The Spanish Civil War has inspired a whole body of work in art and literature. I am not much of an art historian, but I remember being awe struck standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia. I had not known much about the civil war then but I had vaguely heard about General Franco and his atrocities. It was around that time that I came to know about Hemingway’s love for the Spanish culture and his various books influenced by Spain. Finally after 12 years of that initial discovery, have I finally read what is widely considered one of his best works.
Robert Jordan the protoganist is an American from Montana and a teacher of Spanish. He is one of the thousands of international volunteers who are fighting in the mountains of Spain, for the Republican cause against the Fascist forces (later to be led by General Franco). The belief is that the defeat of democracy and liberalism in Spain would be the defeat of good across the world. Robert mobilizes a guerrilla band to help him blow up an enemy held bridge ahead of a republican attack. The book is set over a 3 day period when the attack is planned and executed.
The title of the book is taken directly from 16th century poet John Donne, reproduced below and seeks to capture Robert’s motivation to fight in a foreign war. In our era of individualism and rising nationalism, these lines resonate profoundly:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
The language used in the book is striking. All the dialogues in Active case are presented as literally translated from Spanish as spoken, which leads to frequent usage of old English forms like ‘thee’, ‘thine’ and ‘thou’. The book is set in a mountain cave where the guerrilla band is hiding. The camaraderie among the band members is heart warming. The casual use of abusive language is hilarious; what makes it funnier is Hemingway’s literal translations and ‘bleeping’ of some words. Here’s an example: “Thou can ‘obscenity’ thyself in the milk of thy forefathers”. Literally read, this means nothing but anybody who has ever been in a team, band, fraternity (or sorority) would instantly know what is being implied. Abusive language is the universal idiom of friendship and mutual comfort.
Robert’s short but intense relationship with Maria is beautifully portrayed – made all the more poetic by the use of old English. His imagination of a future together in Madrid is described in the form of long meditations that Robert undergoes in the face of impending death. These are probably the most brutal passages in the book; even while they are clearly optimistic, one cannot escape their improbability.
The description of atrocities on both sides of the political divide are graphic and point to the mindlessness of the whole episode. It also talks of the helplessness of the individual soldier once the war machine is unleashed. Warring factions have political differences; the individuals by themselves are very similar on both sides – good and evil in equal part. There are frequent references to a soldier’s anguish as he balances the need to fight for a just cause with the need to kill another fellow countrymen, not dissimilar to him in most respects. History tells us that the fascist forces went on to win the war and ruled Spain till 1975.
This is a very readable book which tackles a very serious subject with simple earthy language. Human emotion has been acutely observed and portrayed. This book has been made into a movie in 1943 – that’s next on my watchlist.