The Breaking Point, a review

by

Jenny Haines

The Breaking Point, Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles, by Stephen Koch, Robson Books, 2006

When I was given The Breaking Point, as a birthday present, I approached the book with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The title alone spark my interest, but I am not a fan of murder mysteries. But this is no ordinary murder mystery.

It is a book of substance that tells the real history of the breaking point in the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, in the pace and style of a novel.

Te book is not just about the breaking point between two literary giants of the early 20th century, it is also about a breaking point for the communist movement in the 20th century: the betrayal by Stalin of the Spanish Republic, the International Brigades and the rank and file of the communist, Trotskyist and anarchist movements, which led to the victory of Franco and Spanish Fascism in 1939. It was also the breaking point for the Stalinist policy of the Popular Front in the western parliamentary democracies.

As well it was probably the breaking point for Hemingway’s marriage to Pauline, because of his developing relationship with Martha Gellhorn, and of Hemingway himself, morally, politically and spiritually as he allowed himself, against what must have been the instincts of his fierce intelligence, to be manipulated by Stalin’s agents into his attacks on Dos Passos, which led to the decline of Dos Passos’s creativity

The multi-layered story is skilfully woven by Stephen Koch. The relationship between John Dos Passos, Jose Robles and Ernest Hemingway, which had once been close and inspirational for all of them, is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, and the rise of Hitler’s fascism in Germany.

Stalin cared little for any of it. His motive was to consolidate his power inside Russia and to create the circumstances for a deal with the Nazis to keep Hitler from invading Russia.

The Stalinist terror was in full swing inside Russia, eliminating anyone and everyone that was fingered as a Trotskyist, which Stalin said equalled being a friend of fascism.

Stalin thought nothing of exporting the terror to Spain. There is no doubt that Jose Robles, who worked for a while as a Spanish interpreter to Russian generals, knew too much about Stalin’s plans to bring the terror to Spain, and may have tried to oppose those plans.

We know that Stalin’s agents murdered Robles, but we are not given, in this book at least, much detail of Robles’ activities just before his murder.

Into this scene of political intrigue came Ernest Hemingway, for whom Stalin’s undercover agents planned great things. He was their front man for the Popular Front in the United States.

Hemingway, self-centred egotist that he was, lapped up their celebrity treatment of him. Dos Passos trod a darker path, arriving in Spain to find Jose Robles’ widow living in fear, and Robles missing.

Dos Passos who had some legal training, started asking questions, hitting brick walls of silence, and breathtaking duplicity.

The famous author Dos Passos asking questions that were not supposed be asked caused a stir, and then a storm between Hemingway and Dos Passos from which their relationship never recovered.

Hemingway denounced Dos Passos as a friend of fascism, much to the delight of his Stalinist mates. They wanted Dos Passos denounced, and to have Hemingway do it for them was a triumph.

For both Hemingway and Dos Passos, the experience left their literary creativity scarred, although Hemingway did go on to write For Whom the Bell Tolls.

It is interesting that his central figure in that novel doesn’t die for the cause but suicides for himself.

Dos Passos went on to write passable novels but nothing that matched his earlier USA series.

Ironically, a number of Stalin’s agents who worked on the antifascism campaign in Spain with Hemingway were recalled to Russia in the late 1930s and exterminated, as Stalin abandoned the antifascism campaign when he sought, and achieved the deal with Hitler.

Ernest Hemingway lived on, much of the time suffering from poor mental health, until 1961, when he himself suicided.

His marriage to Pauline ended in 1939, and his marriage to Martha Gellhorn died with the end of World War II.

Dos Passos lived until 1970. He and Hemingway had some further public run-ins and a few tentative moments of reconciliation.

It is not clear whether Dos Passos fully understood the role that Hemingway and Stalin’s agents had played in his humiliation in 1937, but Stephen Koch’s research lays it all out plainly.

Dos Passos in his later life drifted to the right of politics. Among Hemingway’s papers after he died was a get-well note sent to him in the last weeks of his life by Dos Passos

The Breaking Point is a hard book to put down once you start reading it. The intrigue is intense and Stephen Koch presents a well-researched account of history.

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