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The old man and the sea



I must have been about 11 years old but already a veteran reader when I came across a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, a story of an epic battle between an old fisherman, Santiago, and the biggest catch of his life, a feisty marlin across the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean after a long 84 days of ill luck. This short novel (174 pages) is the story Ernest Hemingway heard from a friend of: …an old man fishing alone in a skiff out of Cabañas hooked a great marlin that, on the heavy sashcord hand-line, pulled the skiff out to the sea. Two days later the old man was picked up by fisherman sixty miles to the eastward, the head and forward part of the marlin lashed alongside. What was left of the fish, less than half, weighed eight hundred pounds. The old man had stayed with him a day, a night, a day and another night while the fish swam deep and pulled the boat. When he had come up the old man had pulled the boat up on him and harpooned him. Lashed alongside the sharks had hit him and the old man had fought them out alone in the Gulf Stream in a skiff, clubbing them, stabbing at them, lunging at them with an oar until he was exhausted and the sharks had eaten all that they could hold. He was crying in the boat when the fishermen picked him up, half crazy from his loss, and the sharks were still circling the boat. Drawn many a time from memory, the story of the old man and the sea carries a lot of metaphorical and literal meanings that a novice literary critic cannot exactly deduce. On the surface, it is just an adventure story about an old fisherman eking out a life as many of those whose lives are similar across the globe do, that is, is the story of those that live by harvesting whatever they can from the ocean, but also having to deal with all the challenges and the dangers associated with a life on the open waters of the sea. Such is the reality those in the poorer sections of society often face, giving rise to such phrases as ‘the ill luck of the poor’ and teachings that garner a spirit of subservience amongst the less fortunate. The old man is in a sense the representation of not only the inhabitants of the gulf of Cuba, he is the representation of the precariousness of the daily struggle in the face of unforeseeable circumstances on the open sea that is itself the representation of life or the earth. The poor do not have the benefit of solid grounding, they have to twist and turn with the tide, riding on the next wave without the benefit of surety under differing circumstances. The author, Ernest Miller Hemingway, was born on July the 21st, 1899 and died on July the 2nd, 1961 from a self-inflicted shotgun wound in what has been termed an apparent act of suicide. The multitalented Hemingway was an American novelist, short-story writer, journalist, and sportsman and his economical and understated style, which he termed the iceberg theory (a style he developed in his early days as a journalist when he had to focus his newspaper reports on immediate events, with very little context or interpretation. When he became a writer of short stories, he retained this minimalistic style, focusing on surface elements without explicitly discussing underlying themes. He believed the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface, but should shine through implicitly) had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction, while his adventurous lifestyle and his public image brought him admiration from later generations. This is the whole genius of his style of writing; that the reader should be inspired to go out and look for further meanings to the tale he penned and connect it with other meanings in real life. In his words, Hemingway found the exercise the best way for the reader to understand his works, often citing, “what he made up was truer than what he remembered.” A work of literature is written for the interpretation by the masses, and this means that they too should be given room to draw meanings relevant not only to their world but also their experience. It is said that Hemingway produced most of his work between the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He published seven novels, six short-story collections, and two nonfiction works. Three of his novels, four short-story collections, and three nonfiction works were published posthumously. Many of his works are considered classics of American literature. Hemingway grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, and after high school, he was a reporter for a few months for The Kansas City Star before leaving for the Italian Front to enlist as an ambulance driver in World War I. In 1918, he was seriously wounded and returned home. His wartime experiences formed the basis for his novel A Farewell to Arms published in 1929 and whose main themes can be deemed to be mankind’s inescapable placement against two polar opposites; the themes of love and violence with the lead character deciding to leave his military post to pursue the love of his life. The story of The Old Man and the Sea opens with the aging fisherman, Santiago, having gone 84 days without catching a fish, and being seen as experiencing or going through “salao”, the worst form of ill-luck for a fisherman. The protagonist in the novel is seen as so unlucky that his young apprentice, Manolin, ends up being forbidden by his parents to sail with him. The young is instead told by his elders to fish with successful fishermen (to perhaps save him from the specter of ill luck surrounding the old man). The boy however visits Santiago’s shack each night, hauling his fishing gear, preparing food, talking about American baseball and his favorite player, Joe DiMaggio. Santiago tells Manolin that on the next day, he will venture far out into the Gulf Stream, north of Cuba in the Straits of Florida to fish, confident that his unlucky streak is near its end. This begins the gist of the tale of the old man that sets out against the odds with inadequate gear into the vast open waters of the gulf. Uncertainty and doubts dominate the first lines of the adventure, and Hemingway chooses not to cover the external details to include the reader in the imaginative processes. There is room for everyone to make their own individual conclusions with regard to the meanings held by the tale of the lone old fisherman in a skiff on the open waters of the Cuban gulf. “On the eighty-fifth day of his unlucky streak, Santiago takes his skiff into the Gulf Stream, sets his lines and by noon, has his bait taken by a big fish that he is sure is a marlin. Unable to haul in the great marlin, Santiago is instead pulled by the marlin, and two days and nights pass with Santiago holding onto the line. Though wounded by the struggle and in pain, Santiago expresses a compassionate appreciation for his adversary, often referring to him as a brother. He also determines that, because of the fish’s great dignity, no one shall deserve to eat the marlin.” An ambulance driver in the midst of the First World War, Hemingway could have come face to face with the realities of what hope means to the mind/s of those going through a tough experience. The old man is not only salved by the hope of a big prize that will sell well at the market and enable him to feed his family. He is pulled by the prize across the vastness of the sea, in a sense helping him bear the pain of the fishing line’s burn. He refers to the fish as brother not because he respects it; he does so because he understands that there is a type of pain that is shared: between self-preservation and necessity, between the hunter and their quarry. Both feel the instinctive need to live, but the demands of the world put them at opposing sides. The hunter (in this case, the fisherman) understands. On the third day, the fish begins to circle the skiff and the old fisherman, worn out and almost delirious, uses all his remaining strength to pull the fish onto its side and stab the marlin with a harpoon. Santiago straps the marlin to the side of his skiff and heads home, thinking about the high price the fish will bring him at the market and how many people he will feed. It is ironic that the old man is delirious, but it is a reality of life and living that individuals come to face at some point in their lives. One will go thirsty in the middle of the largest body of water in the world; because the water therein is salty and therefore undrinkable. One will go hungry in the middle of abundance because they lack the right gear to hook in sustenance. They thus end up embracing the struggle as the only companion they have, in this case the fisherman assuming the companionship of his quarry, the marlin he has hooked but which he sadly cannot haul onto his small skiff due to its large size. There are similar stories in real life that carry similar realities such as the Robertson family story (Survive the Savage Sea) where they had to survive the open waters of the Pacific in an open dinghy for over six weeks until they were rescued by Japanese fishermen. In the tale, the old fisherman is on his way in to shore attacked by sharks that are attracted to the marlin’s blood floating in the sea water. Santiago in the struggle kills a great mako shark with his sole harpoon, but he loses the weapon and is forced to make a new harpoon by strapping his knife to the end of an oar to help ward off the next line of sharks; five sharks are slain and many others are driven away by the newfangled knife harpoon. They however keep coming as is their nature when attracted by the smell of blood, and by nightfall the sharks have almost devoured the marlin’s entire carcass. What remains is a skeleton consisting mostly of its backbone, its tail, and its head. The old fisherman knows that he is destroyed and tells the sharks of how they have killed his dreams in his raving rants of despair. He reaches the shore before dawn on the following day and struggles to his shack, carrying the heavy mast on his shoulder, leaving the fish head and the bones on the shore. Once home, he slumps onto his bed and falls into a deep sleep. Fellow fishermen gather the next day around the boat where the fish’s skeleton is still attached. One of the fishermen measures it to be 18 feet (5.5 m) from nose to tail. Pedrico is given the head of the fish, and the other fishermen tell Manolin to tell the old man how sorry they are. Tourists at the nearby café mistakenly take it for a shark. Manolin, worried about the old man, cries upon finding him safe asleep and at his injured hands, and brings him newspapers and coffee. When the old man wakes, they promise to fish together once again. Upon his return to sleep, Santiago dreams of his youth of lions on an African beach. There is hope after all the struggle, and the pain of the misfortune is in a way shared. The experiences (adventures) in Hemingway’s life could have woken his conscious to the realities of life as it is lived and not as it is wished. The tale of the old man and the struggle with the fish at sea became one of the influencing factors that led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1954. It may have been due to the tale’s account of the human struggle to gain for the benefit of others in the face of perilous challenges and conditions. What we need often pushes us to corners of the human world where even angels would fear to tread, but we as humans are forced to go there for the sake of the well-being of others. We are in a sense the old man and marlin in a vast open sea many a time in our lives, the struggle to gain sustenance for our fellow human beings and kin leaves scars on our hands. Often, the prize is torn to shreds as the marlin is the morning after the three day struggle with the old man. The world is the sea, there are fishermen, the fish and the predators to deal with on an ongoing basis, but we should all do the best we can in this sea called life. Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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