For Whom the Bell Tolls is my first Ernest Hemingway. It tells the story of an American man, Robert Jordan. Robert is originally from Montana, where he taught Spanish at the university, but he is now living in Spain and has taken up with a band of guerilla fighters during the Spanish Civil War. The band of fighters are committed to the Republic (to various degrees), as is Robert. Some are true Communists; others merely believe that the Republic, which had a veneer of democracy, was more suited to power than Franco’s rebel fascists. Robert joins them as a dynamiter to help them blow up an important bridge, falling for the beautiful Maria in the process.

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I don’t tend to give books star ratings any more, and this book is a prime example of why. I would rate it as a five star war story marred by an extremely one star romance.  There were many wonderful elements, which I am going to start with. Pilar is the most interesting character in the novel. She’s an older woman who has taken over the leadership of the group of fighters after her partner, Pablo, became disillusioned and reliant on alcohol. Pilar is a fantastic storyteller, and tells tales of her former lovers and the early days of the war. It’s Pilar talking during the most affecting scene in the whole book. Towards the start of the novel, she begins to talk about what it was like in the early days, when the locals started killing fascist rebels. It’s an extremely chilling depiction that goes some way to explaining the atrocities that entirely ordinary people commit at times like this. The reader watches in fascination and horror as what starts as a very sober, sorrowful affair descends quickly into the actions of an excited, bloodthirsty mob. As Pilar tells the story, even though she is committed to the Republic, she does not turn away from the terror of what her own side has done. It’s a very vivid depiction of the vagaries of communism, as well – at one point, one of the ringleader peasants uses the turn of phrase “our Lord”, and within seconds he is being threatened with execution himself.

The other character I really loved was Anselmo, an elderly man who is completely committed to the Republic, but prior to it had been very devout. He feels the loss of the church, ordered by the Republic, keenly. Anselmo grieves at the loss of life that has been occasioned by the war, and struggles with his own guilt at the things he has done. He spends a lot of the novel wondering to himself what penance they will all have to do, as a nation, once the war has been won. He thinks about who will forgive them their sins, now that there is no God any more. Through both Pilar and Anselmo, we get a much more nuanced picture of the war. There is no “good” side. That’s appropriate for a war between communists and fascists, but it’s also a more general observation. Even in fights where there is a right side and a wrong one, the “good guys” often end up committing terrible atrocities. There is no such thing as a war where one side has clean hands at the end. Given the perception that I had of Hemingway before going into this, I was surprised that this book worked so powerfully in demonstrating that war should be an absolute last resort.

It took me a long time to get into the peculiar style that Hemingway uses, especially in dialogue, to suggest that this is a translation from Spanish. I liked the use of “thee” and “thy” once I got accustomed to it, but the replacement of swearwords with “obscenity” or “unprintable” never really felt natural to me. It wouldn’t be so bad, except that there are two whole pages where Robert Jordan is flying into an angry rage and “muck/mucking” is used in almost every sentence instead of a similar-sounding word. It’s clearly meant to build tension, but instead it was ridiculous and I was laughing throughout. Apart from in that section, though, it didn’t detract too much. The sections of the prose describing the countryside are stunning, and I really felt like he evoked the setting well – the cave in which the band of fighters sleep and eat; the sudden snowstorm; the beauty of the landscape contrasted with the ugliness of battle. 

If the story had just been about Pilar and her band of guerilla soldiers, I think it might have become a forever favourite. I can definitely see why so many people love it. I just couldn’t get past the sour taste that the romance left in my mouth. Maria is nineteen. She was previously kidnapped and repeatedly raped by a gang of fascists, before she was rescued by Pilar and the others. The minute Robert sees her, he is powerfully attracted to her, which both he and the novel mistake for love at first sight. Apparently sleeping with him cures her of all traumas, because the only time this ever comes up is when it affects her attractiveness/availability to him. Firstly, when he finds out about her having been raped, and she becomes briefly less appealing because she isn’t fresh; then when their relationship aggravates an old wound and she is in too much pain to have sex with him. She makes up for these “failures” with slavish devotion, and he responds by patronising her and shielding her from any kind of real conversation. When she tries to tell him about her experiences with the fascists, he keeps interrupting her and telling her to stop talking. Ugh. There is also a lot of ugly chat about marriage, and how a man should have put it about before marriage, but a woman should be a virgin (or, I guess, have been repeatedly gang raped). Also, did you know there are foods you should abstain from in order to be a good wife? Whiskey, which is not a feminine drink, and potatoes, which make you fat and therefore less appealing as a wife. It’s all pretty gross.

And then there’s this. At one point, he is lying in bed next to her, getting angrier and angrier about unrelated topics. After he calms down slightly, the following occurs:

‘And you, you poor rabbit,’ he leaned over and said to Maria, who smiled in her sleep and moved close against him. ‘I would have struck thee there a while back if thou had spoken. What an animal a man is in a rage.” 

Of course, “what an animal a man is in a rage” is a good summing-up of the novel – anger can make anyone a monster – but, you know, lots of men get angry and don’t hit their partners. It’s not like an inevitable relationship progression: man meets girl, man sleeps with girl, man is angry, man hits girl. The whole thing is unsettlingly casual, and it feels like there could have been a different way of making the same point.

I am generally pretty cold-hearted about love stories in novels, especially love at first sight (and, actually, when real people tell me they have fallen in love at first sight, I have to consciously work not to roll my eyes). There are some books I really love that have romances in them – I can still remember how I felt when I read “Say, Anne, did you know Gilbert Blythe is [REDACTED]?” in Anne of the Island – so I’m not completely a robot. It’s true, though, that novels which are committing a lot of page space to a love story have to work harder to win me over. Perhaps I am being too hard on this one as a result. It’s certainly a testament to how good the book is that, despite the tedious and unsavoury romance, I still enjoyed as much as I did. I am very glad I read this, and I will be picking up more Hemingway in the future – I’ll just be screening them carefully beforehand to make sure they don’t have too much of this nonsense in them!