A Man, A Boat, A Fish

James Ferguson believes The Old Man and the Sea shows off all of Ernest Hemingway’s best qualities


Perhaps it’s a rather harsh judgment, but Ernest Hemingway has not aged well. In fact, it is hard to think of a 20th-century writer who is already so out of tune with our current tastes.
So unfashionable is “Papa’s” literary machismo that he cuts a faintly preposterous figure these days. Here was a man whose favourite pastimes were shooting wildlife, watching bullfighting, and getting into brawls. All such activities were, of course, fuelled by copious amounts of booze. Broken marriages, nervous crises, and monumental hangovers were the inevitable outcomes, before Hem shot himself in 1961.

Even his trademark style now reads more like a pastiche than a stylistic innovation. Hemingway specialised in a curt, pared-down sort of narrative, where tough men talk in clipped sentences, preferring to keep their feelings under wraps. The end result can sometimes resemble a conversation between two monosyllabic adolescents. The style stayed with him throughout his career, and apparently influenced a generation of writers, though nobody else deployed the terse typewriter technique quite as relentlessly. One redeeming feature of this otherwise boorish man was that he loved the Caribbean. But even here it is hard to avoid the suspicion that he saw the region as nothing more than a place full of rum, women, and big fish. He spent time in  the Bahamas, but best of all he liked Cuba, a byword for alcoholic fun in the Prohibition years. He later lived near Havana in the 1940s, patronising the Floridita bar and popularising the daiquiri.

Cuba, in turn, liked Hemingway. Fidel Castro went out of his way to be photographed with his fellow beard-sporting fishing enthusiast, and if he heard what Hemingway — or, to be precise, one of his characters — said about Cuban politics (“They all double-cross each over . . . The hell with their revolutions”), he was too polite to reply. Most of all, though, Hemingway was popular in the fishing village of Cojímar, near Havana, where he kept his boat.

One man, it seems, was central to Hemingway’s love affair with Cojímar and its fishing community. Gregorio Fuentes died in January 2002 at the reported age of 104, having spent much of the 1940s and 50s looking after the writer’s boat, Pilar. Fuentes was Hemingway’s captain and cook for the best part of 30 years, and one of his main jobs — surprise, surprise — was to mix his cocktails. The boat was given to the Cuban government after Hemingway’s suicide, and now stands outside the writer’s former home, the Finca de Vigía, near Havana. Fuentes, for his part, also became something of a tourist attraction, sought after by Hemingway fans.

Fuentes’s fame was  largely due to one of Hemingway’s most celebrated works, The Old Man and the Sea, and indeed he became synonymous for many with the “old man”.This short novel of barely a hundred pages was first published in 1952. It was a phenomenal success, selling  five million copies within two days. It is also widely believed that this book — coming after a series of critical and commercial flops — won Hemingway the Nobel Prize for literature, exactly half a century ago, in 1954.

For all Hemingway’s larger-than-life flaws, there is no doubt that this book is among his finest writing and that it best expresses his affection for Cuba and Cubans. Not that there is any extensive evocation of the island, or a wide cast of characters; but in the figure of Santiago, the old fisherman, Hemingway creates an unforgettable symbol of courage and resilience.

The story itself is simple enough. Santiago, a veteran of the unnamed fishing community, has hit a run of bad luck, with no fish caught in 84 days. The boy, Manolin, who loves and admires the old man, has been told by his parents to join another fishing boat. And so the old man, alone, ventures out into the Gulf Stream where he hooks the largest marlin ever seen. For several days and nights he fights this enormous fish until it eventually dies, and he is able to lash it to the side of the boat.

The tale is one of endurance, for Santiago must struggle not just against his giant adversary but also against the elements, the currents, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. In the process, pulled further out to sea by the fish, he undergoes a sort of spiritual fusion with the sea and sky, while at the same time forging a strong bond with the marlin itself. Both the fisherman and the fish are literally fighting for their survival, and in this symbolic struggle between man and nature Santiago develops a deep respect for his prey.

Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity.

If the eventual death of the marlin represents a triumph of the human will over primal forces, Santiago’s victory is short-lived. In the process of subduing the fish, Santiago draws its blood, and thereby attracts the predatory sharks that will strip the vast carcass of its flesh. When the exhausted Santiago eventually reaches shore, it is with a huge skeleton rather than a valuable catch. The conclusion of this parable is thus ambiguous; Santiago has triumphed in one sense by catching his monster fish, but the triumph is, in financial and practical terms, a failure.

Running through the story is an implicitly religious theme of sacrifice and redemption. Santiago’s hands, scarred and blistered by the sun and the mighty tugging on the fishing line, carry symbolic stigmata. Like Christ, he stumbles under the weight of the load he carries — in this case, the mast from his boat. We are left in some doubt as to whether the exertions of this mammoth struggle have killed the old man, but as he sleeps he is watched over by the boy, who has promised to rejoin his boat. In this sense, then, the fight with the marlin was not in vain, for it has re-established a human bond and restored Santiago’s reputation within the community.

Some of Hemingway’s more predictable concerns are in evidence in this powerful allegory: maleness, the struggle between man and beast, the intrinsic poetry of the hunt. But the old machismo is also tempered by the more compassionate, even tender, creation of a character who is old, frail, and vulnerable. The figure of the old man, strong and weak at the same time, and the love shown by the boy, suggest a mellowing on Hemingway’s part, and an intuitive understanding of human experience that is often lacking in his earlier work. In this sense, we might conclude that while Cuba may have brought out the worst in the hard-drinking public persona of Ernest Hemingway, it also provided inspiration for the best — and the least dated — of his writing.