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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

Started 11/28, finished 11/30

I think Hem is everything they say he is, both good and bad. I love him when his characters are sitting around the bistros of Paris having drinks and being silly. I love him when he laments the fate of F. Scott Fitzgerald's career. I love him when he tries to explain the "tragic figure of the bull" to people who will never understand (I may well be among them). I love him when his Cuban fisherman doesn't understand that he can't win, so he does it anyway.

We say that writers are on a quest for truth, and that what "truth" means from one to the other is as different as could be. For some authors it's difficult to tell what truth they're after, but for Hem I don't know how much clearer it could be. Every word he wrote sought out the truth of courage in the face of futility. That's how I would put it. His characters led lives that far surpassed expectations of physical limitation and endurance, and yet they faced these odds without hesitation, with absolute faith in their abilities, even overriding what their intellect told them.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago knows he shouldn't go out so far. He shouldn't catch this fish, because the people who will eat it won't be deserving of its death. He shouldn't go farther than his food supply can reasonably support.

But he can't stop.

Once the fish is on the hook, only one will survive. Santiago is not Ahab. He doesn't believe the fish to be the great manifestation of evil (I'm sure a thousand essays have been written comparing the two), but his survival depends on its death. His respect for the fish outweighs his respect for most human beings, but he has no choice. He has to kill it in order to live.

This is a common theme in Hemingway's life as well as his work: Death in the Afternoon is 400 pages of non-fiction accounts of bullfights. Hem was an active hunter of big game and big fish, and he fought in every major war America was involved in, and a few that they weren't. The difference between Hemingway and Santiago, and I suspect that it's an important one, is that Hemingway volunteered for most of his quests, whereas Santiago didn't know how to live otherwise.

I've always tried to figure out what Hem is going for with all this, this death and violence. What question is he asking? He wasn't on a quest to spread truth but to discover it through tragedy, staged or not, as he went through his own adrenaline-charged life. I must admit I share his fascination with the question, even though I'm not prepared to participate to the extent that he did. Maybe he discovered it the day he sucked down a shotgun shell. Maybe it was exactly as grim as he had hinted at in this story as in many others. Maybe I need to live a bit longer before I can judge him in his decisions.

Predator vs prey, life vs death, man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself...

All of these conflicts raged in every page Hem wrote. Except, of course, the bookends to his career... those were more like "man vs his own willie": one because he can't use it, the other because he can't stop.

Book #25 will be Night, by Elie Wiesel

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