Let’s read a short book. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is perfect for poolside or beach chair reading. Hemingway is the master of writing stories where not much happens, yet it keeps you turning page after page. He says so much with so few words. He seems Dicken’s polar opposite. There is a restfulness in reading Hemingway, especially this novel. This surprises me given that Hemingway was a nihilist. A nihilist (hear that Latin root “nihil” meaning “nothing”) believes there is no purpose in life and rejects religion. Yet, his old man protagonist is ever hopeful. The Cuban fisherman is no unrealistic optimist, but hangs on against all odds. He is an inspiration when I am weary. When I am about to give up on that big fish I know I can hang on just a little longer. The conflict in this story is nature itself. We gather the old fisherman’s back story in bits and pieces throughout the book. It is the story of someone who must reach a goal, the fisherman who lands the big one – and still loses. But then again, does he really lose?
Hemingway was no stranger to tragedy: war, divorce, injury, pain, depression. His life is scarred with it. He brought about his own tragic end in 1961. So how does this nihilist speak in such a way that resonates with so many. How does write in hope amidst disappointment and tragedy in this novel? In his article Ernest Hemingway and the Gospel in byFaith on-line magazine, Brian Douglas identifies that unifying quality in Hemingway’s writing as truth. He states, “Hemingway described all writing — fiction or nonfiction, it makes no difference — as a struggle to describe people, places, experiences, and ideas as truly as they could possibly be expressed. Hemingway demanded this kind of truthfulness not just in writing, but in all of life. His combination of an unusual perceptiveness and exceptional writing skill enables his readers to see the world as he saw it. Many of his written works — which range in subject matter from war in Europe to bullfighting in Spain, skiing in Switzerland, the people of Paris and Key West, hunting in Africa, and fishing in Michigan and the Gulf Stream — consequently resonate as genuine and honest. They may not always be honorable or lovely, but they ring true because Hemingway is able to capture in words the world as he saw it.” (byFaith.com October 26, 2015) This leaves us with very real characters based on real people (the old man, Santiago, was based on his friend, Gregorio Fuentes) and a shortage of happy endings. But it is the same reason we love the blues. The blues are sad stories, maybe even tragic stories, expressed in music where words fall short. But they are universal human stories smacking of reality, of truth.
It is regular people living regular lives, albeit the most interesting parts, written with skill few others possess, that gives reading Hemingway’s masterpiece its restful quality. That is why I enjoyed this book so much. Enjoy an iced tea by the pool and a few hours in a good book. Or a few minutes more likely. But enjoy anyway.
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