For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Just when I’d decided that Hemingway only ever wrote books about people getting drunk in cafes and thinking about how miserable they are, he surprises me and comes out with something like this. Naturally, the characters still get drunk and think about how miserable they are, but they do it while being guerrilla fighters in the Spanish Civil War, which makes it awesome.

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes that, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” I kept coming back to that quote as I read this book, because it proves that Robbins was absolutely right. For Whom the Bell Tolls is not an uplifting story, and it’s not moral. And when you’re writing about a ragtag bunch of rebels fighting a fascist army, that’s not easy to do. There are no good guys in this story, and no bad guys – not even the fascists.

“Good” and “Bad” in this story isn’t divided by such clear lines. Instead, the biggest enemy that the protagonist (I won’t use the word “hero”) Robert Jordan faces is within the rebel group itself – a lot of strong personalities are drawn together by this war, and throwing them all together and making them live in a cave maybe wasn’t the best way to go about things. The result is a fascinating portrait of a small group of people under enormous pressure, all trying to do the right thing even as they question what the right thing really is. Even when you’re fighting fascists, nothing is black and white.

Another observation: having previously believed that Hemingway was incapable of writing compelling female characters, I am now forced to revise that opinion. There are only two women in this book, but they are both fully realized and compelling. Other reviewers found Maria one-dimensional, but I thought she was fascinating because of what was hinted at, but not revealed, about her. Her staggering understatement to describe her time as a prisoner of war – “Things were done to me” – is wonderful. She was tragic and sweet, and on a related note, Hemingway writes some surprisingly good sex scenes, so there’s that.

And Pilar. Holy crap. Probably one of the most well-done characters I’ve ever read, she’s alternately the mother figure, the best friend, the confidante, and the villain. Pilar is my new spirit animal.

A war story without heroes or villains, full of hollow victories and rage against the bureaucracy of war and what people under pressure can be forced to do, filled with some very good meditations on killing and war and love, and the importance of acting beyond personal gain. Well done, Mr. Hemingway.

(I should also add that Campbell Scott, who read the audiobook, does a fantastic job – he makes the characters’ voices different enough for you to tell them apart without difficulty, and his Robert Jordan voice is exactly how I imagine Hemingway sounded in real life. If you’re considering reading this, I’d recommend tracking down the audio version)

Verdict: four out of five stars

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