In my early teens, I read the Chinese translation of the Old Man and the Sea. The old man, Santiago, left a fiercely persistent and strong image in my mind.
Reading Ernest Hemingway’s original English writing this week, an intense sensation of strength and survival came to me overwhelmingly, together with the beauty of the relationships that Santiago has with the young boy Manolin, the fish, the shark, the bird, the sea, the business owner, and so on. Sandiago’s love for his wife, the loneliness in old ages and on the sea all are fully present. All are expressed through few words in the book.
I was fortunate to read this book with the views of vast lava flows on Hawaii’s Big Island, ranging from ancient time to last Spring. Hemingway’s words and the scenery of the volcanoes gave me a powerful contrasting sensation of nature and life.
Charlie Scribner gave an excellent summary in the Introduction: the Ripening of a Masterpiece, of the book, quoted below.
Hemingway took the external details of the story and presented them from the point of view of the fisherman. He thus made it possible for the reader to participate imaginatively in the story. That effect was always Hemingway’s primary aim as a writer.
The story’s spiritual themes enhance its meaning and impact. In the thoughts of Santiago, the reader shares the beliefs of a simple fisherman whose pride in his endurance is combined with the fatalistic sense that he has “gone out too far,” and whose efforts to kill his prey are combined with a reverence for life. It is impossible to read this story without believing that in many respects it represents Hemingway’s own ideals of manhood.
My favourite passages are:
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
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.
Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.
“I may not be as strong as I think,” the old man said. “But I know many tricks and I have resolution.”
He was very fond of flying fish as they were his principal friends on the ocean. He was sorry for the birds, especially the small delicate dark terns that were always flying and looking and almost never finding, and he thought, the birds have a harder life than we do except for the robber birds and the heavy strong ones. Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are made too delicately for the sea.
Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.
But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.
He commenced to say his prayers mechanically. Sometimes he would be so tired that he could not remember the prayer and then he would say them fast so that they would come automatically.
“I’ll kill him though,” he said. “In all his greatness and his glory.” Although it is unjust, he thought. But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures. “I told the boy I was a strange old man,” he said. “Now is when I must prove it.” The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.
He decided that he could beat anyone if he wanted to badly enough…
He hit it with his blood mushed hands driving a good harpoon with all his strength. He hit it without hope but with resolution and complete malignancy.
“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
It is silly not to hope, he thought. Besides I believe it is a sin. Do not think about sin, he thought. There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it.
You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him 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?
Besides, he thought, everything kills everything else in some way. Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive. The boy keeps me alive, he thought. I must not deceive myself too much.
Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.
I must not think nonsense, he thought. Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognise her? I would take some though in any form and pay what they asked. I wish I could see the glow from the lights, he thought. I wish too many things. But that is the thing I wish for now. He tried to settle more comfortably to steer and from his pain he knew he was not dead.