It’s not fair to blame a book for its subject — a book by a decent fellow who delights in Africa in the wild, a book of charm and perception, thoughtfully put together on fine paper with pictures in sepia which make you see and smell the African bundu where the author followed loyally in Hemingway’s footsteps or vehicle tracks or light aircraft hops. Moreover Christopher Ondaatje deserves honour for admitting that on safari even he would have ‘felt uncomfortable’ with one ‘who always needed to be the centre of attention’, and for quoting the fourth Mrs (Mary Welsh) Heming- way’s complaint about her husband’s ‘unseemly egotism’ in sitting up all night rereading laudatory obituaries of himself after his misreported death in a plane crash in Uganda on 24 January 1954, obits he then pasted, I recall, into two scrapbooks, one bound in lionskin, the other in zebra.
That said, may we now all agree that Hemingway the man was unbearable virtually anywhere, and most of all in Africa? He was twice there, in 1933-4 and 1953-4 — in East Africa, white man’s country in those days, the only Africa he ever knew. The first trip spawned the two famous short stories, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and the big game travelogue Green Hills of Africa. The second trip finally yielded the drooling monologue True at First Light, published by Hemingway’s son Patrick in 1999, 37 years after his father’s suicide, and a paltry article in Look magazine accompanying a gorgeous photograph of ‘the white-bearded Papa’ as Ondaatje describes it, ‘his rifle jutting skywards as its manly owner looks out into the middle distance. In the foreground sprawls the inert body of a beautiful leopard’ — the iconic master with his iconic kill. Thus the picture went out round the world … except it was not Hemingway’s kill but his Cuban companion’s. Even Mary was disgusted by the wilful deceit. Papa tried to silence her: ‘I’ll get another leopard to salve your conscience.’ He never did.
Those premature obits surely prompted the Nobel judges to give him the prize that year, citing The Old Man and the Sea, written in 1951 and appearing in translations in 1953 — the fundamentally banal novella we all once read. After that, for the final decade, he wrote nothing worth reading even once.
So what of the worthy African products? Francis Macomber is a joy: a sharp, ruthless, precisely heard little story, Americanised from a settler scandal that had done the Kenya rumour rounds the previous quarter-century, about a big game client whose failure of skill or pluck lost him face in confrontation with a jumbo and whose predatory wife cuckolded him that night in the tent of a hard white hunter and who died next morning from an inexplicable bullet.
Working one night on Macomber back home in Key West, Hemingway went out for a snort and got up the nose of Wallace Stevens, himself already drunk and uppity. So the two of them put up and fought with their fists, Hemingway flooring Stevens several times on the dockside, making a fair mess of the poet, 20 years his senior. Ondaatje shouldn’t have overlooked this notorious Macomberish incident, reported by Mrs Hemingway number two, daughter of a commodity-broking magnate owning 60,000 acres of Arkansas.
As for The Snows of Kilimanjaro, this portrait of a writer watching himself dying (of gangrene), having let the dolce vita and bloodless marriage to an heiress nullify his creative gift, was designed as a salutary parable for his putative buddy Scott Fitzgerald, whom he habitually humiliated, somewhat as Gauguin humiliated Van Gogh. Perhaps Ondaatje should have reminded us that when Scotty got to read it he muffed a suicide attempt. It’s a searing tale, even if its design is a conscious crib of Tolstoy’s undeniable masterpiece of a long-short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych. And as a parable it’s near enough apt for Hemingway’s very self 20 years on.
The remaining African product, likewise from the first trip, was Green Hills of Africa. Ondaatje speaks up for the primal requirement of man to hunt, and for the intimacy between hunter and quarry (the instinctual factor of which Islington man of our own era is of course entirely ignorant), especially without intrusion of technology such as makes the chase serial murder. He is clear-eyed about Hemingway’s trophy-lust and admitted poisonous envy of anyone outshooting him.
Yet Green Hills is unreadable today. In the game-wasted East Africa of 2003, this account of statutory drinking, statutory blaspheming, statutory racial patronising, statutory fragments of kitchen Swahili masquerading as intimacy, statutory presumption of infidelity, statutory killing or maiming (the whonk of Mannlicher bullets as they slam into the bone or gut of yet another defenceless miracle of mammalian creaturehood — always the most beautiful, the god-damned finest head on a beast you ever saw) — the entire ritual of moneyed macho intruding into a continent whose heart Hemingway knew nothing of nor wished to know beyond its opportunities for swanky massacre, amounts to a catalogue of fake orgasms on the part of a man of a vanity so unassailable as to become indistinguishable from despair.
In the end, at 62, libido faltering along with the fatuous myth, the memory blown (at his own expense) by the Mayo Clinic with its ECT, nothing was left but to go down to the gun room not for the Mannlicher but the Boss, put the muzzle in the mouth and blow the emptied brains out. Christopher Ondaatje is too decent to remind us of this last whonk.
Tom Stacey’s Tribe is published by Stacey International on 8 November.