For Whom the Bell Tolls II

Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Time and timing are of the essence in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The mission at the heart of the book, for which the young American Robert Jordan is to sabotage a bridge in concert with a Republican offensive, is time critical: “To blow the bridge at a stated hour based on the time set for the attack is how it should be done,” he is told by the man in charge, General Golz. “You must be ready for that time” (5). But then, ultimately, when it becomes clear that they have lost the advantage of surprise and Jordan tries to have the attack called off, his messenger cannot get through in time: “C’est dommage. Oui. It’s a shame it came too late” Golz reflects (428). His divisions are already on the move, and there is no stopping them now. Still, “maybe this time [. . .] maybe we will get a break-through, maybe he will get the reserves he asked for, maybe this is it, maybe this is the time” (430).

We never know what comes of the offensive, and whether indeed “this is the time,” though we must presume it isn’t: the book was published in 1940, and so in the aftermath of the eventual failure to save Madrid, and indeed Spain as a whole, from Franco’s forces. A sense of doom hangs over the entire enterprise: “I do not say I like it very much” responds Jordan to Golz even when he receives his orders (6). And “It is starting badly enough [. . .]. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it” he muses once he is on the scene with the bridge (16). Little by little, step by step, things go from bad to worse: the sky is full of Fascist planes; the leader of the local guerrilla gang is unpredictable and broken; unexpected snow reveals the tracks of an allied group, who are unceremoniously slaughtered; Jordan has to deal with incompetence and betrayal. By the time they finally blow the bridge they know that it is effectively a suicide mission, and what’s worse for a larger cause that is itself destined to fail. Yet still they go on with it. The book ends with Jordan, his leg broken and so unable to flee, on the verge of unconsciousness, waiting for his last fight as the enemy come up the road: “Let them come. Let them come! [. . .] I can’t wait any longer now [. . .]. If I wait any longer I’ll pass out” (470). But again, we are not told precisely what happens next. Instead, the novel’s final line (“He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest” [471]) returns us to how it all started: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest” (1). The entire book is a circle, refusing to look ahead as though to stave off the certain tragedy of what is to come, and refusing equally to look back, for the little we glimpse of the past is likewise marked by violence and shame.

Instead, the novel carves out an oasis of time: four days, or rather “not quite three days and three nights” (466), in which almost the entirety of the novel is set, between the moment at which Jordan meets the partisans and the point at which they have to leave him there by the bridge, with hardly the chance for goodbyes: “There is no time” (462). It is not as though this brief stretch is unaffected by what has gone before and what is to come: it is clear, for instance, that some unresolved Oedipal drama has brought Jordan here, while the other characters have traumas of their own that they are unable to escape; and however much they stoically (or heroically?) try to deny their intuition of a bitter finale, they are unable to dispel these presentiments altogether. But Hemingway’s point, I think, is that within these three or four days they are able to live an entire lifetime. There is something almost Borgesian about this, like the short story “El milagro secreto,” in which a man in front of the firing squad lives out what for him is an entire year between the order to fire and the bullets piercing his chest. Robert Jordan lives out his own “secret miracle” in the company of Maria, the ragged-haired young woman that the guerrillas had rescued from a previous operation.

On their last night together (Jordan’s last night tout court), “Robert Jordan lay with the girl and he watched time passing on his wrist.” But this steady temporal progression is, he feels, somehow under his subjective control: “as he watched the minute hand he found he could almost check its motion with his concentration” (378). A little later, “as the hand on the watch moved, unseen now”–and so perhaps unchecked, but also unminded–comes an extraordinary passage in which Hemingway (or Jordan) tries to delimit something like a pure present of absolute intensity:

They knew [. . .] that this was all and always; this was what had been and now and whatever was to come. This, that they were not to have, they were having. They were having now and before and always and now and now and now. Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now. Come now, now, for there is no now but now. Yes, now. Now, please now, only now, not anything else only this now. (379)

Of course, the watch hand cannot be detained indefinitely: its motion can at best be “almost check[ed].” And language–or writing–inevitably unfolds linearly. The sentence, the paragraph, the book must all grind inexorably to their ends. But in the meantime, perhaps, this is the time; this is their time, our time. Hemingway’s wager, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, is to rescue and resuscitate a moment of exceptional intensity and vivacity, even within the earshot and in full knowledge of the bells that toll relentlessly for a death that (as in the epigraph taken from John Donne) diminishes us all.

See also: For Whom the Bell Tolls I.

For Whom the Bell Tolls I

Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Halfway through Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the protagonist Robert Jordan is thinking both forwards and back to Madrid. Forwards because, in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, stuck in a cave behind Fascist lines waiting to begin a tremendously risky and seemingly ill-fated operation to blow up a bridge, he distracts himself by imagining what he will do if and when his mission is successfully concluded. “Three days in Madrid,” he thinks. The capital is under siege, of course, but even so it would offer creature comforts unimaginable on the front lines: a “hot bath [. . .] a couple of drinks.” There would be music and movies: he’d take his peasant lover Maria to see “The Marx Brothers at the Opera” (231). He’d have dinner at Gaylord’s, a hotel that “the Russians had taken over” where “the food was too good for a besieged city” (228).

But all this also leads him to think back (unusually, for a man not given to reminiscence) to other experiences he has had at Gaylord’s, a place of intrigue thick with rumor and “talk too cynical for a war.” It was here that he’d met the shadowy Russian Karkov–introduced by the last dynamiter to work in the zone and described as “the most intelligent man he had ever met” (231). And it was largely Karkov who’d made “Gaylord’s [. . .] the place you needed to complete your education. It was there you learned how it was all really done instead of how it was supposed to be done” (230). For in Jordan’s (and Hemingway’s) jaded eyes, the Republican cause may be right, but it is far from pure. Behind “all the nonsense” (230) is a murky world of machination and deception that only fully comes into focus at the Russian-held hotel. This is the epicenter of disillusion and corruption, but it is also the only place to “find out what was going on in the war” (228).

The hidden reality of the war is not pretty, but in some ways (Jordan reflects) it is “much better than the lies and the legends. Well, some day they would tell the truth to everyone and meanwhile he was glad there was a Gaylord’s for his own learning of it” (230). And Jordan and Karkov talk about when and how this truth will emerge: “out of this will come a book,” Karkov says, “which is very necessary; which will explain many things which it is necessary to know” (244). Jordan himself, a Spanish instructor at a US university, has already written a book–about “what he had discovered about Spain in ten years of travelling in it”–but it “had not been a success.” Some day soon it would be time to try again:

He would write a book when he got through with this. But only about the things he knew, truly and about what he knew. But I will have to be a much better writer than I am now to handle them, he thought. The things he had come to know in this war were not so simple. (248)

Now, Jordan is not Hemingway–and Hemingway is not Jordan, though the author has surely invested plenty in his character, a man of few words who prides himself on his powers of observation and his knowledge of the human psyche. But is this novel the book that Jordan would have wanted to have written? The work of a “much better writer” that is to explain the truth of a complex war whose surface veneer is attractive but whose grim interior is more fascinating still. Perhaps.

But For Whom the Bell Tolls is not really about the war’s covert machination. Indeed, what’s interesting about the novel is that Hemingway refuses to accede completely to Jordan’s notion that the “truth” of the conflict is to be found amid the cynicism and corruption that his protagonist tells us “turned out to be much too true” (228). Or rather, Jordan himself is shown as struggling to determine where the reality of the situation lies. Up in the hills, he knows that the situation is bad, not least when he sees the “mechanized doom” (87) of the Fascist planes that roar overhead and announce, as clearly as anything, that the enemy knows of the forthcoming Republican offensive. But he can’t quite admit this: asked whether he has faith in the Republic he replies “’Yes,’ [. . .] hoping it was true” (91). To admit to the precariousness of their fate, the difficulty of their mission, would be to fall into the trap that has ensnared Pablo, the local guerrilla leader who has let fear (and alcohol) overwhelm him, because he knows that their cause is long lost: he toasts “all the illusioned ones” (214) and explains himself by saying that “an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend his time with fools” (215).

Ultimately, Jordan–and Hemingway–know that Pablo is right. But that cynical truth has to be both acknowledged and at the same time staved off, postponed, in the name of another truth that resides within the illusion itself, the legends and lies. So what we get is an ebb and flow, a tense and agonizing interchange between these two truths, between an apparent simplicity and purity (incarnated above all perhaps in the figure of Jordan’s lover Maria–who can never be taken to Gaylord’s–but equally in Hemingway’s characteristically terse and understated style) and a darker, more cynical complexity that can neither be denied nor allowed to dominate. So the paradoxical result is that simplicity ends up being far more complex than the web of machinations that it endlessly has to deny, precisely because in fending them off it recognizes and so includes them, while the cynic can only destroy all that is pure. It preserves, in other words, the infrapolitical paradox: that what is necessary for politics is never inherent in it, but vanishes with scarce a trace.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

See also: For Whom the Bell Tolls II.

Homage to Catalonia II

Homage to Catalonia cover

Concluding Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell tells us:

I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain mean to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells, and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing. (194)

To be fair, though, there’s no doubt that he has tried. Orwell is perhaps particularly attuned to smell: almost the first thing he describes is “the characteristic smell of war–in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food” (15). Or for instance, as he approaches the front line itself what strikes him is “a sickening sweetish stink that lived in my nostrils for weeks afterwards” (19). More generally, Orwell continually emphasizes the visceral, embodied, affective aspect of participation in the Civil War. He opens his account, for instance, with a brief anecdote about an almost wordless encounter with an Italian militiaman that demonstrates (he claims) “the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was though his spirit and mine had succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy” (2). Not that his feelings are always positive; far from it. Orwell is as likely to tell us of the fear or, worse, the “horror” not so much of the war itself as of the backstage machinations, the “atmosphere of suspicion, fear, uncertainty, and veiled hatred” (155) that clouds especially is final few weeks in Barcelona, as the Communists crack down on the Anarchists and independent Socialists. For ultimately, these internecine battles had little to do with ideology of strategy, and it was this that made them so horrific. Ultimately, Orwell tells us, he “did not make any of the correct political reflections” and was left “conscious of nothing but physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over” (175).

Of course, Orwell’s “physical discomfort” at the end is not merely a matter of the intangible atmosphere of fear and repression. He has been shot through the neck, and is physically wounded. But whereas his account of the political intrigues and day-to-day life in the coffee shops and bars is heavily imbued with the emotional undercurrent that runs through them, his tale of being hit by an enemy sniper is surprisingly distanced, stoical, and understated. As he puts it: “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail” (143). Though he reports “the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion,” he quickly finds he has “a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense” (143, 144). Once he understands that the bullet has gone through his neck, he is convinced that he is done for–“I assumed that I was killed” (145)–yet even this is depicted without much in the way of panic or doom, but as “interesting–I mean that it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. [. . .] The stupid mischance infuriated me. The meaningless of it!” (145). And it is not long before he views the whole event with a sort of black humour: as everyone insists that “a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive,” he retorts that he “could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all” (154).

So there is an odd discrepancy throughout the book between an affective treatment of politics, or what we might otherwise think of as an insistence on the affective infrapolitics that underlies and escapes all political discourse, and on the other hand a notably detached, distanced perspective on the body itself, which is treated as the object of almost quasi-scientific curiosity and scrutiny. This disconnect is further highlighted by what now appears as Orwell’s rather antiquated, perhaps quintessentially English attitude to anything that smacks of the personal. His injury is treated more as a nuisance than anything else. Beyond a brief description of a train journey in Burma (92), there is little to nothing in the way of Orwell recollecting or reflecting on his own personal history. His wife features frequently, but is never deemed worthy of a name. Orwell is honest about his own failings and minor hypocrisies (“God forbid that I should pretend to any personal superiority” [101]). And we learn much about his (lack of) personal hygiene on the front, and the lice that infest his clothing. But almost always Orwell’s gesture is to universalize, to present himself as a cipher for humanity as a whole: the lice, for instance, prompt the thought that “in war all soldiers are lousy [. . .]. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae–every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles” (54).

Perhaps all this is because, in the end, Spain itself is something of a cipher for Orwell. Indeed, he claims not to have the chance to “look at Spain” at all until very late in the day, once he is finally discharged. With his “discharge papers in [his] pocket,” he tells us that “For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain” (164). But even this Spain ends up being more a country of his own invention or fantasy than a real place: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that exists in everyone’s imagination” (143). By implication, then, everything else that he has witnessed and described–the May Days in Barcelona, the Aragon Front, but also the militiamen and shopkeepers and so on–is in some sense not Spanish. They have all somehow obscured from view some other, supposedly more “real” Spain that would accord with the collective fantasy of what the country should be like. In short, the strange thing about the Spanish Civil War in Orwell’s eyes (but perhaps not only his) is that it is not really “Spanish” at all. And no doubt this is why his final thoughts are not with Spain but with England and its “deep, deep sleep [. . .] from which I sometimes fear that we will never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs” (196).

See also: Homage to Catalonia I.

Homage to Catalonia I

Homage to Catalonia cover

George Orwell is probably the most famous English political writer of the twentieth century. As such, it is surprising, in Homage to Catalonia, to read him telling us that, at the front of the Spanish Civil War, “the political side of the war bored” him (208). He says of his initial impressions of Catalonia that

the revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it. As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names–PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT–they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (197)

This book, then, part memoir and part political analysis, documents a change in Orwell’s perspective, a form of politicization. For, in his words, “everyone, however unwillingly, took sides sooner or later” (198). Homage to Catalonia is, as much as anything, an account of how and why Orwell took side, and began to view the array of political acronyms as more than just some alphabet soup. For it turns out that the war had everything to do with politics–“it was above all things a political war” (197)–and so boredom or disinterest are no longer viable options. It is in the name of politics that a certain–largely fictitious–narrative of the conflict had been propagated, and it is likely that it is in the name of politics that the Republic would be lost.

Yet, if this is the message of the book, Orwell remains strangely ambivalent about it. He tells us, at the start of his first extended disquisition on the internal struggles between Anarchists and Communists, that “if you are not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip.” As he notes, he separates out the analysis from the memoir “to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters” precisely so that the disinterested reader can pass over them and continue following Orwell’s personal journey unperturbed. In other words, in this conflict in which “everyone” has to take sides, the reader is carefully shielded from this responsibility. In fact, in later editions of the book the “political” chapters are relegated to appendices, pushed even more to the margins of the main narrative. But does this not allow precisely the depolititicization, or refusal to engage in politics, against which Orwell’s book is otherwise written? Orwell wants both to protect us against the “horrors of party politics” and (if we are curious to read through the appendices that contain them) to tell us that they are essential to any understanding of the situation in Spain–and indeed, Europe as a whole. At one and the same time, the book both directs us to the centrality of political disagreement and aspires to shield us from it.

It may then be better to think of this as an infrapolitical book, in the sense that it is about what is simultaneously a necessary link and an absolute breach between war and politics. The Spanish Civil War is at the same time a thoroughly political war and absolutely non-political at the same time. The “horrors” of politics are both inevitable and to be avoided if at all possible. Orwell has both to show the connections between the “common decency” for which he came to fight (197) and the political machinations that make it both possible and impossible, and at the same point to keep them utterly separate. This is, of course, an impossible task, which is why in some sense this is an impossible book, fractured and somewhat absurd. But it is in that fracture that we see the struggle between politicization (taking sides) and commonality (common decency) played out, which are the stakes of the war itself, which ultimately can only be understood in these infrapolitical terms.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

See also: Homage to Catalonia II.

Luna de lobos

Llamazares, Luna de lobos

Julio Llamazares’s Luna de lobos reads a little like a story of one of the so-called Japanese “holdouts,” soldiers who continued to fight the Second World War long after the official end of hostilities. In this case, though, the post-Civil War stragglers keep fighting not because they are unaware that the war is over, but because they know that in fact it isn’t.

At first, there are four of them: the narrator, Angel; Ramiro, who quickly establishes himself as the group’s leader, and his brother, Juan; and Gildo. They have been fighting on the Republican side in Asturias, in Spain’s Northwest. When the front collapses in the Autumn of 1937, they find themselves too far from the zones of continued Republican control (either around Madrid and further South or in Catalonia to the East) and a long way from the French border. So their only option is to take to the hills, near their home villages, hoping for some kind of support from their family and friends, without ever being able to go back home so long as the fascist civil guards remain in their pursuit.

Their tale is recounted in four parts, each a snapshot of a distinct year as the war comes to its conclusion and then the post-war reprisals continue: 1937, 1939, 1943, 1946. They are armed with machine gun and pistols, and make some small incursions on the hamlets in the valley, but these are mostly defensive or to secure food and shelter. Even before the war as a whole is over (and despite a vague plan proposed by one of their contacts), it is abundantly clear that they are fighting not for the Republic but for their own survival. And as time goes by, one by one they lose this war, too. Juan is the first to be killed, as he disappears on a quest to see his mother and bring back food and blankets. Then Gildo, betrayed and ambushed as they desperately try to rustle up money to bribe a local stationmaster to get them on a train to freedom. Then Ramiro. Until finally there is only one.

As this small remnant of the Republican army gradually diminishes still further, it becomes increasingly spectral, less and less human. Almost from the start, they are compared to animals, particularly the wolves of the novel’s title. They may still be alive, but theirs is a “bare life” indeed. They become ever more cut off from the community, as those who initially help them out (a shepherd who provides them with a sheep, a doctor who attends to a wound, for instance) become increasingly reluctant, either for fear of reprisals or in hope that they will simply go away. Towards the end, Angel imagines that in his years haunting the villagers he has become a “legend,” renowned as a man “indomitable and invisible [. . .] observing them from somewhere [. . .] immortal as his shadow, distant as the wind, astute, intelligent, invincible” (136). But when finally even his sister rejects him, having allowed him to rest in what is almost literally a subterranean grave under the farmyard, he realizes that he is at best an unquiet ghost, and that those who are still fully in the land of the living would rather he disappear once and for all.

Ramiro, before he dies and while he still has revenge of his own to enact, tells the local priest that the holdouts are “like God: we see everything from up there” in their hidden cave high on the hillside (93). And the narrator, the last of the group, is an angel by name and perhaps also by nature when he tells us he has “descended” at last, to visit his father’s grave (137). But he is also aware he has become “a pest for real,” “a pest whose proximity spooks both humans and animals” (125). He stands in no doubt for a memory that has to be erased for his loved ones to lead anything like a normal life. In the end, indeed, you can’t help feeling sympathy for them. His soul, he tells us, is “white” but also “rotten” (145). He is the living dead, a zombie as much as a revenant. When his sister tells him that “this land has no forgiveness. This land is cursed for you” (151), she is speaking out of simple realism.

But then there is the performative contradiction of the novel itself. It seems to be arguing for forgetfulness, in favour of the wholesale oblivion to which the Republican cause was consigned at the end of the war. It makes little effort to ingratiate either the so-called wolves or the lost cause as a whole with us: we are told, for instance, that Angel was once a teacher, but have little sense of his past life and still less idea as to why he took up arms for the Republic. The case it seems to be making is the same one made by the villagers, that these men are better off dead, that the past should remain firmly past. And yet it does so precisely by resurrecting these restless ghosts, by returning to their still-fresh graves. For something to be forgotten it first has to be remembered, and Luna de lobos is as much about remembering the collective edict to forget as it is about repeating it.

Espoir: Sierra de Teruel

From the Encyclopédie Larousse:

Espoir est le seul film de l’écrivain André Malraux, par ailleurs auteur d’un roman intitulé l’Espoir, consacré au même thème.

Montré clandestinement en 1939, ce pamphlet sobre et lyrique n’est sorti qu’à la Libération, précédé d’un commentaire de Maurice Schumann. Plus que d’une œuvre de pure propagande, il s’agit de l’une des premières tentatives françaises (réussie) de cinéma-vérité. Auteur complet de son film, qu’il a écrit, dialogué, réalisé et même monté, Malraux use des images et des sons de la même manière qu’il se servait des mots dans la Condition humaine. Pour lui, le contexte socio-politique est un personnage à part entière. Il prend soin de décrire la guerre d’Espagne comme un catalyseur de passions vécues non pas par des individus isolés, mais plutôt par une communauté déchirée dans sa chair. En ce sens, il annonce le reportage tel qu’il s’est développé à l’occasion de la Seconde Guerre mondiale à l’instigation de photographes comme Robert Capa, fondateur de l’agence Magnum en 1939. En outre, Malraux évite le piège dans lequel tombent souvent les écrivains cinéastes : les grands discours moralisateurs.

Espoir est une chronique dépouillée qui tend à ressembler le plus possible aux actualités cinématographiques de l’époque, sans en reprendre le ton sentencieux. Les faits sont là et les images se suffisent à elles-mêmes, l’une des qualités primordiales de cette œuvre étant l’habileté avec laquelle les documents pris sur le vif sont intégrés aux scènes de fiction pure. La distribution composée d’inconnus renforce encore cet aspect et confère aux différentes anecdotes une authenticité qui sait ne jamais tricher avec la vérité des sentiments.

Cette osmose est sans doute due à la dérive d’un projet qui ne devait constituer initialement qu’un post-scriptum au roman écrit en 1937. Les deux œuvres n’ont d’ailleurs finalement que très peu de points communs, sinon cette passion de la liberté qui allait conduire l’auteur dans les rangs de la Résistance.

See also the film’s IMDB page.

Days of Hope II

André Malraux

If the problem that André Malraux’s Days of Hope poses is that of the confrontation between the virtues and emotions of human subjectivity–hope, courage, enthusiasm–and a new form of mechanized warfare that puts a premium on objective technological efficiency, this is complicated by the fact that the very opposition repeatedly breaks down. For on the one hand the machines cannot be so easily reduced to an instrumentalized, technical logic. And on the other hand, the figure of the human is constantly in danger of disappearing or of being subsumed into a more general and impersonal landscape of affect. In short, the machines seem to take on a life of their own, while the men (and women) fighting the war have trouble holding on to their appearance of individualized identity.

Some of this blurring of the machinic and the human is a matter of perspective. After all, Malraux shows us the war from the air, a point of view that might be imagined to offer a broader and more objective panorama, but which in practice simply confounds established certainties. Hence when the Republican Flight brings along a local peasant, to help them locate a hidden Falangist airstrip, at first his local knowledge of the terrain proves useless, as he is unaccustomed to looking down on it from above: “His mouth half-open, and tears zig-zagging down his cheeks, one after the other, the peasant was straining every nerve to see where they were. He could recognize nothing” (395). But more broadly, even for seasoned pilots, from the air things take on a different aspect. On one of their early mission, for instance, they see a road “studded with little red dots. [. . .] too small to be cars, yet moving too mechanically to be men. It looked as if the roadway itself was in motion.” This turns out to be a column of Fascist lorries, but to see them as such requires the pilot to have “a gift of second sight: seeing things in his mind, not through his eyes.” And even then, he retains the impression that the landscape and infrastructure itself has come to life as he observes a “road [. . .] that throbbed and thundered–the road of fascism” (86).

But even closer to the ground, the distinction between the animate and the inert is often hard to discern. At one point, for example, during the defence of Madrid, we are provided with the perspective of a fire-fighter named Mercery high up on his ladder, who imagines himself battling “an enemy with more life in it than any man, more life than anything else in the world. Combating this enemy of a myriad writhing tentacles, like a fantastic octopus, Mercery felt himself terrible inert, as though made of lead” (342). Shortly thereafter, machine-gunned by a Fascist plane, he is described as “living or dead” as he “still clung to the nozzle of his hose”–as though the border between life and death had here become strictly undecidable, or perhaps (however briefly) irrelevant. Elsewhere, even the confrontation between infantry and tank, which is otherwise staged as the classic clash between man and machine (for faced with the tank only the dynamite-laden “dinamiteros [. . .] can face the machine on equal terms” [197]), is also put into question. At Guadarrama we discover that “a machine can seem startled on occasion.” Faced with anti-tank machine guns, “four of them–three in the first line, one in the second–tilted up simultaneously with an air of puzzlement: ‘What on earth is happening to us now?’” (310).

And at the Battle of Teruel, things are further complicated by the deployment of a loud-speaker, a machine that talks: “inert, yet alive because it spoke” (381). Later, as the noise of battle dies down, it is described in personifying terms: “the loud-speaker had been waiting for this lull” (384). More generally, the technology of mass reproduction–represented here by cartoon characters such as “Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Donald Duck” (368)–conjure up “the modern fairyland, the world in which those who are killed all come back to life” (369). Technology both brings to humanity death and destruction but also offers the world forms of (re)animation that trouble the very distinction between human and inhuman, living and dead.

If then the machines increasingly take on a life of their own, what distinguishes the human? At the best in the novel, the men and women who populate it eke out a fairly shadowy and precarious existence. Again, this is partly a function of the recurring aerial perspective: from on high or far off, people either disappear are easily dehumanized, for instance (in the case of deserters going over to the enemy) appearing to be no more than “insects waving their antennae” (305) or (in the case of Fascists flushed out of the forest) adopting “the same panic-stricken scamper as the herd of cattle they had just stampeded” (398). Again, however, even on the ground they tend to dissolve into the environment: “shadows,” “ghosts,” “wraiths,” and “shadowy forms” in the Madrid mist, for example (265, 266, 267, 270); or collectively constituting “a frenzied mass” (204) or a “panic-stricken mob [. . .] like leaves whirled together and then dispersed by the wind” (225). Even in terms of the novel’s own representational strategy, which constantly jumps between locations and discrete episodes, there is little attempt to give many of the characters much realist depth or rounded individuality; they tend simply to incarnate particular positions or singular attitudes, becoming spokespeople for (say) Anarchism or Communism, or exemplary instantiations of stubbornness or self-sacrifice.

If there is something that, for Malraux, can (still) be said to be distinctly human, it is perhaps the face. This perhaps is why the novel repeatedly recurs to the human face, and to the notion that the face somehow stands in for individual character (men are variously described, for instance, in terms of a “jovial solid-looking jowl” [9] or a “predatory face, hook nose, and twinkling eyes” [18] and so on), and also more generally for shared humanity. In an atmosphere frequently characterized by gloom and indiscernibility, Malraux often has faces suddenly revealed or lit up, as for instance when an explosion at Toledo catches a group of dinamiteros “open mouthed, their cheeks lit by the livid purplish sheen of flame and moonlight mingled [such that] each saw the face that he would wear in death” (199). Or when an aeroplane is caught in a searchlight and “a sense of comradeship in arms pervaded the cabin flooded with menacing light; now for the first time since they began the flight, these men could see each other” (234; emphasis in original) and as a result, in the aftermath, each of the crew “had vividly before him the picture of the features of his comrade as they had been thrown into relief for that brief moment” (235). There is something about the face of the other that gives us both his (or her) truth, and reminds us of some shared commonality.

Except, of course, that warfare also destroys the face and our perception of it. On the one hand, the novel repeatedly gives us instances of blindness, either permanent or temporary, which make it impossible to see the face. And the face of the blind is also somehow grotesque, we are told: the father of the blinded airman Jaime tells us that he “can’t bear to look at his face” (279). But war also mutilates its victims such that there is no face to be seen. This is what happens to Gardet, another airman, whose plane crashes towards the end of the book: his face is “slashed wide open from ear to ear. The lower part of the nose was hanging down.” As a result, would-be rescuers flee from the sight, and Gardet muses “If I look at my mug just now, I’ll kill myself” (409). Even bandaged up, the effect is that of “a tragic bas-relief of Armageddon” (411).

Throughout, then, Malraux tries to maintain the distinction between human and machine (as well as between the human and he animal), but ultimately the war puts such differences into question. More likely, we end up with a variety of hybrid combinations of man, machine, and nature, in which what is presumptively object is animated and gains features of subjectivity (such as affect and agency), while men and women defer or abdicate some part of their subjectivity as they take up their places in the “endless flux of things” (423). Sometimes these hybrids are empowering, as with the case of the pilot who “feel[s] the contact of the stick, welded to the body, identified with it” (401). Sometimes they are grotesque, as with the battering ram used at the siege of the Montaña Barracks, a “strange geometrical monster” (32) wielded by men on either side of it, one of whom dies under fire and “slump[s] across the moving beam, arms dangling on one side, legs on the other. Few of his companions noticed him; the battering-ram continued lumbering slowly forward, with the dead body riding it” (33). Here, man and machine, animate and inanimate, dead and alive all come to constitute a collective apparatus of war in which any categorical distinctions are untenable if not irrelevant. This complicates any notions of fraternity. Yet such is modern warfare. And in so far as war teaches us how to live (Manuel, perhaps the novel’s major character, tells us that “a new life started for me with the war” [428]), it is also, quite simply, modern life.

See also: Days of Hope I; Spanish Civil War novels.