Russian spies, Spanish fascists, and Hemingway sipping mojitos in Madrid. Somewhere between the genres of biography and historical fiction lies Stephen Koch’s new book, The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, literary and political intrigues surround the lives of two famous authors as they experience a chain of events that will mark them forever. Koch’s work provokes some surprisingly profound and pertinent questions: What propaganda does the youth of today champion? What movements are we, as a society, on the verge of that we cannot see? History and biography can be elegantly organized, but the present remains messy.
In the center of the chaos is the tragic life and death of Jose Robles, a young Spanish intellectual and revolutionary, a true believer. The story opens with the chance meeting between Robles and an equally young and somewhat naïve Dos Passos in Spain in 1916. Their friendship and journey through Spain dramatically alters the American’s worldview. Enthusiastic about the drama of the life and death embodied by the matadors, and roused by the art and politics of Robles’s radical friends, Dos Passos is imbued with the modernist visions that will later dominate his work. It is with this mindset that Dos Passos comes to meet Ernest Hemingway in the famous Parisian setting of 1922, in what becomes the height of their friendship during their twenties.
Koch contrasts the two literary greats from the beginning, but the portraits that he paints are liberal and colored with both popular and personal opinion. Hemingway is a celebrity amongst peers; he is also a misogynist and depressive. Dos Passos retains the generous nature of his youth, perhaps best seen in his idealistic politics and sympathy towards the antifascist movement. Although Hemingway also becomes absorbed in the politics of the time, his overall personality is much harsher and less forgiving.
The portraits of the two writers are painted through the perspectives of several different people, allowing Koch to tell his story through multiple viewpoints and exemplify the events that caused the eventual break and betrayal in Dos Passos’s and Hemingway’s friendship.
Koch’s own chatty voice shows up unexpectedly throughout the book, evincing his own opinions of the events:
So Hem, in his genius (and that genius was real), offered his readers a new heroism and a look at the “good life” as it might be lived. Dos, with his no less real genius, showed the world the bewildered masses in visions of degradation. Onesurprise!was more popular than the other. And though both were famous, Hem was, and would remain, more famous than Dos.
Way more famous.
In places the book seems to take on the characteristics of a solemn documentary with overenthusiastic voice-over. Yet despite the potential for this powerful narrative voice to clash with Koch’s meticulous attention to historical detail, the book manages to sound consistent throughout.
Perhaps, though Koch was a little too meticulous in his historical detail. The story is immersed in a sizeable amount of political history and Koch’s description of Stalin’s Popular Front, an “antifascist” facade, comes across in places as laborious; elsewhere it strains to incorporate the main characters. Much of the book is spent focusing on Soviet propaganda amongst the celebrity youth of the 1930s rather than the relationship between Dos Passos and Hemingway, making the book feel less focused then it might have.
In the end, there is an emptiness that leaves the reader with the feeling of mourning; it is not an uplifting story–it is history. And like so much of history, it is both tragic and irreparable. Thus Koch succeeds: by the end the betrayal between the two authors initially hinted at in the beginning of the story becomes complete and all encompassing.
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