Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It tolls for thee ...

Death of a Loyalist Soldier, photograph by Robert Capa, September 5, 1936

It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as a religious experience and yet it was as authentic ... it was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance ... But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight.
For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940) 507 pages

I had forgotten the formality of Hemingway's "translation" of the Spanish language here. It takes a while to get back into the rhythm of the speech - the "thee"s and "thou"s and "hast"s, etc ... as Hemingway's attempts to approximate the formality of the Spanish language (but in the English language).

The absurd, over the top machismo of his oeuvre is still appealing to me - his obsession with masculinity and defining it, demonstrating it, idolizing it, rattles my teeth at times. Despite the bravado and posturing he often seems a lonely, fragile man to me. Still he was a superb writer. One of my literary heroes.

And though at times it reads like an advert for the Spanish tourist board (especially the end of chapter 8) which sings the praises of the beauty of Spain and its inhabitants it is still an immensely appealing story of valour and personal courage. But what saves his overzealousness for me is his sharped eyed view of the Republicans and their flaws.

Robert Jordan, an American and expert dynamiter fighting the fascists in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in June 1937 over the course of three days, has come to a small town behind enemy lines to blow up a strategically placed bridge. He rendezvous with a guerrilla troop of Republicans who are to assist him in blowing up the bridge. They are lead by Pablo, the once ferocious leader of the Republicans in this area, who notoriously had ordered the elimination of almost all the fascists within a village in a brutal fashion. More on that later ...

Pablo seems to have lost his nerve, or appetite for blood perhaps, and is being supplanted by his wife Pilar, a very strong and determined anti-fascist who is even willing to sacrifice Pablo for the cause. There is also Anselmo, a sort of father figure for Robert, and various other peasants who have been enlisted to the cause.

The Republicans are also accompanied by a young girl named Maria, who has been ill used by the fascists and has fallen in love with Robert. The two are immediately drawn to each other and she becomes his, virtually given to him by Pilar who has decided that Robert can best take care of her.

There is a foreshadowing of what is to come when Pilar reads Robert's palm but refuses to tell him what it says. The sense of impending doom permeates all that follows.

Robert is immensely romantic, both in love with the Republican cause and with the tender Maria, with Spain itself: its food, drink, the beauty of the countryside, the customs, language and rituals. But he is not fooled by the Spaniards. He realizes that, "Of course they turned on you. They turned on you often but they turned on everyone They turned on themselves too." The book illustrates the brutality of both the Nationalists and the Republicans during the war.

There are lovely passages where we see a gentler side of Jordan during the conflict. He imagines Maria in Montana, in the midst of a pleasant domesticity and realizes this will likely never happen. He dreams of their life in together in Madrid. He dreams of Garbo, he dreams of Harlow. In short, he dreams of the happiness which eludes him during the course of his work in Spain.

Despite this gruff exterior, this is the writing of an intensely romantic and passionate man ... the interminable and clumsy speech on how much he loves Maria ("I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of man ...") illustrates as much.

Robert senses that Pablo is slowly losing faith in the cause and may do something drastic. Pablo seems haunted by the memory of the killing of the fascists which he ordered. The men were dragged one by one and made to pass through a long line of Republican supporters who hit the men with flails and then pushed them over a cliff to their death - it's a graphic and bloody and very long sequence related by Pilar. This scene appears to be based on real events that took place in Ronda in 1936. I wonder about the meaning of this - is it to illustrate the Republicans could be as brutal as the Nationalists?

But a decision has to be made about Pablo who is endangering the mission with his drunkenness and volatility and the group decides that it is Robert who must kill him. Robert keeps a wary eye on him as the defacto leader of the group.

On the eve of blowing up the bridge, Robert tries to bolster his confidence thinking of his grandfather's exploits, the very man who killed Union soldiers and Indians as a soldier of the Confederacy.

Masculinity, the cult of masculinity, the construct which we create and build and fortify with myth and emotion, of which Hemingway was a worshiper, requires tokens of affirmation ... why else would warriors take the heads (as in this novel) or scalps, war bonnets, arrowheads (as Robert's American grandfather did) of their slain opponents which Robert nostalgically reminisces about in chapter 30. Robert's idealism about war seems to stem from conversations with his paternal grandfather who fought in the American Civil War. Read in this chapter Hemingway's almost erotic fetishization of his grandfather's saber, his pistol, which was also the pistol that Robert's father killed himself with (Hemingway's father also killed himself). Remember that pistol because Robert does ...

Vidi Robert's long interior monologue about his father's suicide using his grandfather's cherished pistol. He calls his father a coward and hopes that he has his grandfather's courage. He muses that his father might have been different if his mother had not bullied his father.

With two or three digressions and plot twists, the bridge is blown but there is a cost ... which Robert and the others must pay. And Robert must determine if he indeed does have his grandfather's courage in the end.

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