In which Netty spends Father’s Day with Papa Hemingway …

September 4, 2011

Why, hello there, Papa, glad to make your acquaintance again …

Back at the beginning of the year, when Andy and I were working out which Reading Challenge authors we had previously encountered would make up the Revisited component of this year’s blog, Ernest Hemingway was one of the first on the list. Indeed, Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls was chosen by both of us as our favourite ANRC book of 2009 (see the archives), so the inclusion of Papa was a no-brainer. And I was like, well, I’m gonna do A Farewell To Arms, about which I’ve been intrigued since an old First Tuesday Book Club episode where the indomitable Ms Marieke Hardy extolled its virtues, and then some.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was proofing the education page at work,  scanning a VCE text analysis of Arms – and realised way, way too late that it gave away the entire plot. Bollocks, I thought. That’s just great – so I know how it ends before I’ve even started it. And as the month started to fast slip away, I was like, so I’m still well pissed about Arms and I’m – as usual – hard-pressed for time, so I’m gonna plump for The Old Man And The Sea instead.

At a slim 99 pages long, TOMATS – err – is more novella than novel. It was also, interestingly enough, the last work of fiction published during Hemingway’s lifetime (first printed in 1952; the author killed himself little more than a decade later). It won the Pulitzer Prize and was also instrumental in Hemingway being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature two years later. Biographers and historians claim it reignited public interest in Hemingway’s output, which had been largely relegated to the backburners in favour of his penchant for international travel, jetting from the US to Europe, Spain to Cuba, and drinking, of which he certainly did plenty throughout his lifetime.

Hemingway seems to have been pretty much the ultimate “bloke’s bloke”, in terms of his interests – hunting, fishing, baseball, bullfighting, drinking. He bought a boat, named the Pilar (perhaps after one of the most enduring characters in For Whom The Bell Tolls?) in 1934, extensively sailing the Caribbean, and had established a base outside Havana, in Cuba, by 1939 (he did not leave the country permanently until 1960, a year before his death).

The Old Man And The Sea (the acronym is just too silly for words) is set in Havana – or, more specifically, in the Gulf Stream off its coast. The old man (it is never specified just how old, but probably mid-60s) of the novella’s title, Santiago, is a down-on-his-luck fisherman who has had a run of 84 consecutive days at sea without landing a catch. Dirt-poor and a widower, he lives in a one-room shack made of guano. Santiago is regularly attended to by a young boy, Manolin, who has great affection for the old man – indeed, their touching relationship is beautifully drawn and depicted – delivering him food and beverage and helping out with his 16-footer skiff. Manolin, whom Santiago taught to fish at the age of five (he is probably now in his very early teens), has been forbidden by his parents to go out to sea with his “unlucky” old master.

One morning, as usual, Manolin helps Santiago prepare for a day at sea – now his 85th without success. The old man decides to work out deep in the Gulf Stream to increase his chances of a big catch, venturing far from the coast and casting several lines. He lands a small albacore tuna, then manages to hook a huge marlin that he estimates to be “two feet bigger” bigger than his skiff. But the great fish refuses to give up the ghost so easily, and the under-equipped Santiago and the marlin become locked in a several-day battle out in the depths to see which one will blink first.

And that’s pretty much all I can say The Old Man And The Sea. Sure, I could tell you how it all pans out, but then I’ve never been a big one for spoilers (I’m still pissed about that article in the paper that temporarily wrecked A Farewell To Arms for me – I mean, sure, I’ll get around to reading it eventually, but I’ll enjoy it just that little bit less on account of inadvertently knowing how it ends).

Much ink – too much, probably – has been spilled over the years about Hemingway’s masterful, succinct prose; indeed there is little for me to add here. Suffice to say, the man does not have that fearsome literary-lion reputation for nought – he is simply a genius with words. As a novelist, he has few true peers.  In fact the only criticism that I can muster about The Old Man And The Sea is its subject matter – this is a book about fishing, written by a amateur fisherman who loved to fish.

Me – I have never been fishing and am very unlikely ever to do so. I mean, I’ll eat them, but all that other stuff? No thanks. My father was a recreational fisherman; someone, possibly one of his brothers, had a shack down at the Great Lakes and he and his mates used to go off on regular weekend excursions to fish – and, like Hemingway – to drink. I remember as a very young girl being fascinated by his treasured box of lures – all those pretty, colourful hooks – but was never interested in the fishing aspect of it all.

You don’t have to be a keen angler to enjoy The Old Man And The Sea, but I am sure it would add a whole other dimension to the book (anyone out there who fishes and has read it, please let me know). There were a few occasions when I started to glaze over a bit at the technicalities of the operation unfolding. But at heart this is a two-fold story – primarily of a relationship between a man and a fish, and secondly of a man and a boy. They don’t have equal physical weight, but both have the same emotional resonance. And it’s those stories that captivate and hold the reader’s attention for the journey, and elevates the novel to the work of art that it is.

Oh, yeah, which reminds me – it’s Father’s Day today. This is a day that passes me by unnoticed pretty much every year. My father died 10 years ago the month before last. To say that we had a non-relationship is pretty much an understatement, but I guess at the end of the day he is still the bloke who is 50% responsible for me being here. So in that spirit, and letting bygones be bygones, I’d like to wish a happy Father’s Day to my dad; to Papa Hemingway; to Andy – who has two gorgeous little girls – and to all the other fathers out there who deserve it.


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