I was brought up short by the snap of recognition the other day.
In classes I often use the late Michael S. Reynolds’s wonderful books on Hemingway. Last week we looked at secondary source material that Hemingway probably read before he wrote of the execution of the six Greek cabinet ministers (“Chapter V”) in In Our Time. This is Hem’s whole chapter:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.
Reynolds reproduces two newspaper accounts of the real event. The first, from the AP, is a romantic cliché. “Ex-Ministers Die Bravely,” the headline reads. “Leaders Met Death Jauntily.” The article is all monocles and top hats, gay chatter among the condemned, the presentation of a silver cigarette case by one of the ministers to the officer of the firing squad “as a sign of his appreciation of the latter’s courtesy and tact in the exercise of a painful duty.” The “immaculately dressed” men refused to be blindfolded, and death was pronounced by waiting physicians as “instant.” There was a small, tasteful funeral afterward with relatives.
As Reynolds points out, this kind of sentiment died (temporarily, I would add) in the trenches of WWI, and Hemingway, who had covered the retreat of the Greek army (the catalyst for the executions) for the Toronto Star, would have known it.
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer's radar, and all great writers have it,” he said famously, in a later interview.
The second media account of the executions, a reprint in the New York Times of a London newspaper article, revealed more of the truth: One of the ministers, Gounaris, was taken from a hospital and left on a stretcher a mile-and-a-half from the city “in a dying condition,” while the van went back for the five others being held in jail. When the van returned to Gounaris, one of the five prisoners was already dead from heart failure. Gounaris couldn’t stand, so he was given injections of strychnine to strengthen his heart long enough for the firing squad to shoot him. The dead man was propped up beside him for the ceremony. After the ministers had been shot, “the firing party rushed forward and emptied their revolvers into the corpses,” including the guy who’d been dead before they even started. Then the bodies were taken to a public cemetery and “thrown out casually in a heap in the mud….”
The difference between the two reports sounds familiar. Think of the early and late news versions of executions in our time; what began with self-congratulations ended with horrified finger-pointing. (Note to future hangmen: Protocol insists you leave the head on. Otherwise it’s just not cricket.)