The Spanish civil war is one of those strange historical events for me that floats indeterminately within my understanding of the 20th century. The Boer war, the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, are all conflicts with strong dates and context for me. The Spanish war, though, has no date that I could immediately offer, and features in my memory more for impression of the way it attracted people from other parts of the world to fight, on both sides, not at the behest of their governments (with some exceptions - the soviet union, perhaps), but for individual, ideological reasons.
One such person is Robert Jordan, Hemingway's protagonist, an American university teacher who has been in Spain fighting for a year when the book's story takes place. Remarkably for what is a substantial book, the story takes place over the course of perhaps 4 days, with only occasional flashbacks to fighting earlier in the war or to Jordan's time spent in Madrid. Jordan is sent to a small encampment of rebels in the hills to rally them and destroy a bridge in order to support an attack. The action sequences, mostly in the final third of the book, are detailed and compelling, but the reason they work is because Hemingway does such a wonderful job of drawing the characters and their relationships. We get a really strong sense of Jordan, and the small group of rebels with whom he fights - Maria, the damaged girl with whom he falls in love, the worn-out rebel leader and his fiery but protective wife, and the old man who accompanies him the camp. We learn how they each got to where they are in the war, why they are fighting, and when they do what they do in the combat sequences, we know why, and we care what happens.
Like The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway does a remarkable job of conveying a sense of place and the character not just of the individuals, but of the people as a group. He uses simple language, but the reader comes away really sensing the pine forests, the snow as it falls on them, the hills and the bridge. Once again he uses this wonderful device of writing in literal translation from the Spanish. It gives a strange impression at first - the text is littered with thees and thous - but it is distinctive and feels true, and I loved it.
Having read the book, I am no more able than I was before to tell you in what year it was set. I couldn't tell you details about major battles or the significant figures on each side. But I come away with a stronger sense of why some of the "little" people were there, and what the battles, atrocities and losses meant for them.
I'm on a bit of a run of Hemingway at the moment, but I'm trying hard to pace myself. I have A Moveable Feast in my pile, but before getting to it (or the other 5 or 6 books awaiting me), I have returned to Le Comte de Monte Cristo. Because it is such a massive endeavour - because of its length, and because of the extra difficulty of reading it in French - I will probably post some sort of rundown when I finish my current sprint on it. The French version is presented in four tomes, and I will soon come to the end of the second, which hopefully will precipitate a half-time report. It certainly bears discussion.