Sunrise Morning

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest  Hemingway
Collier Books, 127 pages, $4.95

Book Review

Ernest Hemingway had a way of getting right at the heart of a story. His brutally American directness changed the voice of 20th century fiction. And in “The Old Man and the Sea” the heart Hemingway targets is his own.

In the first sentence Hemingway lays out the story. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” And in the following pages, Hemingway expresses his own view of life in the voice of the old fisherman, Santiago.

“He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.”

“It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

“Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

As Santiago speaks these words the bond is made between him and the writer. Santiago’s dreams of the lions coming out to the beach at dusk and his veneration of the great DiMaggio remind us, somehow, of Hemingway’s real-life adventure at the bull fights in Spain and hunting lions in the jungles of Africa. And we begin to feel that the old man’s quest is Hemingway’s also.

Hemingway had not written an important novel in more than a decade before “The Old Man and the Sea” was published in 1952. Perhaps he faced those years with Santiago’s same resolve. “Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.”

To write is certainly what Ernest Hemingway was born for. And in these few short pages is the crystallization of his work. In crisp sentences Hemingway gets to the heart of his story. To the heart of an old fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. In that heart there is no bitterness or thoughts of failure, because “My big fish must be somewhere.”

For the old man, though, the fish is too far out. Even as he lashes the great marling to the side of his boat, the prize is set upon by the sharks. But for Hemingway the act of courage is enough, even if the bare bones of the fish are all the evidence there is when Santiago returns from three days at sea.

I always think of Hemingway as an existentialist, of how he created his own idea of himself and lived by that idea. It is hard to equate existential reality with the rugged code of manhood he established for himself and lived by in his writing and his life. But when he felt he could no longer live by that self-imposed code Hemingway ceased to exist, committing suicide just seven years after receiving a writer’s greatest honor -  the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

At the end of “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The old man was dreaming about the lions.” I wonder what Papa was dreaming on that sunrise morning in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961?

I was dreaming of death. I dream of death every night. Every night since the doctor.

The doctor brought death to me. He brought it in an e-ray picture. He delivered it in a syringe full of blood. My blood. Dead blood. As dead as the hollow x-ray picture of me inside.

The doctor put the x-ray up on a clipboard with a light built into it mounted on the wall. He pointed with his pen to the tiny shadows. I could see the shadows clearly through the ribs in my chest in the x-ray picture. But I could not feel the shadows as I filled my lungs with air to prove the shadows were not there. But the shadows stayed there, tiny, between my ribs in the x-ray picture. And the doctor pointed to them with his pen and told me what they were.

They were death.

By myself now, I face death. I have faced death before, many times, and I have never been afraid of it.

But always that was the chance of death. In war. When the lion charges. With the sea the hurricane brings up over the barricades.

Never have I faced the certainty of death. Death coming without a chance to fight against it and win. Death that you cannot see coming; that is only tiny shadows on an x-ray picture.

How do you fight such a thing? The doctor told me how. He began with how the cancer conquered the cells of my lungs. He told me the armies of cells my blood raised, and that the armies of my blood could not win. He handed the syringe to me as if it were a map of an enemy’s battle plan, as if I could see the advance of the cancer’s offensive.

And in the face of the cancer’s onslaught, the doctor prescribed weakness. Retreat. Radiation. Like the Russians that fled before Napoleon and left nothing but their burning homes and the dead of winter. Perhaps, like Napoleon, the cancer would find nothing left to conquer.

Then the doctor gave me medicines in brown bottles for the pain that would come as the war was lost. Like the pain of all lost wars.

That was three days ago. Now, as in that small story of the fisherman, I must decide, like the old man, how to fight the sharks. And even if the radiation destroys the sharks that menace the oceans of my blood, I will return to the shore with only the empty carcass of my great fish.

Will I dream of the lions then, too, like the old man? Or will I still dream of death?

It is only my life, though, that I will lose. I have already lost much more that that. I have lost my manhood to age. Age does not always take that away, but it has for me. It has taken my courage. Within me now I am a coward. I will not let anyone see my cowardice, but it is there. Waiting.

I don’t know what has taken my writing, but it is gone also. Perhaps my cowardice has taken that as well.

What was that I was writing before the doctor? “If you cannot respect the way you handle your life then certainly respect your trade. You know about your trade at least. But it was a rather awful story really. By God it was.” It has always been that way. I have always known when the story was bad. Now all the stories are awful, and no one will say it but me.

There were good stories before, though. But they were many years ago now. I like the story of the American that fought in Spain with the guerrillas. He lost his war, too, but he kept his bravery. I would have kept my bravery if death had come to me so long ago.

He spoke to himself of his father’s cowardice, remember? Like I speak of mine. “He would be acutely embarrassed by the presence of his father. Anyone has a right to do it, he thought. But it isn’t a good thing to do. I understand it, but I do not approve of it. Lache was the word. But you do understand it? Sure, I understand it but. Yes, but you have to be awfully occupied with yourself to do something like that.”

I like that American that fought with the guerrillas. “Dying is only bad when it takes a long time and hurts so much that it humiliates you,” he said. “It would be all right to do it now. Really, I’m telling you that it would be all right.” I can kill death, or it kills me. It is the same thing.

Last night I dreamed of the lions. My rifle jammed and they took me. It was a noble death.

Better than this.

© 2010 Wasted Space Publishing

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