Hemingway with his fourth wife, Mary, 1953-54
All I wanted to do now was to get back to Africa. We had not left it yet. But when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.
Green Hills of Africa
Ernest Hemingway was the first great American literary celebrity of the 20th century. By the time of his death in 1961, he was an international legend. The white bearded visage of Papa Hemingway could be recognised the world over without the need for a caption. Countless magazine articles had chronicled the adventure of the hard-drinking, tough-talking, much-married action man. Almost as many literary studies had considered the psychology behind the work, his place as a modernist writer, the anatomy of his inimitable prose style, and so on. Since his death, the man has become an industry¨his childhood home in Oak Park (as well as his house in Cuba) are national monuments. Any bar in Paris or Madrid or Havana where he just might have dropped in for a whisky will proudly display that historical fact. Competitions are held to see who can best parody his writing style. His works have been analysed using tools which are Freudian, feminist, ecological, post-structuralist (any 'ist' term one can think of), and dozens of academics and biographers have acquired their reputations through his name.
And yet there is relatively little discussion of Hemingway's love of Africa and his African books. The two short stories¨"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" are rightly judged to be amongst his best work, but his non-fiction book Green Hills of Africa remains underrated and the posthumously published True at First Light is often dismissed as the ramblings of an aging and ailing man only capable of flashes of his old brilliance.
Africa, however, was a life-long obsession for Hemingway. He longed to go there as a boy and follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero Theodore Roosevelt who made a famous safari expedition in Tanganyika in 1910. When he finally made the trip in 1933, he was immediately bewitched by Africa's strange beauty. He longed to return and did so in 1953, going on a last safari which nearly killed him, but which, despite its disastrous conclusion, he was to rewrite as one of the happiest times of his life.
Why was Hemingway fascinated by Africa? What did it bring out in him as a writer? How can we answer the riddle of the leopard on Kilimanjaro? These were some of the questions I hoped to answer by following in Hemingway's footsteps and to experience first hand the places he visited on his first and second safaris.
On my return from East Africa, I realized that the two posthumously published books, True at First Light and The Garden of Eden, presented a new and very different aspect of Hemingway. True at First Light was the basis for the fictional 1953-54 African Safari memoir written when Hemingway returned to Cuba in 1954. The memoir was 200,000 words long and unfinished when he died. It was his son, Patrick, who helped edit the memoir down to about half of its original length. The book brings to light attitudes and opinions which seem to have changed since Hemingway's first safari¨his interest in the kill has dwindled, he gives more attention to the lives and customs of the Africans, and even goes some way towards becoming one himself; he is interested sexually in a Wakamba girl¨but there is evidence to suggest that these concerns were not the product of the second safari, but had been developing long before he went to Africa in 1953.
The evidence lies in The Garden of Eden, a book which like True was not published in Hemingway's lifetime, and was heavily edited from an unfinished manuscript when it did appear. Hemingway began work on the story in 1946, 7 years before he returned to Africa, and worked on it sporadically until the end of his life. It is a strange book, a veritable departure for Hemingway, and one which is heavily influenced by, if not the product of an obsession with Africa.
The story concerns a young writer, David Bourne and his new bride Catherine. They are staying on the French Riviera. The opening chapter, as the title suggest, is paradise; the lovers do nothing but eat, drink, make love, sleep, swim, eat, drink, and make love. The world is blessed with a simplicity and freshness which Hemingway's vivid, textured, uncluttered prose sweetly evokes. However, things can only go downhill from here, and soon troubles begin. The first sign is Catherine's decision to cut her hair short in the style of a boy. Husband and wife are pleased with the result, and Catherine's next step is to dye her hair as pale as ivory. She wants to tan her skin as dark as possible while lightening her hair as much as possible. She has it cut again; she declares that she wants to be a boy, David's boy. The couple already look alike, often mistaken for brother and sister, and now Catherine insists that David must cut and dye his hair to match hers. Her androgynous appearance is matched by a new turn in bed; at night she "makes the change", she becomes a boy, Peter, while David becomes Catherine, "her girl", and she does "devil things" to him. David is uncomfortable with these developments; after all, what must they say about him¨that he shares Catherine's strange transsexual desires? That he has homosexual desire? He cannot deny that they bring him pleasure.
Catherine's new life as a boy has its flip side, and she soon begins an affair with Marita, a beautiful lesbian. She also becomes increasingly jealous of David's writing, of the story about his father and Africa, which functions as a tale within a tale in the book. Growing more and more unstable, Catherine pushes David and Marita together. Marita, rather unexpectedly, becomes monogamously heterosexual, the ideal Hemingway woman, devoted to her man and his work. Eventually, Catherine burns the exercise books which contain David's stories and leaves the new couple alone. The Garden closes with David, who has been devastated by the loss of his work, reconstructing his stories, finding that he is improving on them with the rewrite.
Hemingway's manuscript is considerably more complex than the version which the editor, Tom Jenks, ultimately produced, but even in its published form, The Garden of Eden, raises questions¨about sexual intimacy and marriage and the possibility that male and female sexual identities are not fixed¨far more explicitly than any of Hemingway's earlier work. It is a book which, had it appeared in his lifetime, might have damaged the doggedly heterosexual macho image of Papa, but which with its posthumous appearance, has spurred critics to reconsider Hemingway's treatment of gender and sexuality throughout his work.
Part of Catherine's exploration of her own sexuality is her persistent desire to darken her skin. Hemingway's characters, particularly in the manuscript version, are fascinated by Africa. In one exchange, Catherine asks David, "Is it true that Somali women have ways of holding a man so he can never leave them?" David confirms this, telling her about his own experiences with Somali women and Catherine then declares that she is going to become so dark that her husband will be helpless before her. She associates the African body with sexual power. Toni Morrison remarks that "Catherine well understands the association of blackness with strangeness, with taboo¨understands also that blackness is something one can 'have' or appropriate." One can find here, perhaps, a connection with Hemingway's attraction to Debba, and his own desire to become a member of the Wakamba tribe.
At the same time as she tans herself darkest brown, Catherine, in contradictory fashion, whitens her hair. Debra Moddelmog, in her critical study of the The Garden, suggests that the character is attracted by the sexual transgression she finds in appropriating blackness, but that "Catherine's wish to alter her race is thus drawn from the ideology of white racism that depends upon retaining strict boundaries between blacks (nature) and whites (culture). ÓCatherine's immersion in the ideology of white racism is reflected in her continual lightening of her hair, an action that accentuates her identity as a white woman."
Many of the exchanges about Africa in Hemingway's manuscript are cut from the published version and Moddelmog suggests that Jenks wanted to limit "the impression that Hemingway and his characters were obsessed with the African other, especially as that Other represents an opportunity for the civilized white to transgress cultural proscriptions and discover a more 'natural' self. Jenks thus reduced the chance that critics might use The Garden of Eden as another piece of evidence verifying Hemingway's racism."
Hemingway's use of Africa and Africanisation as a symbol of sexual power and sexual transgression for a white woman, like his courtship of the beautiful, impudent 19-year-old Debba in "True at First Light", could easily be construed as the product of a white man's racist fantasy. But the story David tells about his childhood in Africa has a sureness of touch and a feeling for the land and animals which far transcends the condescending perception of Africa as a primitive playground where white westerners can find their more 'natural' selves.
Like The Green Hills of Africa and the The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Garden of Eden is a book about writing and the difficulties and joys of being a writer. Throughout the novel, David is struggling with a story about an elephant hunt he made with his father and tracker, Juma, when he was about eight years old. He has to think back to his complex feelings about his father, from whom he distances himself, and about the huge elephant whom he comes to view as a brother:
All morning, writing, he had been trying to remember truly how he had felt and what had happened on that day. The hardest to make truly was how he had felt and keep it untinctured by how he had felt later. The details of the country were sharp and clear as the morning until the foreshortening and prolongation of exhaustion and he had written that well. But his feeling about the elephant had been the hardest part.
At a point during which the hunt is not going well, David hears the elephant during the night and sees the animal. He is then able to give his father direction, but he comes to see this as a betrayal, telling himself "I never should have told them and I should have kept him secret and had him always and let them stay drunk with their bibis at the beer shambra. I'm going to keep everything secret always. I'll never tell them anything again." When they finally track the great elephant down, his father wounds the beast in the lungs and gut, and the elephant responds by attacking Juma. Father and son follow the blood spoor, and David describes how "they found him anchored, in such suffering and despair that he could no longer moveÓHe had been anchored and now he was down with his shoulder broken. He did not move but his eye was alive and looked at David. He had very long eyelashes and his eye was the most alive thing David had ever seen. His father orders him to shoot, but he refuses to kill something so alive, which he has come to love and respect. Instead, Juma finishes the job with two shots into the ear hole and then:
There was no more true elephant, only the gray wrinkled swelling dead body and the huge great mottled brown and yellow tusks that they had killed him for. The tusks were stained with the dried blood and he had scraped some of it off with his thumbnail like a piece of scaling wax and put it in the pocket of his shirt. That was all he took from the elephant except the beginning of the knowledge of loneliness.
David's love for the elephant feels like an extension of Hemingway's earlier empathy with the animals that are hunted in his African books¨the lion in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" whose wounding and death are told from the animal's point of view, or the beautiful kudu who wears the "odor of thyme". David's strong association with the animal and refusal to kill it are in keeping with Hemingway's own shifting attitude towards trophy hunting in the 1950s. Rather than killing the elephant and possessing the full measure of its elephantness, David recalls that in its death "There was no more true elephant".
Hemingway never hunted an elephant in his life, but his description of the chase is so vivid that we go with him, feeling the African earth beneath our feet, and smell the beast we are tracking. And as in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, in which Hemingway writes the stories that his hero, Harry, never will, the most vivid part of the elephant hunt is told through the things which David has not managed to incorporate into his story:
He knew he did not have it right yet. He had not gotten the enormity of the skull as they had come onto it in the forest nor the tunnels underneath it in the earth that the beetles had made and that had been revealed like deserted galleries or catacombs when the elephant had moved the skull. He had not made the great length of the whitened bones nor how the elephant's tracks had moved around the scene of the killing and how following them he had been able to see the elephant as he had moved and then had been able to see what the elephant had seen. He had not gotten the great width of the one elephant trail that was a perfect road through the forest nor the worn smooth rubbing trees nor the way other trails intersected so that they were like the map of the Metro in Paris. He had not made the light in the forest where the trees came together at their tops and he had not clarified certain things that he must make as they were then, not as he recalled them now. The distances did not matter since all distances changed and how you remembered them was how they were. But his change of feeling toward Juma and toward his father and toward the elephant was complicated by the exhaustion that had bred it. Tiredness brought the beginning of understanding. The understanding was beginning and he was realizing it as he wrote. But the dreadful true understanding was all to come and he must not show it by arbitrary statements of rhetoric but by remembering the actual things that had brought it. Tomorrow he would get the things right and then go on.
Africa, is bound up with Hemingway's analysis of what it is to be a writer, with the ongoing attempt to recall emotion accurately, and to be true to experience. The African story is what David can get right and clean while his personal life is in turmoil. He even speaks of the African world he is describing feeling more real to him than his real life in France. Writing is the most difficult and important thing, but is also the place where he can set himself apart from the emotional difficulties of his relationships with women; his writing is a fortress in which he can hide and never be hurt.
He had not known just how greatly he had been divided and separated because once he started to work he wrote from an inner core which could not be split nor even marked nor scratched. He knew about this and it was his strength since all the rest of him could be riven.
By the end of his life, it seemed that all the rest of Hemingway had been riven, riven by drink, ill health, failed marriages, but his writing remained intact. Even though The Garden of Eden was published in 1986, it merits a re-reading. It shows the author at his experimental best¨a new Hemingway, and a Hemingway who never really got Africa out of his system. .˛
Christopher Ondaatje is the author of Journey to the Source of the Nile and is currently completing a manuscript for Hemingway in Africa.