For Whom the Bell Tolls

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” (John Donne)

The quote is printed in the book, on the page which comes before the first page of the first chapter. According to Wikiquote, this quote was the source for the title of the book.

The book feels reasonably long, not just because of the page count (490 pages in this edition) but also because of the way it’s structured. Considering that it’s a book about stuff taking place during a civil war, some people might be surprised at how relatively little actually ‘happens’ – though it’s hard to have it differently, considering that the main story spans only a few days. Much of the ‘action’ described in the book is stuff that happened to the people involved at some point in the past. It’s probably part of what makes the book good; people engaged in warfare one way or the other spend a lot of time waiting, and that waiting is an important part of this life. I did find in particular some of the Roberto/Maria sequences tiresome to read though. One thing worth noting here also is that I really didn’t like most of the people portrayed in the book. I’m not sure you’re supposed to, but to the extent that you are Hemingway missed his mark.

I read it in a couple of days and I didn’t read anything else while I was reading it, so it never got boring enough for me to ‘put it away for a while’. Some parts of the book is really great, some parts are not, and some of the great parts are hard to quote. I’ll only quote from the relatively good/great parts below, not the others, and I’ve left some of the best stuff out deliberately in part because some of it is just very hard to quote without including a lot of stuff to provide context:

“He would not think about that. That was not his business. That was Golz’s business. He had only one thing to do and that was what he should think about and he must think it out clearly and take everything as it came along, and not worry. To worry was as bad as to be afraid. It simply made things more difficult.”

“‘And this foreigner with the rare name, how did he die?’
‘He was captured and he killed himself.’
‘How did that happen?’
‘He was wounded and he did not wish to be a prisoner.’
‘What were the details?’
‘I don’t know,’ he lied. He knew the details very well and he knew they would not make good talking now.”

“He was violating the second rule of the two rules for getting on well with people that speak Spanish; give the men tobacco and leave the women alone; and he realized, very suddenly, that he did not care.”

“‘You do not like to hunt?’
‘No,’ said Robert Jordan. ‘I do not like to kill animals.’
‘With me it is the opposite,’ the old man said. ‘I do not like to kill men.’
‘Nobody does except those who are disturbed in the head,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘But I feel nothing against it when it is necessary. When it is for the cause.'”

“I was born ugly. All my life I have been ugly. You, Inglés, who know nothing about women. Do you know how an ugly woman feels? Do you know what it is to be ugly all your life and inside to feel that you are beautiful? […] Look at that ugliness. Yet one has a feeling within one that blinds a man while he loves you. You, with that feeling, blind him, and blind yourself. Then one day, for no reason, he sees you ugly as you really are and he is not blind any more and then you see yourself as ugly as he sees you and you lose your man and your feeling. […] ‘After a while, when you are as ugly as I am, as ugly as women can be, then, as I say, after a while the feeling, the idiotic feeling that you are beautiful, grows slowly in one again. It grows like a cabbage. And then, when the feeling is grown, another man sees you and thinks you are beautiful and it is all to do over. Now I think I am past it, but it still might come.”

“‘”What are you going to do with us?” one asked him.
‘”Shoot thee,” Pablo said.
‘”When?” the man asked in the same gray voice.
‘”Now,” said Pablo.
‘”Where?” asked the man.
‘”Here,” said Pablo. “Here. Now. Here and now. […]
‘”Kneel, I say,” Pablo said. “Get down and kneel.”
‘”How does it seem to you, Paco?” one civil said to the tallest, who had spoken with Pablo about the pistol. He wore a corporal’s stripes on his sleeves and was sweating very much although the early morning was still cool.
‘”It is as well to kneel,” he answered. “It is of no importance.”
‘”It is closer to the earth,” the first one who had spoken said, trying to make a joke, but they were all too grave for a joke and no one smiled.
‘”Then let us kneel,” the first civil said, and the four knelt, looking very awkward with their heads against the wall and their hands by their sides, and Pablo passed behind them and shot each in turn in the back of the head with the pistol, going from one to another and putting the barrel of the pistol against the back of their heads, each man slipping down as he fired. I can hear the pistol still, sharp and yet muffled, and see the barrel jerk and the head of the man drop forward. One held his head still when the pistol touched it. One pushed his head forward and pressed his forehead against the stone. One shivered in his whole body and his head was shaking. Only one put his hands in front of his eyes, and he was the last one, and the four bodies were slumped against the wall when Pablo turned away from them and came toward us with the pistol still in his hand. […] ‘”Now let us go and get coffee,” I said.
‘”Good, Pilar, good,” he said. And we went up into the town to the Plaza, and those were the last people who were shot in the village.’
‘What happened to the others?’ Robert Jordan asked. ‘Were there no other fascists in the village?’
Qué va, were there no other fascists? There were more than twenty. But none was shot.’
‘What was done?’
‘Pablo had them beaten to death with flails and thrown from the top of the cliff into the river.'” [actually it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but don’t worry – she gives a very detailed account of what happened in the book. I won’t quote from that, but that part is very well written and it makes the execution scene quoted above look like a walk in the park in comparison.]

“‘That’s my town,’ Joaquín said. ‘What a fine town but how the buena gente, the good people of that town, have suffered in this way.’ Then, his face grave, ‘There they shot my father. My mother. My brother-in-law and now my sister.’
‘What barbarians,’ Robert Jordan said.
How many times had he heard this? How many times had he watched people say it with difficulty? How many times had he seen their eyes fill and their throats harden with the difficulty of saying my father, or my brother, or my mother, or my sister? He could not remember how many times he had heard them mention their dead in this way. Nearly always they spoke as this boy did now; suddenly and apropos of the mention of the town and always you said, ‘What barbarians.’
You only heard the statement of the loss. You did not see the father fall as Pilar made him see the fascists die in that story she had told by the stream. You knew the father died in some courtyard, or against some wall, or in some field or orchard, or at night, in the lights of a truck, beside some road. You had seen the lights of the car from the hills and heard the shooting and afterwards you had come down to the road and found the bodies. You did not see the mother shot, nor the sister, nor the brother. You heard about it; you heard the shots; and you saw the bodies. Pilar had made him see it in that town. […]

Because of our mobility and because we did not have to stay afterwards to take the punishment we never knew how anything really ended, he thought. You stayed with a peasant and his family. You came at night and ate with them. In the day you were hidden and the next night you were gone. You did your job and cleared out. The next time you came that way you heard that they had been shot. It was as simple as that.
But you were always gone when it happened. The partizans did their damage and pulled out. The peasants stayed and took the punishment. I’ve always known about the other, he thought. What we did to them at the start. I’ve always known it and hated it and I have heard it mentioned shamelessly and shamefully, bragged of, boasted of, defended, explained and denied. But that damned woman made me see it as though I had been there.”

“At either of those places you felt that you were taking part in a crusade. That was the only word for it although it was a word that had been so worn and abused that it no longer gave its true meaning. […] It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. 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; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your duty. […] It had seemed just and right and necessary that the men who ran were shot. There was nothing wrong about it. Their running was selfishness.”

“He is a Christian. Something very rare in Catholic countries.”

“wouldn’t it be a luxury to fight in a war some time where, when you are surrounded, you could surrender? Estamos copados. We are surrounded. That was the great panic cry of this war. The next thing was that you were shot; with nothing bad before if you were lucky.”

“My [Maria’s] father was the Mayor of the village and an honorable man. My mother was an honorable woman and a good Catholic and they shot her with my father because of the politics of my father who was a Republican. I saw both of them shot and my father said, “Viva la República,” when they shot him standing against a wall of the slaughterhouse of our village.
‘My mother standing against the same wall said, “Viva my husband who was the Mayor of this village,” and I hoped they would shoot me too and I was going to say “Viva la República y vivan mis padres,” but instead there was no shooting but instead the doing of things. […]
I will not talk of that which is bad.”

“He sat there, his moustache and his eyes focused on the map, on the map that he never truly understood, on the brown tracing of the contours that were traced fine and concentric as a spider’s web. He could see the heights and the valleys from the contours but he never really understood why it should be this height and why this valley was the one. But at the General Staff where, because of the system of Political Commissars, he could intervene as the political head of the Brigades, he would put his finger on such and such a numbered, brown-thin-lined encircled spot among the greens of woods cut by the lines of road that parallel the never casual winding of a river and say, ‘There. This is the point of weakness.’
Gall and Copic, who were men of politics and of ambition, would agree and later, men who never saw the map, but heard the number of the hill before they left their starting place and had the earth of diggings on it pointed out, would climb its side to find their death along its slope or, being halted by machine guns placed in olive groves would never get up it at all. Or on other fronts they might scale it easily and be no better off than they had been before. But when Marty put his finger on the map in Golz’s staff the scar-headed, white-faced General’s jaw muscles would tighten and he would think, ‘I should shoot you, André Marty, before I let you put that gray rotten finger on a contour map of mine. Damn you to hell for all the men you’ve killed by interfering in matters you know nothing of. […]
But instead of saying that Golz would only lean back away from the leaning bulk, the pushing finger, the watery gray eyes, the gray-white moustache and the bad breath and say, ‘Yes, Comrade Marty. I see your point. It is not well taken, however, and I do not agree. You can make it a Party matter as you say. But I do not agree.'”


July 19, 2012 - Posted by | Books


  1. I forget whether I asked this before, but if you have time, I’d be interested to know what you make of my little essay

    Comment by gwern | July 19, 2012 | Reply

    • You may have, I think I remember now – I had forgotten about that though.

      I know next to nothing about Greenland and I know next to nothing about why Danish politicians made the decisions they did when they did.

      But I don’t mind taking a look at your notes, I have time for that sort of thing now (no book this summer). However I sincerely doubt any sort of contribution I am able to make will be worth much.

      Comment by US | July 20, 2012 | Reply

      • I figured that you know more about Denmark than I do and can highlight any glaring mistakes. And if there weren’t any, well, it’s a moderately interesting economics topic anyway.

        Comment by gwern | July 22, 2012

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