Ernest Hemingway and the Forgotten War
If someone were to ask me about the large wars which began in the 1930s, I would no doubt, like many people, think of the Second World War while completely glossing over a rather large conflict which preceded it by only a year: the Spanish Civil War. Somewhat overshadowed by the events which followed, it is certainly an event deserving of study and scrutiny, something Ernest Hemingway had the opportunity of doing first-hand. In 1937 he traveled to Spain in order to cover the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. As a result, three years later he wrote his fictional novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, largely based on what he learned and witnessed on the other side of the ocean.
The story begins by introducing us to Robert Jordan, a young American enrolled in the International Brigades, which were paramilitary units set up to assist the Popular Front Government during the Spanish War. Robert in particular is attached to an antifascist guerrilla unit in the mountains, and little does he suspect, the road in front of him is about to teach him more about life than most people can forget. We follow the young man from one conflict and battle to the next as his unit trudges onwards to the destruction of a bridge, witnessing the emotional and psychological toll wrought on him by the war. At the same time, hope shines through in the form of the beautiful Maria, the object of Jordan’s love and affection… and perhaps the only thing which will keep him going through the hell he is traversing.
Before delving further into the review of this great classic, I have to point out something about the Kindle version of the book. Many people have reported it to be in fact not only abridged, but also improperly formatted in some cases. In other words, should you buy this book go for the paperback or audiobook versions.
The Humanity in the Inhuman
I feel one of the greatest knocks against Hemingway’s writing has been the lack of emotions felt by his characters. Despite them often being complex in their nature, what they reveal about themselves as well as their reactions have a tendency to feel limited at times, something which I felt from time to time with The Old Man and the Sea. We still have this same overall approach in this story, but I feel Hemingway gives us a larger window into the souls of the characters than in many of his other works. As concise as ever, the author masterfully allows his characters to express profound emotions and complex thoughts through fewer words than most of us thought imaginable. This talent comes in handy more than once as Hemingway puts much of the focus of this war book on the human dimension of it.
While many authors would prefer to dive into the military, political and ideological aspects of any given war, Hemingway shows a far more favourable predisposition towards looking at the other side of the coin, the one where all the lost souls and innocent victims reside. He has a truly uncanny ability for making us feel the profound suffering Jordan witnesses, contrasting often between hope and hopelessness, seemingly stuck in an eternal cycle. The fact the author traveled to Spain and witnessed the actual war first-hand really shines through at times, as some of the depictions feel so precise and spot on we could not imagine them being anything but direct accounts. These moments lend the book a special sort of credibility, one which makes us trust the author in his ability to accurately depict the human impact of the Spanish Civil War.
The Beauty in Atrocity
Though the country might be at war and strangling itself, it doesn’t mean it’s lacking for elements to appreciate. I think many will agree Hemingway’s greatest skill was making the most out of every single word he put on the page, managing to create large and evocative depictions with the smallest sentences. We observe this talent of his quite regularly as he takes the time to describe the country itself and the many marvels it holds in store for those willing to seek them out. His descriptions of the mountains and the countryside are especially poignant, playing an important role in helping you get into Jordan’s shoes and accept his perspective as the basis for the narration. The little details really jump out at you, and you can practically feel the breeze, blood and dirt within arm’s reach.
Speaking of beauty, I found the love story in this book was far more appealing and interesting than in most of Hemingway’s other novels. It felt much more complex than what I was expecting, touching on the various unseen nuances of love in a time of war. Even though neither Jordan nor Maria are particularly wordy, the connection between them is always real and palpable, and at times with mere looks they exchange more thoughts than they could with any words. It bears the marks of beauty, sadness, and confusion; there are times when they themselves don’t really know what they are feeling, and I feel in those moments they are at their most relatable.
The Final Verdict
For Whom the Bell Tolls is without a doubt one of Ernest Hemingway’s best novels, and I wouldn’t be surprised to know many place it on a pedestal as his magnum opus. It’s captivating from start to finish and explores the human realm of the Spanish Civil War like very few others could dream to. If you enjoy these sorts of war novels and are also perhaps seeking an introduction to this classic author, I would dare say reading this book is one of the best choices you could make.