Thursday, October 11, 2007

Well , that's really sad. My last completed book was nearly two months ago now. Sheesh... I really have got to stop reading multiple books at once. Nothing gets read quickly then.

Number 22 is For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. (hereafter abreviated as FWtBT)

One of the benefits of an English degree earned at a Canadian university is that you don't have to read a lot of American literature. Of course, you have to read a lot of stuff written by dead British guys and insufferable Canadians, but that's not really a surprise.

So, because I only had to take one half credit in American Lit, my exposure to Papa Hemingway has been rather limited. Limited to one short story actually, The Snows of Kilimonjaro. It wasn't until well out of university that, upon a friend's recommendation, I delved into a Hemingway novel, The Sun Also Rises. Which, I did enjoy, as there was a weirdly autobiographical element to it that I won't get into, but suffice to say it's there.

I'd been meaning to pick up FWtBT for sometime, having enjoyed my first dip into the Hemingway pool enough to go back again, and came close to picking up a cheap copy of it at a discounted/used book store. How fortunate I didn't, as I discovered a copy down in the basement amongst my brother's books.

I really liked it. It's an... odd book to get the feel of because its mainly written from the pov of Robert Jordan (the main character and not the fantasy author of the same name), who is an American ex-pat acting as a guerilla fighter for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. So basically, none of the dialogue is actually in English, and Hemingway captures the slight disconnect between the American and his Spanish comrades. Jordan speaks Spanish, but its not his native tongue of course, so now and then, he and his comrades don't understand one another. And the speech is actually simplistic sometimes as they try to get their points across to one another (this is especially noticable when Jordan goes to meet one of the rebel leaders El Sordo. El Sordo, not realizing (or perhaps caring) that Jordan can speak Spanish very well, speaks to him almost as one would a child, in a strange, simplisitc patois).

I also like how all the characters swear a lot (especially the Spanish ones), yet Hemingway only inserts "obsenity" in place of the actual swear word. One of the more common curses was "I obsenity in the milk of thy..." whatever they were describing. I found it became a fun game to mentally puzzle in which curse word was most appropriate in the sentence. I'm not sure if this was a stylistic choice of Hemingway's or simply because, when he was writing, you just didn't write down the swear words. Either way, I actually found it fun.

But overall, FWtBT is not a fun book. It is a graphic, brutally honest depiction of war. It tells of close comradeship, betrayal, competence, incompetence, love, hatred, attrocity, everything that goes on in a war. Even the tactical writing is extremely well done, from El Sordo's last stand to the blowing of the bridge, the reason that Robert Jordan meets up with the guerilla band in the first place. And the description of what Pablo did to the Facists in his village was just... hard to read. But it was an excellent, scary and probably disturbingly realistic portrayal of mob rule and brutality.

The ending's not exactly a happy one either. I don't know why I really expected there to be one, and I guess, its open ended enough that you could shoehorn one in there if that's what you really need to do... but that wouldn't work for me. I think Robert Jordan took a few of the enemy down with him at end, but I don't think he survived either. And I think he was very accepting of that.