The old fisherman Santiago’s luck has run out. For eighty-four straight days he hasn’t caught a fish, and is surviving only with the help of the young boy, Manolin, who once fished with him but whose parents have now insisted he go out with another luckier boat instead. Manolin feels an intense loyalty to old Santiago, and helps him each day with his gear, catching bait, and even buying him food when Santiago’s funds run out.
On this day it will be different. A fish takes Santiago’s bait – a huge marlin, so big that Santiago can’t pull him in. As the marlin sets out to sea, dragging Santiago’s little skiff behind him, Santiago must decide whether to cut the line or run with the fish. And so it becomes a matter of will, as Santiago battles with nature, with his own failing strength, with growing exhaustion and with his pride as a fisherman.
He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.
This is a beautifully written and absorbing short tale – mesmerising, almost, as hour after hour passes and still the fish won’t tire. Although written in the third person, once Santiago is alone on the sea with his fish, the reader is taken directly into his thoughts. He is a simple man, and his mind dwells on great successes and failures of his past, a lifetime’s experience all guiding his actions in this moment. He knows he is at the limit of his physical endurance as the line cuts his calloused hands each time the fish changes pace. He recognises that the pride of youth has given way to the humility of age, and wonders when that happened. But he still has enough pride to want to kill this fish, although he loves it for its strength and will and beauty.
The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.
I suspect people may have read all sorts of symbolism into this over the years and maybe there is lots and I just missed it. But for me, this is simply a tale well-told, by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. As usual with Hemingway, there’s a degree of pondering on the meaning of masculinity, though less overtly than in the couple of longer novels of his I’ve read. It’s an old theme, man against nature, and Hemingway brings nothing new to it except his wonderful prose. And that alone makes this well worth reading.
In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. The guerrilla band is ostensibly led by Pablo, who was once a feared warrior but is now an untrustworthy drunk. The real leader is his woman, the gypsy Pilar, on whose strength and courage Robert will quickly learn to rely. Also in the group is Maria, a beautiful young woman whom the guerrillas rescued from the fascists, but not before they had abused her cruelly, raping her repeatedly and cutting off her hair to advertise her shame to the world. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. And we will see Maria and her Roberto fall in love – a love made more urgent and profound by the uncertainty of the future. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love.
At first the writing seems odd – Hemingway uses thee and thou and a stylised sentence structure in the dialogue throughout, as a way, I assume, of reminding the reader that in fact the participants are speaking in a language which Robert knows well but is still foreign to him. He also replaces the infrequent swear words with euphemistic replacements, so that one gets sentences like: “And when thou comest to the camp, order that someone should relieve me because I have indescribable and unprintable hunger and I have forgotten the password.” However, he does it so well and consistently that very soon the reader’s mind becomes attuned to it, and it begins to add to the sense of place and time. (It also meant this reader spent way too much time guessing which swear words were being bleeped out…)
Book 60 of 90
The main story, of the plot to blow up the bridge and of the love affair, is wonderful in itself, full of drama and tension, brutally savage at times followed by scenes of tender beauty. Regulars will know that I have mercilessly mocked other male writers’ attempts to write sex scenes, but boy, Hemingway knows exactly how to make something erotic without any explicit description of body parts or bodily fluids! (I was amused to discover that this is the book from which the famous question “Did the earth move for you?” originated, although in the book it is a moment of real emotion rather than the naughty wink-wink joke it had become by my teen years.)
“I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. And many have died. Many. Many. Thou canst not think how many. But I love thee as I love what I love most in the world and I love thee more.”
Maria, admittedly, is little more than a beautiful sex object, the idealised submissive female rather typical of the time. But she is strongly counter-balanced by the depth Hemingway brings to Pilar – for me, the real central character of the book. It is Pilar who tells us about the tragic life of the matador she once loved, a wonderfully told and absorbing tale which shows the importance of bullfighting as part of the culture both as it happens and as a basis for the tradition of oral storytelling and mythologising which feeds into the camaraderie and fellowship of the band. It is Pilar, too, who tells us of the time that she and Pablo took back her village from the fascists, repaying atrocity with atrocity, and showing the reader how easily good people can become a vicious mob, each afraid to stand out and goading each other on to ever worse barbarity. One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Hemingway’s refusal to make one side all bad and the other all good. Here motives and affiliations are murky and, as in most forms of guerrilla warfare, somewhat tribal in that most participants are following strong local leaders rather than fighting for deeply held convictions of their own. Here too we see how the peasants, told by the Communists that God no longer exists, struggle with a sense of loss for a religion that has been so deeply embedded in their culture.
….“You have killed?” Robert Jordan asked. ….“Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even fascists whom we must kill.” ….“Yet you have killed.” ….“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.” ….“By whom?” ….“Who knows? Since we do not have God here anymore, who forgives, I do not know.”
Hemingway doesn’t delve into the minutiae of politics in Spain, but instead treats fascism as a universal threat. He has Robert talk to the other characters about his own country, America, suggesting it is not immune to the forces ripping Spain apart. Much of what he says about that aspect sounds depressingly like the current political state of the US, giving the book a feel of contemporary relevance. Robert does not consider himself a Communist – he is fighting for love of the Republic – but he knows that when he goes home he will likely be branded a Red and be barred from pursuing his career in teaching. He tries to imagine life in America after the war, with Maria as his wife, but there’s a pathos to these scenes because we also see that he doesn’t expect them ever to come true. Robert has killed men and is willing to kill more, but he knows that when it is over, if he lives, he will be changed forever by what he has experienced.
Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.
So much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. What a great start to my new challenge!
When I started looking for the Great American Novel, I expected to be inundated with people telling me I must read Hemingway. Oddly, rather the reverse happened – the general consensus seemed to be I should skip him. So obviously I grabbed the first chance I could to find out why…
Written in 1926, Hemingway’s characters are part of the ‘lost generation’ – those young people so emotionally damaged by WW1 that they are left drifting and purposeless, leading lives of dissolute recklessness. We first meet our narrator, Jake Barnes, in Paris, where he works as a journalist. Jake and Lady Brett Ashley love one another, but Jake has been left impotent by a war injury, and Brett is not the kind of woman who could be happy in a relationship that didn’t offer her sexual fulfilment. So Brett embarks on a string of sexual adventures, usually with friends of Jake’s, while Jake drinks. And drinks. And drinks. Actually, so does Brett. And by about a third of the way through the book, I was toying with the idea of knocking back three bottles of wine, a couple of brandies, and an absinthe or two myself. (But then the ‘lost generation’ usually has that effect on me – privileged, feckless wasters living off Daddy’s money, and blaming their dissipated lifestyles on the war. Poor ex-soldiers, of course, just had to go home, get a job and get on with things – they couldn’t afford to get ‘lost’ in Paris or Spain. Poverty is such a great sat-nav.)
“This is a good place,” he said. “There’s a lot of liquor,” I agreed.
When Paris begins to run low on alcohol, Jake and a loose group of friends and acquaintances, including Brett and her fiancé, make their way to Pamplona in Spain for the annual bull-fighting fiesta. There is a lot of alcohol available in Spain, of all different kinds, and this, together with the fact that every man in the party has either slept with Brett or wants to, leads to lots of macho posturing – not unlike the more formalised posturing that takes place between the matador and the bull. Surprisingly enough, Lady Brett seems to quite like matadors…
Hemingway’s writing style is an odd mix of sometimes overly simplistic prose with occasional passages of real beauty. Some of the dialogue is mind-numbingly trite – repetitive and dull – and he gets fixated on details from time to time, like how much a bottle of wine cost or what each person ate. I tired very quickly of the endless descriptions of binge-drinking and drunken quarrelling. But some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting.
The bull who killed Vicente Gironés was named Bocanegra, was Number 118 of the bull-breeding establishment of Sanchez Taberno, and was killed by Pedro Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon. His ear was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero, who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.
The same patchiness applies to the characterisation. I’m not at all sure what he was trying to achieve with Lady Brett’s character – but I’m pretty sure he didn’t achieve it. She didn’t come over as a real person to me at all. Her permanent drunkenness and ridiculously promiscuous behaviour may have made many men want to sleep with her, but the idea that they all fell in love with her was a stretch too far. I felt as if she was a puppet rather than a character, her behaviour merely a device to provide reasons for strains and tensions to develop amongst the group of men.
I’m sure screeds have been written about the blatant anti-Semitism in the book and I must say I wasn’t overwhelmingly thrilled by his stereotyping of his Scottish character either. But honestly both characterisations seemed to me more like lazy regurgitations of racial caricatures than any kind of active racism, and it was the 1920s, so no doubt they seem more shocking to us now than they would have been then. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure that he wasn’t attempting to gently ridicule the prevailing anti-Semitism of his time – but if that was his intention, by leaving it ambiguous, again I feel he failed.
However, I feel we get to know Jake well and some of the others come over as fairly well-rounded. There is a good deal of subtlety in the way he slowly reveals Jake to us as the most resilient of them all – the one who is physically damaged, but with the most emotional strength in the end. The whole ‘there’s more than one way to be masculine’ message may seem obvious in retrospect but it’s actually fed through in a gradual and almost understated way, and I felt I only really saw what Hemingway was doing as I looked back at the book after finishing.
Everything was fresh and cool and damp in the early morning. Nurses in uniform and in peasant costume walked under the trees with children. The Spanish children were beautiful. Some bootlblacks sat together under a tree talking to a soldier. The soldier had only one arm. The tide was in and there was a good breeze and a surf on the beach.
I’m going to confess that in the end the book impressed me considerably more than I expected. Despite my many criticisms, I found it an absorbing read that drew me into the world Hemingway was describing and made it a believable one; and my appreciation for it actually grew in the few days after I had finished reading it. I feel that it needs to be approached like an impressionist painting – when you’re close enough to see the detail it all looks a bit messy and it’s hard to make out the picture. But stand back a bit and the details recede – the constant descriptions of drunkenness, the repetitiveness, the banality of the dialogue – and the picture that emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.