I’ve only really got into Hemingway’s stuff in the last couple of years, I read For Whom The Bell Tolls and was completely won over and went on to read a few of his short stories. I really dig his style of writing, which while being quite direct, almost simplistic at times has this sense of purity to it and still manages to draw you right into the story and the characters.
This book kind of falls somewhere between the two types of writing I’ve read of Hemingway’s, too long for a short story but quite short for a novel.
The plot is extremely simple, an old man (named as Santiago, but referred to mostly as the old man or “he”) is a fisherman in Cuba. He’s a man who has lived a full life and experienced much, but as he ages he finds himself out-of-luck, having gone 84 days without catching anything. His only friend is a young boy, Manolin, who previously worked on the boat with him, but who’s father has ordered to switch to a more successful boat. On the 85th day Santiago hooks a large fish which pulls him out to sea and which he engages with in an epic struggle which makes up most of the book. Can Santiago defeat the fish and change his luck?
It might not sound like much of a plot, but I assure you this is a cracking read. Hemingway writes sublimely, transforming the struggle between an old man and a fish into so much more, a poignant, engaging story about aging and man’s relationship with nature.
Santiago is an extremely well crafted protagonist and as he’s alone for much of the narrative much of what goes on is in his head, and Hemingway manages to capture the way a mind works when left alone, with Santiago’s thoughts drifting back to memories and wanders off to different subjects like baseball, with Santiago seeming to regard legendary player Joe Dimaggio (I know he’s legendary because he’s one of only a handful of baseball players I can name) as an almost god-like figure of perfection.
It also felt real to me the way that Santiago argues with himself, telling himself to stop wishing for things he doesn’t have, soothing his doubts and steeling himself for the challenge. To me its exactly the same kind of inner argument I have when I’m struggling with something, half of me about to lose it and crack and the other half trying to spur me on and make me stick to it.
Santiago pursues the fish for food and his livelihood, but at the same time there’s a sense that he rather enjoys the pursuit and battle with the fish, a chance to test himself. Hemingway was a man who liked to hunt and other macho pastimes, and there’s that weird attitude of respecting your prey and Santiago throughout has this weird respect and love for the fish, which makes for an interesting inner conflict which increases as their battle with each other goes on.
It lends itself to this odd little dilemma, Santiago needs the fish and wants to bring it in, but yet there’s an odd sense of guilt at bringing in such a magnificent creature, and Hemingway writes the following to show how Santiago attempts to make peace with what he’s done:
You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed it for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?
I’m not entirely sure I get it, but then I’ve never hunted or fished, and I don’t really understand the whole thing but I kind of get it a bit more after reading this.
The ending of the book is quite moving, with Santiago having vanquished his foe he must try and bring it in, while fending off sharks and he slowly begins to lose equipment and the fish deteriorates, mirroring the effects age and the struggle have had on his body. At the end he is completely spent, broken and yet as he talks to Manolin there’s still a touch of optimism and planning for the future, reflecting an earlier line from the book: “A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.”
Its justifiably regarded as a classic, and unlike several other books given that tag nowhere near as daunting given its length, I fully recommend checking this out as its a delightful little book and a satisfying quick read.
Verdict: An extremely well written book, Hemingway conveys the struggles his protagonist encounters both physical and mental and I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen the way the human mind works captured so well on the page. 9/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO