I was in desperate need of a book for a long subway ride I was taking, so my suitemate told me to grab a book from his shelf. I wasn’t into any of the art history or religion books he had lying around so I grabbed the nearest, shortest fiction I hadn’t read yet–The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
Hem, Hem, Hem. Where do we start? With your sexy portrayal in the HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn? With the way I read The Sun Also Rises in high school as a tragic love story (even though I revised my opinion years later?) With the time that a boy told me, “Isn’t it nice to think so?” when I said we’d make a good couple, by way of rejection? So many faces of Hem in my life, and I was about to add another.
Well. I didn’t think a book could get more Hemingway, but it could. As I was following Santiago hold on to the marlin as it dragged him into the ocean for pages on end, I thought, “Is this what being a man feels like?” The book read like it was a satirist making fun of Hemingway at his most Hemingway-esque. He has a style and he does it over and over, but when it’s done to this extreme it seemed almost like a parody. The fish was his brother, what a noble fish, mean sharks, and so on. Take this sentence as the least subtle Jesus reference of all time:
“Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood. (4.112)
While I was rolling my eyes at Hemingway’s heavy-handedness, I was in awe of Santiago. He was never defeated. His struggles made him stronger and want to do things harder. When I am faced with going after my dream, my life, I hope I face it with this enthusiastic fortitude. This is a useful book in the sense that it offers a useful mode of behavior.
So, this is not to say I didn’t admire the book and what it stood for. It seemed that Hemingway thought to himself: I want to write a book about nobility, about respecting another’s greatness, disappointment, perseverance, the final pushes when one’s at the end of one’s life. He had all of these themes and then he made a story to fit it. Maybe that’s why it felt so stilted at the way that I connect most with a story–the characters and the language.
But who am I to critique a book that won a Nobel Prize? Of course it’s a good book. Of course it does good things with language and made me think and certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone. But it didn’t burrow its way under my skin, not in the way other works by Hemingway have gotten to me.
Part of me thinks I’m just not old enough. I’m not an old man, and I’ve barely seen the sea, just sunbathed around it and gotten some nice tans. I think if I revisit this book in the future, it may affect me more. For now, I’ll read A Moveable Feast and dream of Paris and escaping instead of facing my problems head-on like a fisherman.