Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On "The Old Man and the Sea"

While staying at a seaside house of an acquaintance for several days, I have been limited in my reading to mostly what was lying about the house. However, today I ventured out to the local library and asked the librarian what the best piece of her century's literature was. The lady, after a long pause, responded, "The Old Man and the Sea." I asked if it was in, and she said she could check.

It was a little duodecimo of a book, and I read it in perhaps an hour sitting. It concerned an old fisherman named Santiago, living in poverty off the coast of Cuba, who wanted to catch an impressive fish. A simplistic theme, certainly, but a surprisingly moving one. Although I had a hard time wrapping my head around the author's prose, which seemed strangely terse, as though he had no desire to explain himself any further.

Unlike Mrs. Allende, this "Ernest Hemingway" seemed to linger on the one character, delving almost entirely into his perspective without quite crossing that last threshold into the first person point of view. As a result, the trials of the old man were simultaneously personally painful and anesthetically distant. The man's absolute refusal of reflection created the sensation that I was riding close behind the eyes of some alien intelligence, but his lapses into daydreaming, and into longing for his friend, a young boy, would suddenly render him deeply human.

Mister Hemingway appears to be struggling with the question of autonomy versus community, on the desire for radical individualism constantly undercut by the need for human affection. The old man constantly denies companionship and refuses human charity, but his talking to himself at sea because there is "no one to annoy" and his longing for the company of his former assistant paint him as a man more fragile than he would like to admit.

My only qualm with this story is in the way that it treats, or fails to treat, women. The old man professes a love for the sea as a woman but cannot resist swearing at "her" for her caprice--his wife is dead--the only other woman in the story is an American on holiday who has perhaps one line. Not every book must concern women, but when this one touches on women, it only explains them in their relations to men. A female marlin, killed by the old man in years past, is only worth mentioning because of the noble behavior of her mate in her death throes. A pity, from an author who has otherwise written a lovely little book on the desire for dignity and humanity in hard times.

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