I chose this for my book group to read – what a big mistake! I have read Death in the Afternoon and the Old Man and the Sea and was largely bored, the saving grace of the latter was its brevity, unfortunately For Whom the Bell Tolls is 500 pages of depressing boredom. Now I wasn’t expecting to have a laugh whilst reading this but I thought the story would be interesting considering it is based during the Spanish Civil War.
The protagonist Robert Jordan is a young American volunteer fighting with a Republican guerilla band. It describes the three? days he spends with the band trying to blow up a vital bridge.
This novel deals with the horrors of the Civil War and although told from the Republican perspective shows the atrocities on both sides. One of the most disturbing passages deals with the horrific beating to death of fascists in a village and their bodies being thrown over the cliff. As I read this I thought it sounded familiar and later realised that it is based on events that took place in Ronda in 1936. I find it so difficult to reconcile what I have read about the Civil War with the Spain of today and its friendly people and the beautiful, quiet villages like Ronda, especially when you consider that the events that occurred are relatively recent. This is because they are not spoken about a great deal the El Pacto de Olvido (Pact of Forgetting) made after the death of Franco still seems to be very strong despite the Ley de Memoria Historica (Law of Historic Memory) of 2007 which tried to recognise the victims of the Civil War allowing mass graves to be open.
A passage that particularly stumped me was, “you forget the beauties of a civil war when you keep your mind too much on your work”. This is said just after a description of how best to kill yourself by slitting your carotid artery. Now I would say this meant to be ironic but could not find much evidence of irony in this passage.
People praise Hemingway’s direct and simple style of writing but I didn’t like it. Apparently the prose style and dialogue in Hemingway’s novel has been a source of controversy and some negative critical reaction. His translations of Spanish are strange with characters talking as if they are from the Medieval period, constantly using thee and thou. I also read that much of the dialogue in the novel is an implied direct translation from Spanish, producing an often strained English equivalent. There is also a lot of Spanish swearing which is often untranslated, which seems to be pretty realistic to me – Spanish people are always swearing but it is not really considered as harsh as it is in English.
My favourite part was the title, it comes from John Donne’s Meditation no. 17 (1624):
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man 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 thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The book mirrors this with its frequent references to premonitions of death. So overall not my top read of the year but at least we will have something to talk about at the book club.
If you are interested here is a link to a radio 4 programem with Melvyn Bragg on the Spanish Civil War.