Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles

It may seem hard to believe now, but novelists Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos were once friends. They met in Schio, Italy during World War I, where they both were ambulance drivers evacuating a field hospital. Two years later they were together in Paris, living cheaply, meeting Joyce and Stein, and reading each other's work daily. Later, back in the U.S., Hemingway introduced Dos Passos to the woman that he would marry, and the new couple would visit the Hemingways in Key West and Havana annually. So long as both were promising authors, their friendship seemed strong. Success, however, sowed seeds of jealousy.

In The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles, Stephen Koch tells a sad story about how the two novelists went to Spain supposedly to work on a film in support of the Spanish Republican cause. What neither knew was that they were dupes of the Communist Party, who had already made the film. Hemingway did not really care. He was in Spain to find inspiration and to conduct a love affair with Martha Gellhorn. He spent most of his time drinking and unknowingly hanging out with Soviet agents.

When Dos Passos arrived several weeks later, he found that his good friend Jose Robles was missing. Robles's wife told him that her husband had been taken in the night by Spanish soldiers months before and no one in the government would acknowledge whether he was in custody or dead. Dos Passos began questioning every official he could meet, which annoyed the Soviet puppet forces, who were preparing to assassinate most of the true Spanish Republicans. Hemingway had no sympathy. He told Dos Passos "people die - get over it - quit embarrassing us with your questions." The two old friends had a very public argument over whether Robles was a Fascist, a suggestion Hemingway accepted because his Soviet friends told him so.

According to Stephen Koch, Dos Passos met George Orwell in Barcelona and helped repentant American Communist Liston Oak escape the Soviets. He generally acted bravely and responsibly, but lost much of his faith in socialism in Spain. Hemingway, on the other hand, betrayed his wife, his friend, and every principle he ever espoused, but he found inspiration for For Whom the Bell Tolls. His success was hollow, however, and Koch suggests that he never forgave himself for all his sins.

The Breaking Point is for anyone interested in Hemingway, Dos Passos, the Spanish Civil War, or Soviet agents in the West before World War II.

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