Writer, Sailor, Sol­dier, Spy

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Ernest Hem­ing­way’s Se­cret Ad­ven­tures, 1935 – 1961 Ni­cholas Reynolds HarperCollins, $37

Against to­day’s back­drop of col­lu­sion, tam­pered elec­tions and cy­ber war­fare, it may seem strange to be glo­ri­fy­ing a No­bel- and Pulitzer-win­ning Amer­i­can for his ef­forts to spy for the Rus­sians – but in many ways that’s ex­actly what a new book on Ernest Hem­ing­way claims to do.

Writer, Sailor, Sol­dier, Spy draws on back­ground ma­te­rial from the FBI and NKVD (Rus­sia’s em­bry­onic KGB around the time of World War II) to re­veal Hem­ing­way as not just the fa­mil­iar gun-tot­ing, larger-than-life au­thor of For Whom the Bell Tolls and lib­er­a­tor of the Ritz bar, but also as a man whose anti-fas­cism and dis­il­lu­sion­ment with US pol­i­tics took him to­wards es­pi­onage on be­half of Com­mu­nist Rus­sia.

Au­thor Ni­cholas Reynolds is as thor­ough as he can be with his sparse sources but his for­mer lives as an of­fi­cer in the Ma­rine Corps and CIA, as well as mil­i­tary his­to­rian for the CIA Mu­seum, al­low him cred­i­ble con­jec­ture in paint­ing a slightly re­freshed por­trait of one of the 20th cen­tury’s most well-rounded fig­ures.

What’s clear is that Hem­ing­way-thespy wasn’t much called upon.

Yes, he played for both sides – so long as that side was fight­ing fas­cism; yes, dur­ing and af­ter his in­volve­ment in the Span­ish Civil War he had re­la­tion­ships with com­mu­nist agents; yes, he had ‘‘a se­cret re­la­tion­ship with the Sovi­ets’’ when he and his jour­nal­ist wife Martha Gell­horn vis­ited China in 1940; and, yes, the Sovi­ets touched base with him when he re­turned to Cuba from Europe in 1945.

But there are no real clas­si­fied, cloak-and-dag­ger in­for­ma­tion drops – in­stead, from the rise of fas­cist Ger­many in the 1930s through to the Cold War, we see Hem­ing­way as a man more willing to play out his own ‘‘boys’ own’’ fan­tasies driven by machismo and liquor, than an ide­al­ist aim­ing to bring down an em­pire.

Case in point is the ‘‘sailor’’ el­e­ment of the book – notably Hem­ing­way’s much-loved 38ft fish­ing launch, Pi­lar. The burly, bearded Hem­ing­way is shown steam­ing the small boat, which he called a ship, into the de­bris left af­ter the hur­ri­cane that hit Key West in 1935, as well as chas­ing Ger­man U-boats around in the Caribbean in 1942. He even en­listed play­ers of jai alai (a Basque ver­sion of petanque) in case there was ever any need to lob hand-grenades at en­emy ves­sels.

To­wards the end of his life, his in­volve­ment in es­pi­onage – ac­cord­ing to Reynolds – played more on his para­noia than his bravado as the Cold War ten­sions led the US pow­ers-thatbe to test the loy­alty of those who had sided with com­mu­nism when it had stood up against the rise of fas­cism.

As politi­cians held hear­ings to un­cover Red spies, Hem­ing­way was telling friends he was no traitor and show­ing how the chang­ing po­lit­i­cal tide had left him vul­ner­a­ble.

He agreed that for some of his deeds ‘‘you could be hanged now but in no one of which I was ever dis­loyal to my coun­try’’.

Reynolds’ work is a colour­ful telling of the story of an al­ready colour­ful char­ac­ter – but is also a good les­son in how his­tory can warp and sheer po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tions.

Ni­cholas Reynolds

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