I hadn’t read this one when I picked it up in Cash Converters (yes, they sell books as well). It’s hard to find English books in Lisbon, so the two choices in the shop were Dan Brown’s Deception Point and this. Deception Point I read in three days and you can pretty much imagine that it was like his other books, should you choose to, because it is – as with most genre authors, you get the experience you expected. Having finished Dan Brown, I picked this up not really knowing what to expect. I knew that it was about the Spanish Civil War, but not much more than that.
For Whom The Bell Tolls follows Robert Jordan, a university Spanish teacher turned dynamiter for the Communist cause. We’re first introduced to him sizing up a bridge that needs to be blown up as part of a major attack. The inevitability of death figures throughout the book – Jordan initially believes he won’t survive the bridge attack and having accepted that, meets a woman named Maria who had escaped Franco’s forces. (So far I’ve not mentioned anything not on the back cover of my edition of the book – I’m trying to avoid spoilers, if you can believe that’s relevant for a book that’s currently 77 years old.)
The other thing that stood out, 77 years later, is the casual acceptance of bullfighting and of cruelty to animals. Nothing of the sort actually happens in the book, but it’s discussed fairly openly, and jarred a little with me. Coming at it with a 21st century mindset you see how people’s attitudes have – and haven’t – changed in that time, and it’s an interesting experience.
It’s heavily based on his experiences as a journalist covering the war a year or so before, and the characters – while based on real people – are heavily fictionalised. The language has perhaps dated in the years since – “I obscenity in the milk of your kindness” may be an accurate translate, but the euphemism feels quaintly dated today. The use of “thee” and “thou”, for the Spanish tu, while accurate, didn’t help me much – suddenly the Spanish all had broad Yorkshire accents. If you’re not from Yorkshire, that probably won’t bother you.
The relevance of the novel on its first publication in 1940 must have been different in both Europe and the US. Here in Europe, the war against Nazism was already raging. Franco’s cause – which had already lost the Spanish Civil War by this point – was allied with Hitler. But what shines through strongly is the sheer futility of war, the waste of life, and how it can bring out the best and the worst in us all; as Churchill is reputed to have said, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
Incidentally – as if it really matters – it’s much more readable (to my mind) than Dan Brown. Hemingway is a much better craftsman of language. Dan Brown is like the handy relative who makes a bookshelf in his garage on a weekend – he writes serviceable prose, but here and there you can see the tool marks and so long as you don’t look too carefully it looks okay. Hemingway is a fully-trained artisan – every joint and surface is sanded beautifully and French polished. You can look at the language all day and marvel at how it’s done. You may not enjoy his writing style – plenty of people don’t – but it’s not because it’s all he can do, it’s because it’s a careful, measured style, designed to communicate clearly what he wants to say.
In all, this is one of the classics, and you should really consider reading it. It’s not for the squeamish, and not for those who want to be insulated from some of the horrors of this world. But it certainly made me think, and changed my opinions a little.