Thursday, December 28, 2023

Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

This novel surprised me! The opening scene features the protagonist, Robert Jordan, laying out his plans to blow up a bridge to enable to Spanish Republicans to take a city over from the fascists, and I assumed this would be the inciting event to kick off the wave of action that the rest of the book would ride. Instead, the novel spans the two days leading up to the attack, every moment of the day catalogued in detail, from the typical thrilling events of an action movie (like scoping out enemy watch shifts) to the very mundane (sitting around campfires over dinner and talking). The slow unfolding of events gives space for an intensely realistic portrayal of life behind enemy lines (based on Hemingway's experiences in the Spanish Civil War, the book was a favourite among Cuban revolutionaries for its realism), and philosophical meditations on leadership.

Of the aspects of leadership explored, my favourite was the argument for strategic decision-making guided by science and engineering over impulsive action guided by blood-lust and vengeance. Repeatedly, Robert Jordan reins in his allies, who, in their desire to kill some fascists, might jeopardize the bridge objective. Repeatedly, he is proven correct, ultimately tragically correct. This kind of theme feels rare in war stories, which often feature story arcs in which the best laid plans of mice and men give way to heroic actions driven by gut feelings. It seems rare outside of action movies too: evidence-based long-term planning does not scream "gripping plot" and even the stories we tell about real world events are usually re-framed to emphasize in-the-moment decision-making and big personalities over careful team coordination and discipline in sticking to long-term goals despite temptations.

The philosophy was, however, a mixed bag: Robert Jordan's school of ethics was proudly eclectic. For him, philosophy is a matter of faith: you pick what you choose to believe and discard the rest. I would have preferred a protagonist who is as systematic in his philosophical thinking as he is in his assessment of how to place explosives or identification of men not up to the task of leading a rebel party.

The portrayal of women was abysmal. Although matriarch Pilar was quite fun, I gritted my teeth through the scenes with Maria (of which there were many). Maria, we are repeatedly told, would have been ever so beautiful if it weren't for the fact that her hair was short. Despite the disfiguring length of her hair, she has every man in the camp slobbering over how sexy she is, although she falls in love at first sight with Robert Jordan. She quickly dives into bed with him because she is told that sex with this complete stranger will cure her of her trauma from being violently sexually assaulted. She is very young, and naive to the ways of the world, and wants nothing more than to sexually please Robert Jordan and wash his socks. They agree to marry, and mother figure Pilar gives her helpful advice like "don't eat potatoes so you can maintain your figure", and Robert Jordan agrees with her on the importance of not getting fat and not eating potatoes. Insoportable.

The language of the story deserves commentary. I've seen elsewhere it has been criticized for its unnatural phrasing, but I loved it. The story is set in Spain but although it was originally written in English, it reads like an awkward translation from Spanish. The characters use "thou" and "you" for the informal and formal "tu" and "usted" as befitting their social relationships, and their speech is peppered with false-friend translations ("I could not support it" instead of "I couldn't stand it", taken from "no puedo soportarlo"). The main character, a Spanish teacher, muses at times on the fidelity of translation and the way etymology shifts across the european continent. Lots of fun easter eggs for fans of languages and people learning Spanish (i.e., me).

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