Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.  In the first forty days a boy had been with him.  But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.  It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast.  The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck.  The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks.  The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords.  But none of these scars were fresh.  They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
So begins Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, a work of brilliant contrasts; a novel of staggering complexity hidden in simple prose, of a poverty-stricken old man who is rich in love and confidence in the future.  He has faith in the Yankees, and in Joe DiMaggio, and even after a string of fishless days, "his hope and his confidence had never gone."  On the eighty-fifth day Santiago sets out diligently determined to try his luck again because, he says, "eighty-five is a lucky number." 

The Old Man and the Sea is an allegorical tale of suffering and redemption.  Santiago is marked as a Christ-like figure by his occupation as fisherman, by his scarred and bleeding hands - his stigmata, by his disciple Manolin who has faith in him, serves him, and ministers his wounds, by his call to God for help, and by the images depicted in the scenes of him carrying his mast on his shoulders.  I was most intrigued by the behaviour of the Old Man.  He is humble, well-mannered, lives in harmony with nature and he is full of encouragement for himself when things are not going well despite his poverty.  He never falters in his positive self-talk.  He never complains about his situation, no matter how dire, but is appreciative for every small favour given to him.  He has a beautiful attitude toward life, work, and friendship.

The Old Man has an empathetic understanding of the suffering of all the creatures in the ocean, and the air.  The challenges of the small birds to capture fish to eat excites his compassion, as does the hook in the mouth of a fish.  The Old Man pits his wits and endurance against the fish he catches.  He considers fish his worthy opponents because "man is not much beside the great birds and beasts."  His victory comes not in the way one might expect - with riches and fanfare - but quietly and subtly and his victory is a redemption.

Ernest Hemingway by Yousuf Karsh [1957]

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