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Feb 2004
True at First Light - Earnest Hemingway, ed. Patrick Hemingway - Arrow 1999.
* *
This book claims to be Earnest Hemingway's last novel, but as the son admits in his introduction, the actual MS was twice as long and was edited down by him. So this book is "by" Earnest Hemingway in the same way as the Lost Tales are "by" J.R.R. Tolkien. I would like to think that poor editing is the chief reason I disliked this book, but I fear that the problem is really Hemingway himself.

The book is a semi-autobiographical account of a white hunter and his safari in Kenya in the 1950s. Hemingway is left in charge of the operation by a friend, "Pop", and proceeds to wander about the bush alternately admiring and shooting the fauna (it is characteristic that he never describes an instance in which he misses a shot, though his wife Mary and his experienced hunting friend G.C. do). Perhaps because of its factual basis, there is no plot as such - a threat from renegade mau-maus evaporates by chapter six without ever really generating a sense of danger, and Mary's quest to shoot a large and wily lion is similarly wrapped up in a few pages of flat description about three-quarters of the way through, after which the book meanders on for fifty pages or so before abruptly coming to an end. This would be fine as a memoir of a way of life now dead and gone, but Hemingway attempts to mythologise the whole thing by, for example, giving a number of the characters titles rather than names. Similarly, the characters come over as strong and memorable, but not realistic. Charo, for instance, is characterised chiefly by the fact that he is a Moslem and has to slit the throat of shot animals to make the meat Halal. If he has a wife and family we are not told about them, nor about what he gets up to when he is not gun-bearing for Mary. So it's not a good portrait of life in 1950s Kenya, and it's not a good novel because it has no plot.

Hemingway's supposedly magnificent writing style does not come across as such to me. Yes, it flows, but mainly because of the liberal use of the word "and" to join phrases expressing separate thoughts. An example, taken more or less at random:

Then I had remembered that I had given this afternoon for the lion's death and that it was all over now and that Mary had won and I talked with Ngui and Mthuka and Pop's gun bearer and the others of our religion and we shook our heads and laughed and Ngui wanted me to drink from the Jinny Flask. (p. 170)

After a while (in my case, about six pages), this stylistic quirk becomes annoying. Some of the dialogue is painful as well, particularly with Mary. It comes over as childish, and his repeated use of "kitten" as a term of endearment had me wanting to throw up every time I read it.

This is symptomatic of the paternalism which infects the whole book. Mary, I am sure, was a clever, complex, passionate woman, but in this book she is portrayed as an affectionate airhead who only succeeds in shooting the lion she is after because of Hemingway's guidance. The African tribesfolk are treated with similar condescension, especially Debba, Hemingway's native "girlfriend" who, like Mary, comes across as a charmingly naive character in need of Hemingway's "protection".

Now this is to a certain extent unfair - read any adventure stories from the 1950s and you will find similar attitudes (Heinlein, Asimov and Clark, for example, are not known for their female characterisation) - but Hemingway is supposedly a Great Writer and frankly I expected either a novel with subtle, complex and sophisticated characters, or at least a thrilling plot. As it is, you get neither. Disappointing.


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