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‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemingway

Moving: A still from the 1943 movie adaptation starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.

Moving: A still from the 1943 movie adaptation starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.

With two world wars, the 20th century, not surprisingly, saw a profusion of anti-war books. Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, Irène Némirovsky — to name a handful — wrote on the devastating impact of conflict. In Heller’s absurd war novel, Catch 22 , American bombardier John Yossarian justifies to himself that his bombing missions over Italy are at odds with his intention to “live forever or die in the attempt”. But if Heller’s satire is about fear, Ernest Hemingway’s chilling, boots on the ground novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls , is about love and loss, life and death. When it was published in October 1940, The New York Times hailed it as the “most moving document” on the Spanish civil war and the “first major novel of the Second World War.”

War despatches

Hemingway had followed the Spanish conflict and reported it firsthand for the North American Newspaper Association, highlighting in his despatches the debilitating effects of war. In Spain, when a group of generals, Francisco Franco among them, rose against the ruling liberal Republican government in 1936, civil war broke out. For three years, Franco’s army (or the Nationalists) was resisted by a coalition of Republicans/ Loyalists and Communist forces that included the International Brigades, paramilitary units set up by the Communist International. But the Nationalists, which had sought the help of fascist forces in Germany and Italy, won and unleashed a reign of terror that continued long after the war.

In this backdrop, Hemingway writes the story of Robert Jordan, an American embedded with the International Brigades as a dynamiter. He is attached to an anti-fascist guerrilla unit in the Spanish Sierra and has to blow up a bridge crucial to the Nationalists so that the Republican Loyalist forces may advance. Over the nearly 500-page book, Jordan, who is a professor of Spanish in Montana, learns of the dangers of war and the close friendships it inevitably forms. In the pine forests high in the mountains, he runs into Maria, a young woman who has fled from Franco’s rebels after facing terrible atrocities. Drawn to Maria but lost in the cause, Jordan battles questions about life, death, war, politics.

Seizing moments

Jordan quickly acquaints himself with the guerrilla group led by Pablo and his strong wife, Pilar. Asked if he is a communist, he replies, “No, I am anti-fascist.” Pilar is curious: “For a long time?” she asks. “Since I have understood fascism,” he quips. Pablo is initially reluctant to be part of the bridge mission as he feels the fascist forces would hunt them down. But slowly the members come around. El Sordo, called the deaf man, is wary of the complicated plan which looks simple on paper but as Jordan knows, “paper bleeds little”. With uncertainty hanging in the air, Jordan and Maria can only talk about love and happiness, seizing moments to be together. “…in the meantime all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow… he thought and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it.”

Pared down descriptions — “your nationality and your politics did not show when you were dead” — and a poignant make-belief conversation between Jordan and Maria about the good times ahead lead us to the final battle. The fascists get wind of the offensive and are ready; Jordan sends a message to the commander but it’s too late. “Robert Jordan saw them there on the slope, close to him now, and below he saw the road and the bridge and the long lines of vehicles below it. He was completely integrated now and he took a good long look at everything.”

A word on the title: the story goes that Hemingway was unhappy with his initial choice, The Undiscovered Country . Finally, Hemingway found what he was searching for in The Oxford Book of Verse . Reading John Donne’s lines, “No man is an Iland… every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine… any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”, as his grandson, Sean Hemingway, writes in the Library edition, he thought they spoke of the “interconnectedness of humanity that matched the aspirations of his work.”

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 3:04:02 pm |