by Ernest Hemingway
112 pages, Arrow Books 1994
Destroyed, Not Defeated By Pat Black
Uncle Ernie’s gone a bit funny. Not in the same way as Uncle Cleetus, thankfully, but funny enough.
If you ever wanted an example of how tastes change, how canon becomes fired and how Ozymandias takes a tumble into the desert, critical feeling over Ernest Hemingway is a splendid one. He has not aged well.
I’ve gotten into a couple of arguments about the merits of this gruff, beardy, boozy hero of literature. He’s dull, they say. He’s terrible about women. And what is that pub-bore hard-man act all about?
I usually end up losing these scraps, backpedalling from the bar to the door with my hands raised. Look, I don’t want any trouble.
Once you’ve taken the major critical punches, it sometimes seems there’s very little to hit back with. Yes, the staccato style can be a little grating. The spaces between the words sometimes get too big to step over. It all becomes too po-faced, too straight, too uptight.
And yes, he’s unquestionably nasty when it comes to the girls. Even in The Snows of Kilimanjaro - the finest short story ever written, and I’ll take on anyone over that - the belligerent, washed-up narrator has time to spit out some terrible things to his woman as she tends to him and brings him drink. “How little you know,” he says. What a haunting phrase.
And the machismo... the hunting, the joyless boozing, the nasty fistfights.... there’s a tone to Hemingway that I dislike the older I get, but that I also find absurdly funny. Like having a snigger at the snarling old drunk in the pub who is only ever a danger to himself, I am drawn to take the piss out of Uncle Ernie. Why are you frowning at me? Why did you shoot those animals, mate? Can’t you take a drink and get on with people? Perhaps you need to get yourself a girlfriend? Oh wait, what’s that - the world’s shit and we’re all going to die, eh? Blinding insight, there. We really needed you to tell us that. There you go – have another pisco sour, Uncle Ernie. Forget all about it.
But there’s a reason Uncle Ernie’s so beloved, a reason why your somewhat stern English teacher made you read him at school. It’s mostly to be found in The Old Man And The Sea, a perfect, sweet little thing on its own. Even if he hadn’t published anything else, we would still know his name today thanks to this book. It’s 100-odd pages you won’t regret paying eight quid or twelve dollars for, something you’ll keep and perhaps treasure.
Like the best of Hemingway it’s a very simple story. An old Cuban man, Santiago, puts out to sea after eighty-four days of bad luck. He hooks the biggest fish of his life, a blue marlin which dwarfs his tiny skiff. He has an immense battle with this monster fish as the sun rises, sets, rises again, his bare hands cramped and cut to ribbons, before he finally harpoons it and lashes it to the side of the boat. Then the sharks come in. He fights them, kills plenty of them, but they strip the fish to the bone before he makes it back to port, exhausted, a skeleton to show for all his effort. A boy who looks after him puts him to bed, leaving him to dream of lions playing on the beach, a sight he once saw as a boy on a ship off the coast of Africa.
A snooty person I once knew described The Old Man And The Sea as a “lunch hour” book – and I guess you probably could cut through it in that amount of time, if you really wanted to. I’d advise you to take your time with it, though. We have Hemingway’s usual beautiful economy of description, with flashes of colour throughout which had a massive influence on me as a writer (if you have a look through Google, you’ll see that just about every single edition of the book is blessed with a beautiful cover). Little delights here and there, like the newspapers Santiago uses to cover his crazy bedsprings to the little bird who perches on the old man’s line as he tries to reel in the fish. It is important to remember how dull descriptive prose could be, for all its baroque flourishes, before Uncle Ernie came on the scene.
And the story is infused with the author’s love of the natural world – a love he showed by shooting some wonderful creatures to buggery, admittedly, but at least his bloodlust is given a sympathetic outlet through Santiago, who makes his living as a fisherman. The beauty and cruelty of the natural world – man included – is beautifully illustrated. Santiago laments the fact that birds have such hard lives, but were made to be so delicate. He feels sympathy for the fish tugging away at the line down there in the deep, even going so far as to call it his brother, while at the same time understanding that he has to kill it, for the good of his soul as much as the price of its flesh.
And of course there’s the fish, the fish itself, gigantic, beautiful and rare; if I called it a monster anywhere in what I’ve written so far, I apologise. Santiago recounts a time he and the boy, Manolin, hooked a female marlin while it was mating with a male; the male followed the boat even after they had taken the female on board and killed it, something which broke the old man’s heart. There is something which breaks his heart again even as he spears it. Perhaps the same emotion the hawks feel as they chase after the delicate little seabird who perched on the line earlier, we might fancy.
In Santiago’s hopeless fight with the sharks, the book’s true meaning emerges: that life is a battle against forces you cannot defeat. They’ll bring you down, no doubt about it - but you must keep on fighting, Uncle Ernie tells you. All bullshit aside, and no matter how pathetic he is in his delirium, that has to be good advice for anyone. “A man can be destroyed, but not defeated,” Santiago muses. In this stoic defeatism I see something of the Norse myths, the idea that Odin and the gang will be stopped by the forces of darkness at some point, but that there is great nobility in the battle, in getting behind the good guys, the righteous.
Women get off lightly in The Old Man And The Sea, largely because there are no female characters in the book, apart from one who makes a foolish, ignorant, ironic remark about the skeleton of the fish right at the end. Unless we count the sea; Santiago thinks of it as someone who grants great favours, but also bestows great wickedness. She can’t really help it, Santiago reckons: the moon affects her as it does a woman.
And lastly, there’s a real tenderness and affection between Santiago and the boy at the start and the finish of the book. If you found it hard to read that sentence without raising an eyebrow, imagine how hard it was for me to write it. But this relationship goes beyond any cynicism and speaks of simple kindnesses, as the lad looks out for old Santiago, the lonely widower who appears to have no-one and nothing, save for small acts of charity from the people in his community.
The old man misses the boy while he is out on the waves, wishes he was there to help, and hopes that the lad can be proud, as he fights that inexorable, beautiful enemy.