I read The Old Man and the Sea on a Sunday morning; the glorious middle day of a long weekend.
The weather outside was perfectly miserable. I woke up late, and, with nothing else to do, I reached for the little book where it sat, right next to the pile of books near my bed. I propped myself up with a pillow, pulled the covers up to my chin to stay warm – and I began to read.
I’m not sure when I emerged from the pages. It was probably two or three hours later. I was slightly dazed to find myself back in the real world.
In the time I’d been reading, the house could have burnt to the ground around me, a brass band could have marched down the quiet street where I live playing The Prodigy’s controversial 1997 hit “Smack My Bitch Up”.
I wouldn’t have noticed a thing…
The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
Published in 1952
There’s only one way to read Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea: turn off your mobile phone, close all the blinds, lock the front door, and just read until there are no words remaining. To break this novel’s spell before it is complete would be as drastic as waking a sleepwalker.
Physically, The Old Man and the Sea doesn’t look like much. My copy is only 99 pages long. It’s deceptively small – but gosh, does this book pack an unbelievably mighty wallop.
As you begin to read The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway gently loosens the ties binding you to the physical world. Before you know it, you’re totally there – you’re in the boat, you’re straining against the weight of a thick line, your shoulders are aching and your lungs are burning. After I’d read the final page and closed the book, I looked down at my hands and was surprised to find them unwrinkled, unbloodied; my hair was completely dry, the scent and the sound of the ocean was on the other side of the city. I emerged from The Old Man and the Sea reeling, disoriented…and eager for more.
In a tiny Cuban fishing village, Santiago is a faded legend. He was once a great fisherman. But now, he is old, alone and out of luck. It’s been eighty-four days since he’s caught even a single fish. His wife has died; the boy who used to help him works on another, luckier boat now. Without money for food, Santiago waits for his luck to change.
When Santiago sets out alone on his fishing boat on his eighty-fifth day without catching a fish, he feels a shy tug at one of his lines. It’s a fish. Quite possibly the biggest fish he’s ever seen. As the huge fish drags Santiago’s little boat further and further out to sea, the old man and the fish engage in a desperate, gripping battle of endurance.
There’s something so hypnotic about The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway writes in a strange, almost stilted style that lulls the reader into a deep trance. He shuns commas and joins sentences together, weaving words into a strange, dream-like net that captures the unsuspecting reader completely.
As Santiago moves further and further away from land; from safety, the further into his thoughts Hemingway takes us. The novella is written in the third person, but Hemingway’s narration often drifts toward the first person. The boundary between Santiago and Hemingway and the fish – and, of course, the reader begins to wobble precariously. Reality begins to distort:
“It was dark now as it becomes dark quickly after the sun sets in September. He lay against the worn wood of the bow and rested all that he could. The first stars were out. He did not know the name of Rigel but he saw it and knew soon they would all be out and he would have all his distant friends.
‘The fish is my friend too,’ he said aloud. ‘I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars.’
Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. But imagine if a man each day should have to try to kill the sun? We were born lucky, he thought.” (p. 57)
The Old Man and the Sea has a particularly mythic feel to it. There’s very little actually anchoring this novella in its own time. If it weren’t for Hemingway’s references to Joe DiMaggio, or Santiago’s disdainful thoughts about the younger, more disrespectful fishermen who fish from speedboats, The Old Man and The Sea could have been set in Ancient Greece. It could have been set just yesterday.
I love the overwhelming physicality, the sensuousness of The Old Man and the Sea. It’s what makes this novella so utterly engrossing. Hemingway is constantly showing us the very depths of Santiago’s fatigue and pain. We witness his nausea, his cramped left hand, his aching back and limbs – even his hunger. For a few hours, I forgot all about my own body. The Old Man and the Sea is a study not of strength, but of (male?) weakness and frailty and age. Even Joe DiMaggio, who Santiago worships almost as a God, has his own, nearly literal Achilles heel – a bone spur in his foot.
The Old Man and the Sea is my second Hemingway novel. You’d think that I’d have known what to expect after reading The Sun Also Rises. But no – here I am, utterly awestruck, all over again. Hemingway was more than just a writer. He was an alchemist.
I try and remain detached when I read books I’m going to review. But the moment I started to read The Old Man and the Sea, I forgot all about that. Hemingway had me from the very first page, and he reeled me in slowly, with such dogged determination.
The hook bit into my skin, the harpoon struck deep into my heart – and it’s remained there since.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
(Just a note – I’m rating The Old Man and the Sea as 4/5 only because I preferred The Sun Also Rises, which I underrated at the time. Sorry, Mr. Hemingway. Them’s the breaks.)
Should you read it?
Are you kidding? The Old Man and the Sea is only 99 pages! And it’s amazing. You’d be crazy not to read it!
In a word: