Wednesday, July 12, 2006

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

 (Book Review)

Wow, did I love this book!

This is one of those books that’s been on my list for a long time, but that I kept putting off. I wanted to read it because I had heard it was about the Spanish Civil War, which is one of my historical interests because of the connection with anarchist and radical history. 5 years ago this is one of the few books I brought with me to Japan with the intention of reading, but never did.

I kept putting the book off because I had bad experiences with Hemingway in high school, and found the famous Hemingway style to be more annoying than anything else.

Perhaps I’ve matured as a reader, or perhaps this book is better than Hemingway’s usual, but I did not find Hemingway’s style as annoying as I remembered it. In fact I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The story takes place in the mountains behind the fascist lines among the guerrilla fighters. Robert Jordan is an American volunteer who has been sent to dynamite a bridge in the fascist territory. Pablo, the leader of the guerrilla’s, is opposed to this mission because he views it as an unnecessary risk.

The debate about whether or not to destroy the bridge takes up most of the book. In a way it reminded me of those George Romero Zombie movies. An army of zombies is outside the house, but the humans spend the whole time arguing among themselves. “Go to the basement.” “No stay upstairs!”

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” has the same sense of misdirected energy. The guerillas are deep behind fascist lines, but they spend most of their time arguing with each other. Although this is a tactical rather than ideological debate, I suspect Hemingway might have meant this to be symbolic of the Spanish Civil War as a whole, and the failure of the anti-fascist forces to form a United Front. The issue of internal divisions is addressed more explicitly later in the book. Near the end there is a passage when one of the characters is sent to deliver a crucial message and gets delayed first by paranoid Anarchists, next by bureaucratic republicans, and finally by purge happy communists. The end result is that the message arrives too late.

Its always difficult to tease out the political beliefs of an author based on statements made by his characters, but I suspect Hemingway and I do not line up exactly. Robert Jordan, the main character, makes a number of statements that I really agreed with, including the subject of hidden fascism in the United States. On the other hand, the anarchists in this book are portrayed as either useless or drunks. And several characters make racist statements against Gypsies. (I guess it might be unfair to extend these sentiments to Hemingway himself, but they are never corrected elsewhere in the book.)


But politics aside the book as a story is amazing. I think especially Hemingway has a real skill for conversation. Not necessarily “writing the way people talk” (in fact much of the dialogue sounded stilted) but rather having a sense for the natural flow conversations take. And also the mental thought process of the characters was very well described.

The book is not antiwar, at least not in the tradition of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The characters believe in the cause they are fighting for. But Hemingway makes a real effort to show the costs and misery of war. And the fascist soldiers are not shown as mindless robots to be killed like they would be in an Indiana Jones movie.

The theme of suicide is prevalent as well. Given how Hemingway ended his life, it’s interesting to see what his thoughts on the subject are.

Oh, and lest I forget, the book is also a love story. I guess I haven’t mentioned that yet, even though that’s the main point of the book. Actually the love story parts didn’t really stick with me that much. I enjoyed them for what they were, but it is the other themes of the book that I took more interest in. I guess there’s just no hope for me as a romantic.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Aquaman has been referenced on two occasions in the animated television series The Simpsons (1989—). In "Treehouse of Horror VIII" (airdate October 26, 1997), in a sequence entitled "The Homega Man," the Comic Book Guy is shown reading an Aquaman comic as he states aloud, "But Aquaman, you can't marry a girl without gills. You're from two different worlds." He looks up to see a neutron bomb heading directly for him and mutters, "Ooo, I wasted my life," just before the bomb explodes. In "Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder" (airdate November 14, 1999) when Homer is drowning at the beach, he shouts out to his infant daughter, "Maggie, help! Call Aquaman!"

Link of the Day
This one is old news, about 3 years ago now, but I wanted to link to it just because I realized I never linked to it before. A salon.com article on police spying in Grand Rapids.
I was in Japan when all this was going on, but I'm extremely proud to say I know most of the people mentioned in the article. Abby Puls is a good friend from Calvin, and in fact stayed over here at my parents house a few nights once when she was waiting on a ride home for Christmas break. Erica Freshour and Jeff Smith are friends from Media Mouse, and I've gone on many adventures with them including the Quebec protest.

I know many of you have already seen this article. I see Phil Christman even had a letter into Salon about it. I was asking Jeff Smith about this the other day, and he told me that they had told the local media all about it, but no one thought it was news worthy until after Salon did a piece on it. Only then did the Grand Rapids Press and others cover the incident. Pathetic.

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