle why it wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, The Oracle responds with the Chung Fu hexagram, meaning “Inner Truth”. Initially, I thought it meant that the Allies had won as their cultures and jewellry (Robert Childan’s American Artistic Handcrafts, Inc., Edfrank Jewellery, and the Wyndam-Matson Corporation) were still relevant and had survived the war where the people had been oppressed into this totalitarian regime. But, I think the I Ching’s message goes deeper. Perhaps this is just another world, another version of reality, and somewhere else, there is a better world. Or the characters are realising that their world is not ‘real’, and the world these characters is fake, or fictional. There is another, or other, real world(s) – perhaps ours – where the Allies won. A better place perhaps. There is no set in stone answer to what it means.

The uncertainty and open endedness of the book is perfect. As the reader we are unsure what comes next for most of these characters. As has always been. Agent Baynes, who has completed his mission, contemplates how much of a difference his actions have made, or will make. He may have made the world a better place, but that is not in his hands.

He thought, But there is no reason to be optimistic. Probably the Japanese can do nothing to change the course of German internal politics. The Goebbels Government is in power, and probably will stand. After it is consolidated, it will turn once more to the notion of Dandelion. And another major section of the planet will be destroyed, with its population, for a deranged, fanatic ideal.

Nevertheless, Mr. Baynes thought, the crucial point lies not in the present, not in either my death or the death of the two SD men; it lies—hypothetically—in the future. What has happened here is justified, or not justified, by what happens later. Can we perhaps save the lives of millions, all Japan in fact?

I wonder what I accomplished, he thought as he watched the land mass grow. It is up to General Tedeki, now. Whatever he can do in the Home Islands. But at least we got the information to them. We did what we could.

The Man in the High Castle is an intriguing piece of alternate history (albeit a disturbing one), with plenty of smoke and mirrors. Approach with an open mind and enjoy a fantastic science-fiction novel. The paranoia and uncertainty these characters deal with as they struggle to cope with against forces far higher than they.

A weird time in which we are alive. We can travel anywhere we want, even to other planets. And for what? To sit day after day, declining in morale and hope.