I thought I had read this before, way back in the mists of time. If so, I didn’t remember it upon reading it again. Unless it was in one of my forays when I had the reading skills but not the maturity to appreciate what I was getting into, I’m sure I would have remembered it.
This is a memorable work.
Hemingway’s portrayal of the old fisherman is acute. Without tricks or flourishes, he presents an existence. The old man is as much a part of the sea as any of its other denizens. He knows it from long acquaintance. He hunts it with instincts borne out of experience. He is an expert not because of what he has learned, but because of what he has been and what he has now become. He no more poaches it than a wolf poaches rabbits. He is a part of the ecology.
Most of the book focuses upon a single fishing trip, one in which he goes out too far in his determination to land the catch of a lifetime after a long period with little success. He succeeds, but only to have his prize – too big for the boat – snatched from him piecemeal by sharks as he makes his long journey back.
Hemingway doesn’t give us any assurances. As the story unfolds both disaster and success lurk ready to make their entry. This is neither comedy nor tragedy, it is life. In life, stuff happens. We can do only so much in selecting the stuff for the happening.
Our old man eschews philosophy, but in his dialogues with himself the philosopher emerges regardless. He has seen too much, done too much, thought too much for it not to be there. His relationship with himself in the dialogues is amusing at times, determined at others as he urges himself on, chastises himself, or simply discusses the outcome of baseball matches he’s missed reading about in his beloved newspapers while at sea.
The only other person of significance in the narrative – excluding the fish he catches which, invisible for the most part, is so well understood by the old man that it becomes a character in itself – is the boy who once worked with him, but whose parents insisted he should work with fishermen more successful. In spite of parental demands the bond is maintained between them with the old man as mentor, the boy as his assistant at least on shore, and the friendship between them faithful. There is no overt affection in their relationship, nor does there need to be. Their mutual dedication is clear, and all the more genuine for not being romanticised.
The same may be said for Hemingway’s writing style. Sparse and unadorned, Hemingway lets things be as they are and allows those things to speak for themselves. The world he presents is solid and unadorned, as are his characters. If we empathise with them, we empathise with them from a sense of shared humanity, not because we are led by the nose into doing so through pathos or the careful staging of incident. So we come to care for them, the boy and the old man, in the way they care for each other.
We may even care for the fish.