I have long associated Hemingway as being the most masculine of writers. I was aware of him being a keen hunter and the titles of his books, in particular A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and this The Old Man and the Sea also screamed “manly!”. While this was not entirely off-putting for me, it did mean that it has taken a long time in getting around to reading anything by him. And so this, my first Hemingway, was both as expected but also a revelation in being so thoroughly deserving of all the accolades it has been awarded.
Santiago is our old man, a fisherman in his twilight years. A lifetime spent as a fisherman has left him little to call his own, wizened but still in relative good health for his advancing years. Manolin is his young fishing companion and when they go 84 days without catching a fish, Manolin’s parents stop him from going out on Santiago’s skiff, sending him to fish on more successful boats. Still full of admiration for the old man, Manolin is there to see off Santiago as he embarks on a solitary trip that lasts over two days and nights battling to catch and bring back the biggest marlin of his life.
As are many of the other reads on this list, this is a deceptively simple read. This is the struggle of one man in a story of perseverance and strength. Nearly two thirds of this book are spent with Santiago on his lone boat struggling with this catch. Where his mind goes, the conversations of companionship and respect that he has with this mighty marlin, his thoughts on many other things including, endearingly, baseball star Joe DiMaggio. In an age where there is so much to fill your time, noise and distraction at your fingertips, this aspect of the book is of an age and yet timeless because of its familiarity. When left to your own thoughts, where does your mind stray to? What conversations do you have with yourself? Santiago brings age-earned wisdom to his musings. On accepting Manolin’s help;
He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.
And as his task would dictate, his mind often turns to the relationship with his prey. He is so respectful of the mighty marlin, marveling at it’s size and what it will contribute to his life. Income, of course, but a source of pride especially coming off an 84 day losing streak. Something to prove to his peers who think he is too old, something to prove to Manolin’s parents. And something to show Manolin, a thank you for his continued support and a justification for his admiration. There is struggle here and a bloody minded persistence, necessary to stay out there for two days and two nights. But this isn’t a the story of a fevered Ahab type trying to land his Moby Dick. Yes Santiago has all the those above motivations but he also is a fisherman and this is his job. And can’t this be said for so many of us? The slog, the perseverance, the determination of getting the job done for income, but also for pride for yourself, respect from your family and friends and just because it has to be done. Written in 1952, when a lot more employment was manual labour based, the physical task of landing this giant fish would have been more familiar.
The novel ends on a bittersweet note, one which makes this tale more of a fable, its moral clear to decipher but one I don’t want to spoil because this really is a great read. Yes, it is one man fishing, and it is very masculine in its feel. There are no flowery passages of prose, but there is a beautiful clarity of language, a straightforward but no less masterful manipulation that left me often re-reading paragraphs in appreciation. Please, don’t be put off like I was.