SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemingway

First edition cover 1940

Synopsis –

In 1937 Ernest Hemingway traveled to Spain to cover the civil war there for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Three years later he completed the greatest novel to emerge from “the good fight,” For Whom the Bell Tolls. The story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, it tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal. In his portrayal of Jordan’s love for the beautiful Maria and his superb account of El Sordo’s last stand, in his brilliant travesty of La Pasionaria and his unwillingness to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievement in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work at once rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving and wise. “If the function of a writer is to reveal reality,” Maxwell Perkins wrote to Hemingway after reading the manuscript, “no one ever so completely performed it.” Greater in power, broader in scope, and more intensely emotional than any of the author’s previous works, it stands as one of the best war novels of all time.

“There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.”
― Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Many foreign writers went to Spain to cover the civil war in the 30’s, and fine selection of them told the situation in different ways, all coming together to tell a truthful account of war. Among these writers was Ernest Hemingway, who went on to write one of the greatest novels of all time, For Whom The Bell Tolls. There are only a tiny amount of tales written that capture the bitterness, the desperation, and the tragic outpouring of war. Hemingway succeeded in captivating readers and opening up the reality of Spain’s front lines, through real life situations and experiences that cannot be imagined.

The book tells the story of Robert Jordan, a journalist who travels to Spain as part of the volunteer International Brigade. Jordan, who is experienced with dynamite, is ordered to destroy a bridge outside the town of Segovia, just north-west of Madrid. Jordan and a group of Republican fighters, including Pablo and his wife Pilar, and a young woman named Maria, are all aware that their mission will almost certainly kill them. As the group go ahead with their operation, Jordan finds himself falling in love with Maria, who has suffered the worst atrocities of the Falange (fascist group following Franco’s rebel forces), which only complicates Jordan’s quarrel with death. When a fellow Republican group is caught by the rebels, Jordan’s team falls into disarray and betrayal as the reality of being against a far-stronger enemy begins to become clear. While the band all have honest intentions, fear and misery overcome the group. In a final stand, Jordan is forced to ambush the enemy, just as the world around the idealism of the Republican causes hits the darkness.

One thing readers need to come to grips with is Hemingway’s use of thou/thee, which is a translation of the Spanish tu, meaning you. Once readers have got the hang of using the old adage, it becomes enjoyable to read. The novel is written in the  third person limited omniscient narrative, in my opinion the best of its kind for this book. By giving the protagonist an all-knowing all-seeing narrative, as well as thoughts of other characters, the whole picture become more realistic and heartfelt.

Many themes are considered in the book, the main being death. Each character needs to come to terms with the fact escape while under enemy attack is unlikely. Suicide is also on the minds of each character, as it is their only alternative to an evil death in enemy hands. True to form with the civil war, politics is explored, and the ideal that men and women are equal (touted by the Republicans, hated by the Fascists) is given a real chance through the character of Pilar, who threatens to be the star of the entire story.

Due to Hemingway’s real experiences in the field during the civil war, the opportunity to have scenes well described has been used superbly. Readers have no need to have a good knowledge of Spain or the civil war because Hemingway brings it to life for all. The author had been trying to use internal dialogue correctly for years, and this is the book that cracked it with aplomb. The book was also the birth of the famous line “Did you feel the earth move? (or in Hemingway’s case, Did thee feel the earth move?). With the use of fictional characters, those based on real life figures Hemingway met, and also famous figures of the war, the book comes to life with a richly uplifting and painful novel that is a must-read for everyone.

No need to be a Spain or civil war lover, because you haven’t read until you have finished For Whom The Bell Tolls. The book should be rated 15/10. Life and death, ideology versus reality, Robert Jordan is a character that comes along once in a generation. Even if you have read it before, read it again, because books change as people change. This novel just gets better and better.

Next week – The Sun Also Rises

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Death in the Afternoon’ by Ernest Hemingway

“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”
– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon


Photo by Joserra Lozano of Jose Maria Manzanares in Linares 28.08.13

(try telling me no one likes bullfighting anymore while looking at this!)

Welcome to the first in the series of Hemingway Tuesdays, where we work through Hemingway’s catalogue for those new to the man and his work. Today is the heavy classic Death in the Afternoon

Synopsis –

Still considered one of the best books ever written about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is an impassioned look at the sport by one of its true aficionados. It reflects Hemingway’s conviction that bullfighting was more than mere sport and reveals a rich source of inspiration for his art. The unrivaled drama of bullfighting, with its rigorous combination of athleticism and artistry, and its requisite display of grace under pressure, ignited Hemingway’s imagination. Here he describes and explains the technical aspects of this dangerous ritual and “the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal, and a piece of scarlet serge draped on a stick”. Seen through his eyes, bullfighting becomes a richly choreographed ballet, with performers who range from awkward amateurs to masters of great elegance and cunning. A fascinating look at the history and grandeur of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is also a deeper contemplation of the nature of cowardice and bravery, sport and tragedy, and is enlivened throughout by Hemingway’s sharp commentary on life and literature.

If ever there was an author to take on bullfighting, it is Hemingway and his incredibly masculine style of writing. Beware, if you are new to Hemingway, this may not be the best book to start with; his style can take a little getting used to. If you have read The Sun Also Rises, you would already would know the man is possibly the greatest English writer on the subject of bullfighting. This book delves so deeply into the world of the corrida, that readers are only saved from the technical aspects of the art by the strong writing style. The fact that the book is 80 years old makes no difference; prepare to step to the barrier and see the art through the eyes of an expert.

It should be no surprise that Hemingway chose to write this work, as it serves to provide the backdrop to life’s most important element – life versus death. It also shows off Spain and its way of life, as it was 1931 (and also now to some degree). While many books  on Spain tend to talk of the people, the light, the food, the mysticism of the Iberian Peninsula, Hemingway does not do this; Spain isn’t held up as an idol. The author got the feeling that all of Spain could be seen in the bullring, the zest for life against the inevitable glory and defeat of death.

Many people call bullfighting a sport, but Hemingway correctly is firm in calling it an art, a decadent art. Hemingway goes as far to compare the greats of the time, like Belmonte and Joselito with other great Spanish artists such as Velasquez (though, these men all died differently. Velaquez died of illness, Belmonte committed suicide and Joselito died in the ring, so not all the comparisons worked out). Hemingway talks of the pose of the matador, the build of the bull, as if it were a work of art to be admired and studied. The book spares no details for readers, and doesn’t stop with giving readers simple answers and explanations, but digs into both the art and also the mind of those who produce the spectacles.

Hemingway is a true aficionado of bullfighting in every sense of the word. He certainly did his time at the barrier, understanding the feeling of the matador and the crowd. He laments that aficionados not want to see a great matador killed, but an average matador receives no such admiration. The way the bull is killed is under scrutiny from Hemingway as well. A matador can only be praised if he has killed the bull ‘honestly’ no easy or trick swipes with the sword can be taken. The matador must be so close, that when he trusts his sword into the bull, the final chance to be gored is there.

Bullfighting means death, and Hemingway tried to convey how Spaniards understand death better than other countries. A bull with always die in the ring. Even if the fight is a disaster, the animal will still be slaughtered. A matador will eventually die; surely his days are numbered, and he and the spectators alike are aware of this. Hemingway muses that it is better to die in the ring than to die old and forgotten, away from the spectacle and understanding of death and glory (something Belmonte said before he shot himself). Hemingway speaks of pride, which he said was often considered a sin, but it is pride that give a matador enjoyment in what he does in the ring. He waxes around how a matador feels Godlike in the ring, as they are dancing with death, attempting to argue its inevitably.

Anyone who has ever read Hemingway knows his style. It can be wistful and long-winded, or short and sharp, sometimes both on the same page. In this particular book, his hard style is not as energetic as other novels. If Hemingway’s writing is known for anything, it is three things – women, booze and sadness. He can ramble, he can jump around all over the place (as great minds tend to do). This book will not disappoint anyone, and you will feel like you’ve delved in the mind of Spain when you’ve finished this long but engaging book. Personally, action and conversation make a good book, and this book veers off course compared his other work, but anyone who wants to build knowledge of Hemingway must read this book. I must admit that my interest was held throughout Death in the Afternoon because of my passion for the subject matter, something that does not apply to everyone. 

Next week – For Whom the Bell Tolls, possibly one of the best novels ever written.

Want to recommend an author once we have finished Hemingway? Let me know.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Anarchist Detective’ by Jason Webster


Sent on leave after his last, brutal, case, Max Cámara returns to his home town in La Mancha, famous for producing the finest saffron in the world.  

There, the past keeps pulling at him. The town is exhuming a mass grave from the Civil War, but why is his grandfather behaving so strangely? His old friend Yago is investigating a particularly nasty murder which sets off memories Max has been trying to bury for years. And then there are Yago’s whisperings about a saffron mafia…  

Max finds himself plunged into the thick of a complex and intensely personal case that will put him in severe danger and have him questioning his past – and his future in the police.


Max Cámara, the cynical, persistent, pragmatic, intelligent, likeable Spanish detective is back and better than ever. Valencia’s most dogged detective is on leave, and in self-imposed exile in Madrid, to cook, read and have sex with the lovely Alicia. But is that enough for a man like Max?

Max is pulled back to his hometown of Albacete, a place he has sought to run from his entire life. The author expertly describes the mood of this provincial Spanish area; the stark landscape that surrounds the barely-enjoyable place is evident throughout. It’s dirty, it’s stuck in the past, it’s a place where any man would want to leave his memories behind.

The character of Hilario, Max’s grandfather, once again steals the show with this witty lines, stubborn attitudes and bold behaviour. Hilario is a link to the past that Max cannot escape, and as more details of the man’s past, and the past of his relatives, come to life in Hilario’s unremarkable apartment, the reader can learn more about Max than ever before. With the last two novels, Or the Bull Kills You, and A Death in Valencia, hints of Max’s life have delighted and teased, but now so much of Max’s troubled past bursts from the page, serving to illuminate the character and make him even more complex and yet more relatable.

Pressing issues in today’s Spain dominate the storyline; when a young girl is murdered, Max finds himself on the trail of murderers and also corrupt leaders, their hands yellow with the stain of saffron smuggling. Max juggles this modern-day issue, along with ghosts of the past; the local cemetery is digging up Civil War and Franco victims, and the two events are more interlinked than Max could imagine. The conversation surrounding the idealisms of pre-war Spain are explained in such a way that those with little knowledge can easily understand, along with the fear imposed on the population in the post-war 1940’s. Sentimentality is spared as the facts are told through the eyes of a person who has had to deal with the reality of living in such times.

Webster brings the book and its themes to life through comfortable and believable relationships between the characters. Max and Hilario’s family connection is convincing and authentic, and his relationship with journalist Alicia is refreshingly realistic. Any person who has suffered a difficult childhood and wished to leave their early life behind can feel Max’s desire to run and never look back.

The whole novel, dominated by the stuffy atmosphere of Albacete, holds Max in a kind of purgatory in which he needs to escape. Is the future back in Valencia? Perhaps Madrid? Max may be able fight crime and lay ghosts to rest, but can he stop himself from sabotaging his own future?

The book reaches a satisfying and poignant end, and leaves plenty of scope for yet another Cámara installment. The scenes in the hospital can feel very close to home. Readers may never put saffron in their cooking again without thinking twice. Even Max is looking at his paella sideways…

The Anarchist Detective is the best Max Cámara yet. Webster’s talent with this character strengthens with every installment. Spain’s past and present weave together to produce an eloquent and emotional novel that can be read in a single sitting.

The Anarchist Detective – 5 stars! Superb must-read

Available in hardback and on Kindle – The Anarchist Detective by Jason Webster

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of the Wind (La sombra del viento) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón


Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles. To this library, a man brings his ten-year-old son, Daniel, one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book and from the dusty shelves pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. But as Daniel grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. What begins as a vase of literary curiosity turns into a race find out the truth behind the life and death of  Julián Carax and to save those he left behind.


With this number one bestseller, I will admit that I had high hopes when I finally sat down to read this book. Despite the the fact that the book has been available for several years in English, I only bought the book, along with its companions, The Angel Game and The Prisoner of Heaven, a few months ago. The Shadow of the Wind opens in 1945 in Barcelona, a city whose history I know well, and life under the regime of Franco is of particular interest to me. As soon as you begin to read, you get a feeling of darkness, of a life and time where things are tough, and people are simply getting by, the way they know best. Young Daniel Sempere finds a book, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, in a secret bookstore which changes his life. His father, a bookstore owner, introduces him to the larger-than-life Don Gustav Barceló, a book lover and buyer, which leads Daniel into a friendship and long-term crush on Barceló’s niece, Clara, a beautiful blind woman ten years his senior. Daniel reads to Clara and comes up with plenty of reasons to spend time with her over several years. At this point, I had to wonder where the storyline was attempting to take me, as the characters, while vivid, were not terribly endearing. I stopped reading at 100 pages and took a long beak.

But then the story beckoned me back. When Daniel is violently booted out of Clara’s life, he stumbles upon the book’s greatest character, Fermín Romero de Torres, a homeless man who comes to work in Daniel’s father’s bookstore. Fermín Romero de Torres, who is regularly identified with his full name, is a tremendous enriching character who always has the right thing (or, at least, the most amusing thing) to say. Daniel remains besotted with the books of Julián Carax, which sold poorly but somehow continued to be published throughout the 1930’s. Carax was shot dead in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona, and all copies of his books have been destroyed, most notably by a fire. Daniel has a remaining copy, and there is a man who is desperate to get it from him, a terrifying stalker with no face, just the charred remains of skin that hangs from his bones. Throughout the book he constantly appears, under a false name, as a gruesome and soulless person who is prepared to hurt people for the sake of novels.

Through a series of well-described and easy to follow investigations, Daniel and Fermín unravel Carax’s short life, in the form of his schoolmates – a group of boys with rich fathers, along with several downtrodden boys who have managed to get into a well-to-do school. Each of these boys go about intertwining themselves in each other’s lives, and a vendetta is placed over Carax when he falls in love with his friend’s sister, to the disgust of another schoolboy friend, who is a vile and vicious individual named Francisco Javier Fumero. Fumero is a real villain, first a troubled boy, then a double-crossing spy and killer in the civil war, and now a policeman in search of violence and revenge on none other than Daniel’s friend, Fermín Romero de Torres. Daniel and the dead Carax’s lives continue to be punctuated with many coincidences, both culminating in scary and life-altering moments in The Angel of the Mist, a haunted house that has many secrets waiting for those who are ready to find them out. I have to admit, I figured out the mystery and the twist about halfway through, but that may not happen for everyone.

This book is dark, no question, but also exceedingly intriguing, regardless of whether you understand Spain, its history and its way of life. The prose of this book had been described as ‘florid’, and it certainly is. You cannot go a single page without a lyrical metaphor and/or simile being thrown at you. At times,  it can be a little annoying, but some lines are genius. When Fermín speaks, you can imagine a light coming on, illuminating the dark world around him. When reading, you feel as if you are wandering the cold streets of Barcelona, with the feeling that something will jump out at you. You can feel the nervousness the damp, the worry and the angst. One character I loved is Nuria Monfort, one-time lover of Julián Carax, who endures a difficult life, knowing that she would not ever truly gain Carax’s heart, but my favourite character is Miquel Monfort, Carax’s best friend, and a tortured soul. This book is a love story, of Julián Carax and his Penélope, and of young Daniel Sempere and his Beatriz, whose love affairs take eerily similar twists despite being parted by time, and while romance has to hide in the shadows of much bigger issues, love comes to be one of the biggest dangers that these coming-of-age characters have to face.

I have read many reviews about this book, most praising the work, but I also took the time to read reviews from those who were disappointed. It is a long read at a shade under 500 pages, and there are slow points, particularly in the beginning. However, you cannot fault the quality of the work produced and attention to detail. In terms of the finer detail of the writing style, I read and felt as if I had come across something similar to my own, and that was unusual. I have yet to read something that feels so familiar in its approach (I’m not suggesting I’m as good as Zafón!). The characters all have back stories and personalities of their own, each has a part to play, and in turn, Barcelona is filled with an vast mix of people, all from different walks of life, all connected by a single book from a library that nobody ever visits.

Given the time periods and the lives portrayed this book, it is easy to feel the author’s political leanings, or at least, for what he envisions for the characters. Fermín Romero de Torres once worked for Lluís Companys, the Catalan leader during the Spanish Civil War, who is murdered and is seen as a martyr. Fermín is clearly a man who believes in the freedom of Catalonia, and Fumero, the blood-sucking officer who tortured him during the war, and now has murder in mind, is portrayed as a Franco loving right-wing fanatic (and a well-written one at that). However, anarchists, fascists and communists are all portrayed in a negative light, despite being vastly separate from one another on the political spectrum. There are references throughout the book, by multiple characters, that they hate Franco and fascist dictatorship, and that their lives have been harmed or destroyed by his reign, but they do not appear to be living in fear of him. There is no reference to the language spoken by the characters, which may be a by-product of the translation into English. The Catalan language was banned under Franco, so one might assume they spoke Castilian (traditional) Spanish, but perhaps not. We will never know.

Not only has Carlos Ruiz Zafón written a piece of art, but it has been translated in an excellent manner. There were certain things that I read and thought, ‘that’s not an expression that a Spaniard would use’, but it is what would be the best expression to use in a translation from the original, and as anyone who translates knows, literal translation would not make for an easy-to-read book. If you don’t have a keen understanding of Spain or the Spanish, you probably won’t notice this at all.

My rating for this book is 5/5. Lovers of 1950’s Spain will adore this, as will casual readers looking for a fine mystery.