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


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

A ghost is a spirit who won’t stay dead.

The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles by Steven Koch 1
The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles
by Steven Koch
Counterpoint Press, 320 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

Necessary Murders

A ghost is a spirit who won’t stay dead. The very lack of a paper trail in the murder of Jose Robles, John Hopkins University Professor, high official in the Loyalist government, unperson in Stalin’s annals, may be what kept him haunting decades after his murder by the Stalinist secret police during the Spanish Civil War. Robles, a dedicated leftist who believed in the war against fascism in Spain, wanted a revolution as well as a victory. This desire, at odds with Soviet military advisors eager to court the status quo, may have signed his death warrant.

He certainly haunted John Dos Passos, a writer given to immortalizing those crushed by capitalism in such novels as The USA Trilogy. For the rest of his life, Dos Passos; couldn’t turn off his imaginative apparatus about how the Stalinists murdered Robles in 1937. Was it a bullet in the back of the head–the preferred method of execution by the Soviets? Was it a firing squad–the traditional Spanish custom?

Robles may have even haunted Ernest Hemingway, his most literary castigator who helped spread the official Soviet version that Robles was a fascist spy. But behind the scenes, Hemingway was questioning an executioner in Madrid about the possibility that mistakes were made in fascist spy hunts.

All the descriptions of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) by the losing side are clothed in the language of a failed love affair. It was “the wound in the heart;” “the year that broke our hearts.” The events Koch describes certainly honor this motif. Hemingway and his Stalinist handlers chose a party–the choice of lovers the world over as the setting to end it without risking a scene–for Dos Passos to be told that Robles was executed as a traitor. The news breaks Dos Passos’ heart. The war itself saves Ernest Hemingway as much as third wife Martha Gellhorn does from a depression-era suicide.

It should read, however, taking a leaf from Oliver Stone’s JFK which was promoted as “the secret murder at the heart of the American dream,” as the “secret murder at the heart of the Spanish Civil War.” The romantic images of the conflict, as doomed and glorious as the Charge of the Light Brigade and Dunkirk, have never gone away despite the writings of Orwell and Koestler. The reality was that the antifascist volunteers who defended the Loyalist government against the Hitler-backed military and Catholic revolt had as much to fear from their Soviet backers as the Luftwaffe bombers.

The Robles’ murder contains all the corrupting themes of the war in a way that Homage to Catalonia and For Whom the Bell Tolls could not. That Stalin had imported his purge trials into Madrid is borne out by those who fear the “knock at the door” almost as much as the subsequent bullet in the back of the head. Historians have noted the bloodbath taking place in Moscow in the thirties where any enemy of Stalin, real or imagined, was soon hauled up on charges of aiding the capitalist-fascist conspiracy. But little has been written how Stalin extended his bloody reach into Spain. A similar falsification of history, familiar to the widows of Moscow circa 1937, occurs, with Hemingway’s Stalinist handlers, all chanting, in best Ingsoc fashion, “Robles fascist spy.” Dos Passos in his Dante-like quest to find out how and when Robles was murdered encounters first warnings and then the promise of at least career death if he prints his suspicions. It is a miracle that Dos Passos didn’t become the Isaac Babel, a Soviet writer murdered by the Soviet government, of Madrid.

The behavior of Hemingway and Dos Passos over Robles not only serves as a microcosm of the war itself–betrayal, secret knowledge, an attempt to find the truth amidst the propaganda–but of the Purge Trials as well. Hemingway behaves as the tough-minded pragmatist (“civil liberties, shit”) interrogating and then denouncing as traitor such intellectual types as Dos Passos. Hemingway has mastered the either/or mentality of a Soviet prosecutor interrogating a Troskyite suspect in a final exchange with Dos Passos at a train station. Dos Passos can be only with Hemingway or against him. The former promises victory against fascism, the latter banishment and an end to his writing career. Either way, a confession is in order and when Hemingway does not get it, Dos Passo, in effect, becomes an unperson in Hemingway’s book.

Hemingway comes off as less of a dupe in the event than someone in his native habitat in the back-stabbing atmosphere of 1937 Madrid. Like the Stalinists, Hemingway was a master at befriending people and then discarding them when their use was up. Getrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson and Dos Passos all eventually became un-persons for him. The cold-blooded ruthlessness exhibited by the Stalinist secret police had been extolled for decades in print by Hemingway. Harry Morgan sipping a drink after snapping a Chinaman’s neck was analogous to Stalin watching Tarzan movies after signing one more death warrant. Small wonder then that Hemingway sided with the Harry Morgan types rather than the Robert Cohns and Francis McCombers of Spain.

It is interesting to witness the effect the war had on writers in this period. Those with a streak of brutality in their psychological makeup–Hemingway, Orwell–went to artistic heights afterwards, while those without it were crippled. Dos Passos’ panoramic technique that imposed a kind of cinematic order on history was rendered obsolete when faced with doctored history, and murder camouflaged by progressive rhetoric. Words now could have double, even triple meanings. Cameras could and were used as tools of propaganda.

Koch, however, is in control of the camera. In The Breaking Point he contrasts effectively the high-living of Hemingway in the Hotel Floridata with the dank cellars of the KGB. In fact, his treatment is so cinematic Hollywood could easily film the book without much alteration. He is less satisfactory when dealing with Hemingway’s motivations for ending his friendship with Dos Passos and accepting the Soviet version of Robles’ execution. He emphasizes Hemingway’s misogyny but doesn’t apply it as an explanation for the breakup of the friendship. Hemingway may have accepted the Soviet version because those peddling it were unsentimental and masculine. He thus may have rebelled against Dos Passos–“a handwringer” and “whiner”–because he represented femininity in Hemingway’s mind.

Koch is able to convey the horror of fighting against fascism and discovering that one’s own side contains fascists. Better than Orwell, he is able to show through one murder that the Spanish Civil War was a betrayal–not by appeasement-minded Western nations but by those who were already “aiding” the Loyalist government.

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