review by Gabriel
I didn’t grasp a lot of this book. Of course, I enjoyed it. Hell, it’s Hemingway – I loved it. But I missed its significance due to my ignorance of the historical context, and my failure to pick up its subtleties. As a result, I understood Fiesta only as a story about hedonism and ennui. Masterfully written with engaging characters, but essentially superficial. A seductive account of the privileged class having fun in an exotic locale. I picked up on the theme of masculinity, but couldn’t understand what Hemingway was trying to get at. I knew I was missing something. It turns out, there were two key things I was missing.
The first regarded the novel’s hardboiled narrator, Jake. The central conflict is the unfulfilled attraction between Jake and the charismatic, promiscuous Brett. I greatly misinterpreted this relationship. I wrongly assumed they had sex near the start of the novel, but that their loyalty to Brett’s fiancée, Mike, prevented them from being together. In hindsight, and with greater knowledge of the characters, I realise how silly an assumption that was.
It wasn’t until I was two thirds through the book that my mistake was pointed out to me. Last night, chatting after book club (we discussed The Boat), one of my mates told me that Jake was impotent due to an accident during World War I. At first, I was gobsmacked. How could something so important not be explicitly stated? Reading the remainder of the book, it put Jake’s actions in a whole new perspective. This was why he let opportunities with women pass by, and why Brett would not enter into a relationship with him despite her proclamations of love. Still, I wasn’t sure, because the events that hinted towards this revelation were so subtle.
Which leads into the second thing I was missing, which I discovered on the excellent website, Sparknotes, my port of call when I feel like I’m missing something in classic literature. This novel was published during the interwar years. World War I, the Great War, wasn’t supposed to have a sequel. It was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. The horror of large scale, mechanized war fare destroyed man’s faith in himself and in his civilised values.
Most of the male characters in Fiesta fought in the World War I, and the injuries sustained by Jake are central to the novel’s themes, symbolic of a wider decay of conventional notions of masculinity. But again, I didn’t grasp the significance of the war because it is so rarely mentioned.
The only other Hemingway novel I have read is For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is much easier to understand because the depiction of war lends to easy interpretation. Fiesta is a very different book that requires a closer reading to be fully appreciated. Hemingway’s simple style works because he implies a lot. This technique makes his characters interaction dynamic, and otherwise mundane events significant. He rarely needs to illustrate his character’s internal states – their actions and words signify them. His writing is like an instruction manual on the “show, don’t tell” approach. In Fiesta, it is what his characters don’t say that is important. As a wanna-be writer, I’ll be trying to use these lessons in my own writing, and remembering them in the future when enjoying the works of this master author.
Incidentally, my copy has an awesome, 70s film poster style, painted cover. Why don’t they make covers like that anymore? The modern covers seem so dull in comparison.