The Old Man and the Sea – from Cuba with love

Sixty years after the publication of The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway’s novel still tells the story of his love affair with his adopted home

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

Ernest Hemingway is the kind of writer you either love or loathe. His macho persona and trademark terse, journalistic style alienate many readers, as does his attraction — nowadays frowned upon — to warfare, boxing, bullfighting, and alcohol. Others admire him for broadly the same reasons: a clear, accessible, and unpretentious use of prose, and a powerful sense of the darkness and cruelty of existence. His biography reads like the most implausible fiction, and his larger-than-life figure hangs over the Caribbean from the 1930s to the 1960s.

But it was sixty years ago, in late 1952, that the Illinois-born Hemingway’s greatest legacy to the Caribbean saw the light of day with the publication of The Old Man and the Sea, the classic tale of an aged fisherman’s allegorical struggle with a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream to the north of Cuba. This short novel was a phenomenal success, winning the Pulitzer Prize the following spring, and being cited when Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. It is arguably his best book — compact, economical, yet rich in suggestive symbolism — and it was the last to be published in his lifetime. In 1961, worn down by depression and alcoholism, Hemingway blew his brains out in Idaho.

The Old Man and the Sea draws on two things that the troubled author truly loved: Cuba and big-game fishing. His relationship with Cuba began in 1928, with a marlin fishing expedition from Key West, Florida, where he then lived. In 1934 he bought his own thirty-eight-foot fishing boat, Pilar, with which he sailed and fished around Cuba and the Bahamas, most notably the small island of Bimini. Hemingway’s jaunts to Bimini were notorious for their boozing and brawling, but by 1940 “Papa” had settled down enough — by now with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn — to buy a house with land near Havana. It was thought that Gellhorn chose the place because it was far away enough from the temptations of the decadent pre-revolutionary capital city.

Known as Finca Vigia (“Lookout Farm”), the property stood in the modest working-class community of San Francisco de Paula, with views of both the sea and distant Havana. Pilar was kept at nearby Cojimar, a fishing village where Hemingway was a regular at La Terraza, a rough-and-ready fishermen’s bar (which features in the novel). Immersing himself in the popular culture of the area — and its rum — Papa Hemingway won the affection of the locals, who appreciated that he had chosen their township rather than a swankier suburb of Havana. He also gathered the characters, setting, and dialogue for his book, which he wrote — standing at his typewriter — in Finca Vigia.

Key among these characters was Gregorio Fuentes, first mate of Pilar, although some critics and historians believe his predecessor Carlos Gutiérrez was a more direct inspiration for Santiago, the hero of the novel. In any event, it was Fuentes who benefited from the association, living to the age of 104 in Cojimar and making a tidy living by charging tourists ten dollars for a photograph or Hemingway anecdote. He proudly claimed to have never read the book. If he had, he might have recognised himself — or his fellow fishermen — in the existential protagonist who fights against nature and self-doubt to express his humanity through sheer resilience.

Hemingway treated Cuba as his adopted homeland, and indignantly refused US advice to leave when Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries came to power in 1959. He was photographed several times with Castro, receiving fishing trophies, and publicly declared himself “delighted” with the overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista. But Castro’s rise to power coincided with Hemingway’s spectacular decline, and it is by no means certain what the novelist would have made of the revolutionary government’s expropriation of foreign-owned property had he lived to see it.

In the event, this is what happened to Finca Vigia after relations with the US deteriorated in 1961. Hemingway had left Havana for the last time in July 1960, and after he succumbed to his own demons in Idaho the following year, the revolutionary government took over the house (the Cubans claimed that Mary, his fourth wife, donated it to the Cuban people). For many years the property crumbled and rotted with little maintenance, still containing Hemingway’s clothes, hunting trophies, and books. In the late 1990s the Cuban authorities finally began to renovate the house and tourists returned, but in 2005 a landmark agreement between the Cuban government and the US-based Finca Vigia Foundation overcame longstanding political barriers and allowed a programme of conservation and renovation to begin. Now most of the house and its contents can be visited in their newly pristine state.

Pilar is now part of the Museo Hemingway, as the estate is called, and it was apparently Castro who took personal charge of the boat’s restoration after Hemingway’s death. Its presence recalls another bizarre episode in the author’s colourful life, when he volunteered himself and the boat as submarine hunters during the Second World War. To the bafflement of the Cuban authorities, Hemingway suggested he could equip Pilar with weaponry to be used against the German U-boats then causing havoc among Allied shipping in the Gulf of Mexico. The plan was for the fishing boat to be intercepted by a U-boat, which would surface, allowing Hemingway and his crew to throw grenades into its open hatch or fire machine guns at the hull.

In The Hemingway Patrols, published in 2009, Terry Mort suggests that Hemingway hatched this harebrained scheme because he wanted to “be the hero of his own life, to become one of his characters.” It is a tempting idea, the notion of Hemingway as an anti-Nazi Santiago, battling the elements and the Germans in the name of freedom. Others, however, have tended to think that it was rather because Papa was bored in the outskirts of Havana, far away from the action of war. Least charitable, and perhaps most accurate, was the view of Martha Gellhorn, who saw the submarine hunting escapade as a pretext to escape the house, meet up with some friends, and spend the day drinking and fishing.