A tragic and magisterial portrayal of the Spanish Civil War as seen through the eyes of a young American, fighting on behalf of the doomed Republicans, who is tasked with blowing up a vital bridge on the eve of a major offensive. Robert Jordan should not be in Spain at the height of its Civil War. He is an American, and back home he was a teacher, not a soldier. But when the war broke out, and the Fascists under Franco sought to crush the democratically elected, left-leaning Republican government, Jordan enlisted with the International Brigades (made up mostly of Russians and a scattering of socialists and communists from other nations) and joined the fight.
At the start of the novel, the war is at its height. Jordan has long proven himself a capable fighter and demolitions expert, but the Fascists are clearly winning and Jordan has just received his most dangerous mission yet: linking up with a group of Republican guerillas operating behind Fascist lines and blowing up a heavily guarded bridge in the middle of a mountain range. The objective is to prevent reinforcements from interfering with an all-out offensive planned for the following week, one that just might turn the tide of the war.
Jordan meets up with a peasant named Anselmo, who takes Jordan to the band of guerillas he will be working with. The group is small and under constant threat from roaming Fascist squads, but while they are still alive, which is no small feat, Jordan suspects that the nightmare grind is getting to them. Then Jordan meets Pablo, the group's official leader, and he understands why. Pablo has given up. Once a fearless and notorious warrior and leader, he sees the futility of what they are doing, what they have been doing, and he doesn't want any more of his comrades' deaths on his hands, let alone his own death. The operation to blow the bridge – an admittedly reckless task – just reinforces Pablo's opinion.
But Pablo is not the only one in the group, and his wife, Pilar, sees things differently. She's no fool, and she understands the unlikelihood of success, short term or long, but surrender is also not a possibility for her. Thankfully for Jordan, Pilar is the de facto of the group. When Jordan explains the what and why of their mission, she agrees and gets the rest of the group to agree as well, including Maria, a beautiful young woman who was raped and left for dead by Fascist soldiers.
Over the next couple days, Jordan preps his explosives and scouts the area, planning his assault. He spends more time with Maria, and the two fall into the kind of intense, unreserved love possible only in a warzone. Meanwhile, several developments cause Jordan to doubt the efficacy of the bridge plan. A neighboring guerilla band is wiped out by a suspiciously strong and well-placed Fascist platoon, and Jordan notices heavy weaponry being moved into the surrounding mountains, as if preparing for an ambush.
It becomes clear to Jordan that the Fascists know the offensive is coming. Without the element of surprise, the Republicans will be annihilated. Knowing that the bridge attack is near-suicidal as it is, Jordan has become close enough to Pilar and Anselmo and, especially, Maria to not want to risk all their lives to blow a bridge in support of an offensive that will likely fail anyway. He sends a message back to the command headquarters telling them what he has deduced, but the Byzantine nonsense at HQ, with overlapping levels of authority by officers of several different nations, means that the message arrives too late to call off the offensive.
But Jordan is first and foremost a soldier. He knows his duty. And without an answering reply, he gets his guerillas in place. The attack is bloody and nearly fails, but Jordan manages to blow the bridge at last, and the few surviving guerillas attempt to make their escape. Jordan, though, has his horse shot out from under him and, in the ensuing fall, he shatters his leg. He knows he can't continue on and will only endanger the other survivors. He forces Pilar to take Maria and run. Then Jordan waits for the Fascists he knows are on their tail. His last act will be to ambush them, and hopefully buy Maria enough time to escape.
The novel ends with the first of the pursuing Fascists cresting the hill, getting ever closer, as Jordan, lying on his stomach, aims his gun where he knows the enemy soldier will appear -- knowing it will be his last act, but feeling gloriously alive and in tune with the forest beneath his beating heart.
Best part of story, including ending:
The power of this book is, in its broad strokes, very easy to convey to someone who hasn't read it: there's a stoically honorable protagonist, a doomed love affair, a seemingly precise and well-thought out military operation that is rendered tragically meaningless by the futility of the war itself, etc. But it's the smaller, more focused insights -- the intimate details within the epic moments -- that make this novel a masterpiece.
Best scene in story:
It's impossible to pick just one. But if I have to, it's the moment when, at last, the Republican commander receives Jordan's letter about the Fascists defensive preparations...just as the first waves of bombers are flying overhead to begin the all-out offensive. It's too late to call them back. He knows the futility of it all, knows the offensive, after so much careful planning, is going to be annihilated; and yet, with the trucks and tanks and men and planes all pouring onwards toward their certain doom, he's overcome with the beautiful possibilities of what could have been.
Opinion about the main character:
Aside from the occasional sense that Hemingway wants us to equate him (i.e. Hemingway himself) with the immensely brave and honorable Robert Jordan, in which case Jordan would just be a well-crafted vessel for Hemingway's ego, there is nothing to dislike here at all.
Robert Jordan, a demolitions expert attached to the International Brigades, has been sent to blow up a bridge during the Spanish Civil War. There he meets Pablo, a tired guerilla fighter who challenges Jordan's mission because it is too risky for the scared Pablo. What follows is a beautiful and horrific tale of people fighting unbeatable foes for their very lives.
The review of this Book prepared by Bill Hice