Friday 5 June 2020

Book review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway. And it feels like a very Hemingway book, although this is the first I've read. But he has a reputation. Bullfighting. Spain. Blood on the sun-heated pine needles. People saying "thy".

It is set during the Spanish Civil War, about which I know little. What do I know: it was between the "Republicans" and the "Fascists" (and in those days the fascists probably even called themselves that, it not being a rude word at that point); the F got support from the Nazis and the R's were a mixture of natives, anarchists, and help from the Commies. And the latter were more interested in their own goals that in the R's winning; see-also José Robles, who I've just found, and who disappointingly H wrote off. H was a journo during the war.

Wiki. Goodreads. Don't miss the poem; or BATTER my heart, three person’d God.

Like all civil wars many terrible things happen, and the book shows that, via Pilar telling the Robert Jordan (always, in the book-narrator-voice, referred to in full as RJ, which reads oddly to me) about the beginning, in her village, when they killed all the fascists, including some who were merely token Fs. And so on. I don't think we hear of, or see, the Fs doing anything particularly terrible - other than Maria -, perhaps that's all just assumed - all the characters we see hate them, so it doesn't need rubbing in.

The entire book is set around one episode, where RJ, who knows dynamite, is sent to blow up a bridge just before an important attack, by contacting a local guerrilla band run by Pablo. But there are multiple digressions - Pilar's story, RJ remembering "behind the lines" in Madrid, the bloke who gets sent with a message and sees the chaos and mixed command behind the R lines.

What of my "Hemingway tropes", as in what I'd expect to find, given what I think I know? Men are men, Women are women, war is hell but nonetheless glorious? Well... it's all kinda there, though with subtlety. For example, Pablo has lost his nerve, and Pilar-his-woman is explicitly said to be now in command... though I'm not sure she ends up commanding very much. Maria loves RJ very much and is subservient and cooks, but then again she is a peasant who has only just been rescued from terrible experiences, so perhaps that's unsurprising. Is war glorious? RJ's gallant self-sacrifice at the end is of that ilk. All the characters are firmly convinced that dying-if-necessary is right; and that whilst it is regrettably to kill the poor bods on the other side, that too is necessary for the good of the cause. The futility is there: we get a very strong indication that the attack, and so by implication the bridge-blowing, is pointless as the Fs already know about it.

Oh, I nearly forgot: did I enjoy it? Would I read it again? Yes, and maybe. Quite a lot of the tension in the book comes from wondering exactly how the attack on the bridge is going to go wrong, since it clearly is going to go wrong somehow; that's hard to get on a re-read. but then again, the tension isn't that important. I found the absence of a map somewhat irritating; placing the bridge and the road and so on wasn't easy. But the story is interesting and well told, the dialogue charming, the situations - mountains, pinewoods - pleasant to imagine, and the fragments of reality - about the war, about peasant life in the mountains - were interesting (for example the way village bullfighting was part of people's lives).

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