Book Simple: Fishing Out THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
Santiago’s luck is bad. The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s 1952 novella, opens after the fisherman’s apprentice has left him: “after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky” and ordered Manolin to another boat. Forty days in the desert is a long time to retain hope. Christ nearly didn’t manage it, so it’s certainly too much to ask a boy.
Santiago is poor and old, and the life he leads is growing old as well; “younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats…spoke of [the sea] as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine….” Santiago fishes following the birds, the plankton, the turtles, the porpoises. He fishes with concentration and faith; even on his eighty-fifth day without a catch, Santiago insists on “fish[ing] the day well.”
The animals that Santiago loves reflect the code of this life he has chosen. “He loved green turtles and hawk-bills with their elegance and speed and their great value and he had a friendly contempt for the huge, stupid loggerheads, yellow in their armour-plating, strange in their love-making, and happily eating the Portugese men-of-war with their eyes shut.” Santiago cannot respect the cowardice inherent in living within the protection of a loggerhead sea turtle’s hard shells. In his boat, he has no radio to distract him with his beloved baseball, nor will he sleep waiting for the tuna to bite. And he does not have anyone to help him when at last he hooks a fish – a massive one – so strong that he tows the boat far away from the lights of Havana.
As they struggle, strung together by the fishing line, Santiago recognizes that both man and fish have made life-defining choices. The fish’s “choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice,” notes Santiago, “was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world. Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either one of us.”
Perhaps it is that unique sense of solitude that led me to pick up this novel again, after probably fifteen years. The first time I read the book, I’d found myself completely and improbably fascinated by it. Despite growing up in a seaside town, I have never fished. Boats tend to make me nauseated. But the apparent simplicity of Hemingway’s prose belies its ability to entrance the reader; before you know it, you’ve consumed enough that “the point of the hook goes into your heart.”
Or perhaps it was the news. As Santiago’s harpoon strikes the fish, he sees that “the sea was discolouring with the red of the blood from his heart. First it was dark as a shoal in the blue water that was more than a mile deep. Then it spread like a cloud.” There is, of course, a different cloud, blooming in the Gulf of Mexico currently. Hemingway is an unlikely bedfellow for the Huffington Post, but it’s difficult not to read a rebuke in Santiago’s respect for the life in the sea surrounding him.
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