“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by #ErnestHemmingway


Written by PresidentElla

Hemingway drags out 4 days over 500 pages but I’m not complaining because he takes just as much time crafting the love scenes as the war scenes. He writes about the complexities of life with the same ease and experienced lover makes love — fluidly and unbound by time.  

With that fluidity, Hemingway drops us into mountains somewhere in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. He introduced us to every person he meets with the brutal truth of an outsider; exposing their flaws and trying to find a use or place for them in your current life. Living in a cave with commoners turned guerrilla until, Roberto is under orders of the Spanish army to blow up a bridge in just 4 days. Maybe this is only possible in a book: for a lone soldier to befriend people enough to convince them to join his fight and give their lives for their country. Roberto spends his days learning people, giving orders and learning to give people orders. He spends his nights in a sleeping bag, waiting for his lover to arrive and help him escape, if only for a moment, into a place of pure bliss and happiness in which we might find his own purpose.

Success in war is only successful if the other side fails. Anselmo, an old gentlemen who becomes Roberto’s main ally on the mountain, is the most vocal about his distaste for killing. I don’t think killing should be fun for anyone, but I’m sure it get sickening if your main memory of killing is when you rushed into a town and beat all of the men with farm tools until they threw themselves off a bridge. 

There are spells in which you cannot take your eyes from the page: The story of when they raided the town and  killed the townspeople. The story of the Gypsy woman, Pilar, and her matador boyfriend and his untimely death. Maria’s life story of how they killed her parents, cut off her hair and kept her for days on end, doing what they wanted to do to her, in groups at a time. Then there was when Roberto and Maria made love for the first time and it felt like the world stopped because it really goes on for ages. You forget it’s only been 4 days until Roberto reminds you. 

At the very end, all is lost. Roberto actually completes  his mission: the bridge is blown. But the results aren’t the way he would want to. He remains the sanest, most respectable man until the very last note on the very last page of this book. I suppose the book opens with this quote:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

because every single action Roberto had to make, involved someone else. You’d think that all you need to blow up a bridge is a bomb and a guy to push the button. But you need lookouts and back up and people to kill the guardsmen on duty and those to fight the guardsmen that will arrive at the sound of gunfire. The whole time, where do you put your girlfriend: watching your getaway horses. Even though Roberto came up to that mountain alone, he could not complete his task alone — as an island. Even in his last moment, his only way to save himself is to save the group, because if you are the only thing holding the island back… would you let go of you? 

Being a leader, I think, is often misunderstood. Today, I think we see “bosses” as people who give orders, not those on the front lines with you. It difficult to fight everyone’s fight. Or to split your fight and still understand the greater goal of the group. I think we are in war almost every day, in our own worlds. But perhaps if we take the time to plan our moves carefully and assemble an army we can work with, we can make it. 

Like Hemingway’s other novels, this is genius. Depressing, but genius. 


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