Mr Hemingway and I have a strange relationship, and I can only attribute it to the fact that the experience of reading a Hemingway book is, for me, unlike the experience of reading any other book.
For starters, a Hemingway narrative has a very particular rhythm which is not the rhythm of other narratives. To put it baldly, it starts off boring, or at least I find it boring. And it stays boring for a while. On top of that, the book starts in the middle of the narrative and doesn’t explain who some or all of the characters are, or their relationships, or where they are, or what they’re supposed to be doing.
In addition, once you finally do settle in and get the hang of it, half the time the narrative starts jumping around in time so that even if you managed to pick up where and when you were, you’re not there anymore. It’s not for the easily discouraged. As a result, every time I start a new Hemingway book, I spend a while thinking I don’t like it, and it’s only by constantly reminding myself that I DO like Hemingway that I manage to persevere.
Luckily, the first Hemingway book I read was For Whom the Bell Tolls, or I may never have read another. It’s not that it was any better or any easier to read than any of the others. In fact, I started it in the waiting room of a skin specialist, so the beginning was even more harrowing than usual. But it was a favourite of a boy I liked at the time, so I kept going with it until it got good.
And they do get good. And I know they get good. But still, every time I start one, I convince myself that this time it’ll stay boring.
Green Hills of Africa was no exception. But I stuck with it, and, as always, I’m glad I did.
Green Hills deals ostensibly with one main subject: hunting. It’s about Hemingway, his wife and some friends hunting in Africa in the early half of the twentieth century. Because it’s Hemingway, there’s a lot of whiskey involved in hunting, but also because it’s Hemingway, he knows how to use a gun and enjoys killing things. I don’t even like killing spiders (though I’m comfortable in my belief that it’s them or me), so I was understandably suspicious of this book. The usual Hemingway magic kicked in at some point, though, and by the end I was really hoping he’d kill whatever innocent herbivore he was tracking. Can you imagine? Read this:
‘it is not pleasant to have a time limit by which you must get your kudu or perhaps never get it, nor even see one. It is not the way hunting should be. It is too much like those boys who used to be sent to Paris with two years in which to make good as writers or painters after which, if they had not made good, they could go home and into their fathers’ business. The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is such and such an animal; just as the way to paint is as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil and paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way.’
Can you imagine now? And the descriptive passages about hunting are so miraculously paced that they make you hold your breath and wait to see whether the sable or kudu (or whatever) has really been hit or not. And it’s not because you hope it’s ok.
The book is also interspersed with Hemingway’s opinions about other writers and writing, which is something I always enjoy when Hemingway does it. It was one reason (not the only reason) I loved A Moveable Feast. Apart from the passage above, there’s no obvious or stated link between the hunting theme and the literature theme, and you get the sense that they run side by side in the same book for the simple reason that that’s what the author’s life was focussed on at the time. It might seem arbitrary at first, but actually I think it’s the only way he could have written those two themes without making the comparison seem artificial.
This is a difficult book to review, because on the one hand it’s beautifully written and in a sense is a classic example of Hemingway’s style and tone. But, and I have to say this, it made me squeamish. Well, not all the way through. Sometimes it took my breath away, see above. I alternated between squeamishness and breathlessness.
As another general Hemingway statement, he writes about things that I either (a) don’t care about, or (b) am actively opposed to. War is an obvious example, and a favourite theme of Hemingway’s (and Green Hills talks about why, if you’re interested). One thing I love about Hemingway is that he takes things I don’t like (eg hunting large African quadrupeds) and writes them so beautifully that I get swept up in his feelings for them and forget my own for a while. I think that has to be the mark of a really great writer.
This is a book set in colonial Africa.
I don’t even know how to end this review, really, because I don’t want to sound like I’m defending colonialism, or even defending Hemingway personally. I have no illusions about Hemingway. I know he was an arsehole. I’d hate to say that Hemingway was advanced in his attitudes given the time the book was written (1935), because it sounds like an excuse and really, it doesn’t even properly qualify as one. E M Forster was advanced. Hemingway wrote a book about shooting things.
On the one hand, he seems to have a genuine affection for Africa, and there is one passage in particular, right at the end of the book, where he talks about how Europeans have ruined it. But although he’s apologetic about it, he also conveys a sense that people are like that, that it couldn’t have happened any differently and will continue to happen just the same. In the same way, although he does appear to really like the African characters, they are also in no way considered to be the equals of the Europeans. I know it would be too much to hope for, in 1935, that they would be regarded that way by a person like Hemingway, but that aspect of it is still not easy to read.
It follows, given the above, that I feel guilty for liking this book. But the prose! It’s a book you have to read at your peril – but like I said at the start, he’s always worth persevering with.