Monday, February 02, 2009

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls is a great work of literature, an insightful journey into the minds and hearts of Spanish guerillas held out in the mountains fighting the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. A story detailing the horrors of war, the effects of said horrors upon the minds and psyches of the victims and the aggressors. A story of the excesses of war and violence like no other I have read before.

Unfortunately, the book in many places repeats Stalinist propaganda. Unknown to those who have not studied the Spanish Civil War is the fact that Stalin’s “Popular Front” played a large role in the Spanish Republic, communists having joined the Republic in defense against the fascists and in offense against the Trotskyists, anarchists and workers and peasants who, in the face of the failure of the Republican government, organized cities and farm land under shop committees, collectives and community centers.

Ernest Hemingway unfortunately appears to defend in the book the murder in cold blood of such Trotskyists and anarchists – who were imprisoned, placed in labor camps, tortured and murdered (it was these murderous purges that motivated George Orwell to write Animal Farm ) – as well as providing the counterrevolutionary Stalinist caricature of them as wild, undisciplined, beasts of men who need to be murdered.
However, fortunately, these severe drawbacks of the book are few, there is positive mention of the great anarchist leader Durruti and the greatness of the other aspects of the book overwhelm the vulgarity of the Stalinist propaganda. Possibly and most likely Hemingway was simply mislead and honesty believed in these things.

The love story, between Robert Jordan and Maria, although at times very sexist in nature (surely an accurate representation of sex roles at the time) shows how the light of humanity can shine through even the most horrific events and the darkness of war. Hemingway’s romantic depiction of the “good” Spanish and of Spanish ways of talking, thinking and of their customs is insightful and brilliant and his depiction of their camaraderie, fraternity and solidarity is fantastic, as is his depiction of their ideals (as ill conceived as the unfortunate drawbacks were) and how they motivate a religious-like righteousness that is able to overcome the most difficult and horrific obstacles. It’s difficult to put into words the brilliance of these aspects.

All in all a great work of literature, a giant, that stands the test of time; worthy of being read by all, though surely with the qualifications cited in mind and in conjunction with, say, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.