Sunday, January 8, 2012

"The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway

William Faulkner once tried to insult Ernest Hemingway by saying that he 'has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary'. Hemingway, however, did use some words that you would need to look up in the dictionary: a lot of fish names, for instance, and fishing techniques. The problem is that they are not the kind of words you are eager to know the meaning of. The narrative, in fact, goes on smoothly whether you know or not the kind of fish Hemingway is talking about.

“The Old Man and the Sea” is the work that made Ernest Hemingway a celebrity but in spite of that it is a rather simple story: an old fisherman called Santiago struggles to catch a very big merlin, à la Herman Melville, and the fight goes on for three days. Despite having refused company for the day, Santiago wishes a younger friend who usually takes good care of him would be there to help him. He knows that he is just an old man fighting a very stubborn fish, whom he however admires. Santiago shows an excellent knowledge of nature and of the sea. His struggle for survival and his mind fixed towards his goal in spite of several adversities is perhaps a parallel to the way one needs to treat life.

I am aware that there is a plethora of interpretations of this short novel and that Biblical references apparently are of paramount importance. The way I see it, this novella might be partly autobiographical, at least from an allegorical point of view. “The Old Man and the Sea” can be seen as the will of an middle-aged writer (Hemingway was 52 and maybe already suffering of depression when he wrote this) who has recently received some let-downs from his work but is looking for a last win before retiring. All the savvy and wisdom that Santiago shows at sea may simply represent the skills a writer should use to make his story work. All the talk in town about him being the greatest fisherman in the world who has been struck by misfortune and hasn't caught a single fish in the last eighty-four days shows perhaps how big Hemingway's ego was at the end of his astonishing career (after all he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954). Even Manolin, the young man who has learned everything he knows about fishing from him and is ready to take his place, can be interpreted as a younger generation of writers who have learned from Hemingway and are ready to continue his work and enrich American literature even further. “The Old Man and the Sea” is in fact the last work Hemingway would publish and it comes after “Across the River and into the Trees”, an ambitious novel that was critically and commercially a disaster.

I must confess that I have never been a huge Hemingway fan. I had read passages of his work at school and found his writing too “economic”. He does not indulge on describing emotions and one may suffer from the lack of lyrical passages. Hemingway is down to earth and straightforward: his sentences are mostly made of actions and there are relatively few adjectives. However, I liked the relationship of the old fisherman with the natural world that surrounds him, his awareness of the place he occupies within the natural world. I found the tale enriching in from a spiritual, rather than literary, point of view (without revealing too many details, the end of the novel is both a loss and a win). After all, what did Hemingway answer to Faulkner's provocation? He declared, not without wisdom: 'Poor Faulkner. Does he really think that big emotions come from big words?'.

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